Nurse Foals: The Throwaway Horses

Breeders utilize nurse mares to save the lives of orphaned foals, but the practice requires those mares to leave their own foals behind. While breeders, researchers and equine rescue groups grapple with this ethical dilemma, other horsemen are working to give those foals a meaningful role in the horse business.

Ryan T. Bell
Feb 19, 2017 · 11 min read

Story by Ryan T. Bell

Three orphan foals, byproducts of Kentucky’s nurse mare industry (equine wet nurses), run in a pasture. PHOTO: Courtesy The Kentucky Humane Society.

A horse trailer backs up to a barn at Last Chance Corral, an equine rescue center in southern Ohio. Out clamber a half-dozen newborn foals, ranging in age from just a few days old to a few weeks. Their coat patterns and conformation represent a hodgepodge of breeds: Quarter Horse, Paint, Appaloosa, Percheron, Thoroughbred, maybe even a dash of Shetland pony. For all their apparent differences, the foals share one thing in common: they are orphans created by a nurse mare industry that thrives just across the state line in Kentucky.

“They’re only born so that their mothers will then come into milk,” says Last Chance Corral’s founder, Victoria Goss, appearing in an upcoming documentary, Born to Die. “[The dam] will nourish a Thoroughbred baby so that its mother can go and get rebred, because her job is to have a racehorse baby every year.”

She adds: “If it weren’t for the fact that we’re here, all these foals would be dead.”

The film’s director, Sue Morrow, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist from California. She’s spent six years gathering footage to make a feature-length film about Last Chance Corral’s work and the nurse mare industry as a whole. It’s due to be released later in 2017. The long production time owes in part to the challenge Morrow has faced gaining access to nurse mare farms in Kentucky, so the film can be a fair representation of the industry. Then, last year, she had a breakthrough when a nurse farm that sends its foals to Last Chance Corral agreed to be part of the film.

“There are good people involved in these businesses,” Morrow says. “They’re not all villains. I want to create awareness to support people who are doing well by these animals.”

Last Chance Corral suggests that because Thoroughbreds must be bred with live cover, some breeders utilize a nurse mare so that rebreeding their prized brood- mare — sans foal — will be less complicated. However, Morrow learned that the use of nurse mares is more widespread in Kentucky than just the Thoroughbred racing industry. The nurse mare industry is more complex than Last Chance Corral lets on.

“There are many reasons why a nurse mare may be needed,” Morrow says. “Maybe the mare died. Maybe she rejected her foal.”

Whatever the reason, when a nurse mare is used to raise a motherless foal, her own biological foal is cast off, destined to live the life of an orphan. That transaction evokes a strong emotional reaction in many people. Industry insiders, however, say that the nurse mare industry gets misrepresented by organizations like Last Chance Corral. They argue that it plays an important, but small, role in the breeding industry of not just Thoroughbreds, but all horse breeds.

EXPERTS DISAGREE about how often, and for what purposes, nurse mares are used in the Thoroughbred breeding industry. Carleigh Fedorka, a doctoral candidate in veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, defended the nurse mare industry on her blog, A Yankee in Paris.

She wrote: “ … in my experience, only roughly 0.05% of Thoroughbred foals require the addition of a nurse mare. And these are for extenuating circumstances — a prolapsed uterus, colic, laminitis, and death. We as managers do not take this decision lightly, as the initiation of the maternal bond between nurse mare and foal can be devastating — physically, emotionally, and financially.”

In Fedorka’s own experience as a farm manager, she’s foaled out upward of 500 mares. Only four needed the help of nurse mares — including one instance of a prolapsed uterus that she details at length on her blog, giving insight into how the decision to use a nurse mare gets made.

In 2015, an estimated 20,600 foals were registered by the Jockey Club. Theoretically, if Thoroughbred breeders employed nurse mares as often as Last Chance Corral claims, the industry would be producing thousands of unregistered nurse foals every year. If that’s the case, where are they going? Fedorka’s figure of .05 percent would result in 103 orphaned nurse foals for a 20,600-horse population size. The Humane Society of Kentucky, which runs a nurse foal adoption program, estimates the figure is even smaller–a few hundred — meaning the practice is in use but not to the extent that critics claim.

“It’s easy to paint the nurse foal issue into a corner,” says Lori Redmon, president and CEO of the Kentucky Humane Society. “Critics say, ‘Isn’t the Thoroughbred industry horrendous?’ It’s broader than that, and probably not as pervasive as they say. At the end of the day, are there foals that are orphaned at two to five days old? Yes. Are there mares who lose their babies every year? Yes. But is it all because of Thoroughbreds? No.”

Kentucky also has thriving Saddlebred and Standardbred industries, which use nurse mares for the same reasons as Thoroughbred breeders.

The Humane Society does not condone the use of nurse mares, but neither does it take a public stance against it.

