An Adoption Story
by Pam Gleason
The grass has turned green, the trees have fresh leaves and there is a feeling of renewal and regeneration in the air. At horse farms up and down the East Coast, this is foaling season. At the racehorse farms in Kentucky and elsewhere, the majority of foals are born during the months of February and March. This is by design: Since all Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds born during the same calendar year will be officially 1 year old on the following January first, horsemen try to have their foals early so that they are not at a disadvantage when it is time to race.
Nurse Mares and their Foals
Depending upon their breeding, racing mares and their foals can be incredibly valuable. Top quality Thoroughbred mares are often first bred when they are quite young, and the same things that made them great racehorses – a competitive spirit, a desire to run – can make them less than ideal as mothers. Occasionally, a new mother will reject her foal and refuse to allow it to nurse – this happens in about 2% of all Thoroughbreds. Other times, something goes wrong, and the new mother needs medical attention, or even dies, leaving behind a needy orphan. There are many reasons why newborn foals might not be able to stay with their biological mothers.
In all of these cases, breeding farms with valuable stock might call upon the services of a nurse mare, a mare whose job is to take over as the mother of a foal whose birth mother is not available. One fairly recent example of this that made the news concerns Rachel Alexandra, the winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes and the 2009 Horse of the Year. To start with, Rachel Alexandra was herself raised by a nurse mare because her mother rejected her after her birth. Then, in 2013, Rachel Alexandra had a filly and developed a life-threatening infection the next day. When she subsequently went in for surgery at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., her filly was matched with a nurse mare named Ojos, a sorrel Quarter Horse from a farm that supplies dozens of nurse mares to breeding farms in Kentucky each season.
Reports in the racing and equestrian press celebrated the fact that the royally-bred Rachel Alexandra filly had bonded with Ojos, who was known as an excellent milk producer and mother. Somewhat less attention was paid to the palomino filly that Ojos had borne the day before she was shipped to Stonestreet Farm to act as a surrogate mother to a member of racing royalty. But Ojos had just given birth, and her foal, known as a nurse mare foal, did not come to Stonestreet with her mother. Instead, that foal stayed home where she was paired with another artificially orphaned foal of a nurse mare. They were both fed by bottle and bucket until they were old enough to eat grain and grass.
The topic of nurse mares and their foals is controversial to say the least. On the one hand, breeders can find comfort in knowing that if their broodmare dies or cannot care for her foal for any other reason, they have a good chance of replacing her with an experienced mother that they can lease for the season, all thanks to the nurse mare business. On the other hand, it can be hard to justify depriving one newborn of a mother, just so you can give that mother to another foal, even if the other foal is more valuable.
And then there is the question of the fate of nurse mare foals themselves. There are certainly some that are well loved by the farms that supply nurse mares. These farms, after all, can be superbly equipped to provide the near constant care and feeding that newborn foals require, and they may have specific plans for their nurse mares’ foals. For instance, the filly that Ojos gave birth to before going to Stonestreet was said to be a well-bred Quarter Horse with a reining or cutting career in her future. But all nurse mare farms are not equally as responsible, and a certain proportion of nurse mare foals, sometimes just a day or two old, regularly find themselves in undesirable places, and even in auction houses, or worse. The industry is not regulated, and there is no way of knowing exactly how many nurse mare foals are born each year, nor what happens to them. A number of horse rescues have been created specifically to care for these unwanted foals, to raise them, pay their medical expenses (which can be substantial) and find them homes.
The existence of nurse mare farms, and the foals that are byproducts of the practice, has not been common knowledge until relatively recently. Even now you will find horsemen who refuse to believe that large numbers of these nurse mare foals exist; who claim that the rescues that are devoted to them are not being honest about where the foals come from, or that the people that run the rescues don’t know what they are talking about.
Be that as it may, it is very hard to deny the existence of the foals themselves. Each spring, they arrive by the dozens at Dream Equine Therapy Center in York, S.C., a rescue created for them by Terri Stemper, a registered nurse who found out about nurse mare foals when she was a university student working at a major veterinary hospital in Kentucky. A number of these foals are often fostered in Aiken, cared for by Gina Greer, the owner Epona, a shop on Laurens Street. Some of them find homes in the area: Carolina Moonshine, the horse that Julie Robins of Aiken Horsemanship Academy rode in the American Horsewoman’s Challenge in 2014, had been a nurse mare foal.
A Different Kind of Adoption
It’s a beautiful spring evening in Aiken, and a small crowd has gathered at a farm in Three Runs Plantation. They have come to watch an unusual event. In one stall, there is a 2-week-old chestnut colt with a blaze and four white stockings. He has just arrived from Dream Equine Therapy in York, and he is hungry after his twohour trailer ride. A nurse mare foal, he was born in Kentucky, taken from his mother about 24 hours later, and put together with other nurse mare babies. When he was just a week old, he and four other motherless foals were accepted by Dream Equine and shipped to York. That was a week ago. Today, he looks strong and healthy; after years of practice, the people at Dream Equine are quite adept at feeding and caring for orphans, even if it is a labor intensive and expensive proposition.
While the foal explores his stall, Gina Greer goes to get Louise, a former nurse mare that was rescued several years ago from a hoarding situation. Louise is a black and white Paint with a sway back. She is currently lactating, and ready to be a nurse mare once again. This time, however, the foal she will be nursing is the chestnut colt. He is not a valuable racehorse. Instead, he is an ordinary foal, a foal like the ones that were taken from her, year after year, during her career.
There is another important difference. This year, Louise is not lactating because she had a foal. She is lactating because she was treated with a specific combination of hormones to fool her body into thinking that she was pregnant. Hormone Induced Lactation (HIL) in horses has been under study for some time, and Dream Equine Therapy is something of a pioneer in its use with broodmares. Every spring for the past few years, Dream Equine has used HIL to give a handful of foals orphaned by the nurse mare business their own mothers. This will be Louise’s fourth time to be a surrogate mother through HIL.
Although Louise has mothered foals that were not her own many times before, Gina is not taking any chances with the mare rejecting the little colt. The HIL adoption protocol that Dream Equine uses requires that a veterinarian be present to simulate the entire process of giving birth. Louise already has a full bag of milk thanks to the hormones she has received in previous weeks. Now, she is given a mild tranquilizer, followed by shots of the same hormones that mares produce naturally when they are going into labor.
Then the mare is brought into the stall. Eric Gum, a neighbor in Three Runs Plantation, cradles the foal to keep it away from the mare until it is time. The vet performs some internal massage to further fool the mare into thinking she might have just given birth. Sleepy from her tranquilizer, she seems impassive. Gina holds her cautiously, looking for any indication that she might not accept her new red-headed child.
Meanwhile, the foal has a one-track mind. He knows where the udder is, and he is ready to nurse. When he is allowed to approach, he sniffs her a few times, and then goes straight for the groceries. After letting him drink for a little while, Eric pulls him away, testing to see if the Louise is starting to have maternal feelings for him.
“I’m waiting for a nicker,” says Gina.
And it is not long before one comes. Eric guides the foal out of the stall, into the paddock and around a corner. A moment later, Gina leads the mare out after him. And when she sees him, there it is. Her nostrils flutter, and she nickers softly. The bonding has begun.
After a few more mini separations and reunions, accompanied by several more soft nickers, Gina breathes a sigh of relief, and everyone leaves the barn to celebrate another successful adoption. The chestnut foal nurses happily, thrilled to have a mother after all. The whole process doesn’t take more than an hour.
When Terri Stemper first started using HIL to give some of the foals she rescued their own mothers, she hoped that the concept of using hormones to bring nurse mares into milk would catch on. If the owners of the farms that supply nurse mares to the breeding industry employed HIL, those mares wouldn’t need to be bred to make them ready to nurse. The nurse mare business could become cruelty free, and there would no longer be a supply of needy orphans for her to rescue. Although some breeders in the racing industries have indeed used nurse mares that have been prepared through an HIL protocol, it is not being done on any large scale. Hundreds of foals are still being born each year so that their mothers’ milk can be fed to a different baby horse. Each spring, places like Dream Equine Therapy still spend thousands of dollars and even more hours raising and caring for the unwanted nurse mare foals.
Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the nurse mare business. No doubt some people reading this account will take issue with it, and even claim that the nurse mare foals don’t exist, or that those that do are universally well cared for and don’t ever end up in rescue. Some might even contend that the story of the chestnut colt, now named Justin, can’t be what is claimed; that he would never have been separated from his mother on his second day of life.
But there is one thing that perhaps everyone can agree on, and that is that the little colt will be better off with a mare to supply him with his milk, and with an adult horse to provide him with daily lessons on how to act like a horse. In short, he deserves a mother. And thanks to Dream Equine Therapy and Hormone Induced Lactation, he has one.
- Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.