“We’re in Kentucky,” Redmon says. “Vilifying the Thoroughbred industry would not bode well for us. If we thought we had an opportunity to change the laws and make it illegal, we’d probably go for it. But of all the states, Kentucky’s animal welfare laws are some of the weakest. If we talked strongly about the ‘horrendous' industry, all that would do is shut the doors for us to have access to these foals. There’s no way we can take them on and win, so this is the alternative.”

NEGATIVE PUBLIC PERCEPTION about the nurse mare industry has a way of working against the orphaned foals.

“Nurse foals are thought of as throw-away horses,” says Tiffany Rowe, a Pat Parelli-certified instructor based in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. “They get a bad name because people think there’s something wrong with them, that they don’t act right. But that’s because of inexperienced handlers. I thought it would be cool to raise one, to develop it correctly and de-myth that.”

Rowe adopted two nurse foals, Rocky and Houston, from the Kentucky Humane Society. Both horses will turn three in April. She rides them as demo horses at her horsemanship clinics.

“What most people do, to the [nurse] foals’ detriment, is treat them like a puppy,” Rowe says. “They don’t set boundaries, or teach them to be safe, or to follow a feel and release from pressure. By the time they’re two or three, you have a monster on your hands.”

To avoid that, Rowe says nurse foals need to be fed from a bucket, not a bottle. (Some people even call them “bucket babies.”) In the beginning, it’s round-the-clock work, the same as with a newborn human.

Last year, Stacy Westfall, the 2006 Road to the Horse champion, undertook raising two nurse foals from Last Chance Corral. Her motives were part compassion for the foals, part professional curiosity.

“On the journey to becoming a horseman, you should study all the horses you can get your hands on,” Westfall says. “I like the outliers, the ones that are a little different, to get a new perspective on how horses think.”

Having raised a fair number of foals with mares, Westfall wanted to know how it would be different with an orphan. She was surprised from the moment she first visited Last Chance Corral.

“I couldn’t have prepared myself for seeing 20-plus foals, but not a mare around,” Westfall says. “The foals were laid down, overlapping each other. It reminded me of when you see puppies or kittens piled together. They weren’t getting the attention they needed from a mother, so they got it from each other.”

Stacy Westfall, the 2006 Road to the Horse champion, adopted two nurse foals from Last Chance Corral. PHOTO: Courtesy of Westfall Horsemanship

The two foals Westfall chose have made interesting case studies. One was taken from his dam at three days, the other after two-and-a-half weeks.

“The older one had more reactions or thoughts when around horses, whereas the little guy was just … blank. No baby talk, no mouthing. Just standing there like a little stuffed animal, a puppy dog, just nothing. It was so unusual.”

To help the foals learn to socialize, Westfall turned them out in a run that shared a fence with some adult horses.

“They had none of the normal concerns a horse should have,” Westfall says. “They learned lessons like: ‘Hey, look, right before that one nipped at me, she had her ears pinned!’”

Westfall realized how many lessons a foal learns from a mare, beginning on day one.

“When you lead another horse by the stall, a mare wants to circle to protect her foal. She is telling that other horse, ‘Keep your distance, this is my foal.’ But she is inadvertently telling the foal, ‘When this other one comes by, be on guard. Watch yourself.’”

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST surprise awaiting someone who adopts a nurse foal is seeing what breed, or breed-cross, it looks like when full grown. The older of Westfall’s two foals is shaping up to look like a draft cross, perhaps with some Percheron influence. That pleases her husband, who trains police horses. The younger horse is leggy and tall, evidently a Thoroughbred cross.

“It doesn’t look like he’ll be a reiner, which is what I’m known for,” Westfall says. “I’ll haul him around and see what he wants to be.”

A nurse foal’s mysterious lineage follows it through life like a storm cloud. The bottomside is usually known, since the farm owns the mare. The most common breeds are Quarter Horse and Paint, but there are also Tennessee Walker, Appaloosa, Appendix Quarter Horse and draft-cross nurse mares.

The sire line, however, is uncertain because of a logistical problem most nurse farms face. When a nurse mare gives birth to her biological foal, she often is rebred during her “foal heat” in order to become pregnant again and foal early the following year. That period comes four to 12 days after foaling, a timeframe when a nurse mare has already been shipped to a customer’s breeding farm. Consequently, rental contracts stipulate that the customer is responsible for breeding the nurse mare to one of its stallions. It’s up to the customer’s discretion who the stallion is.

In a best-case scenario for the future nurse foal, a customer breeds the nurse mare to a high-quality stallion. But in a worst-case scenario, the mare is bred to a “teaser” stud kept for inducing breeding mares into heat for a prize stallion to cover. Teaser studs are often mixed breeds, some even products of the nurse mare industry.

Tiffany Rowe wanted to know the true lineage of her best nurse foal, Rocky.

“I can tell he’s got amazing bloodlines because he’s got great flying lead changes, he canters nicely, his conformation is good, his mind is good,” she says.

Asking around, she learned that Rocky’s dam was likely bred to a grandson of Deputy Minister, a now-deceased champion Thoroughbred with a stud fee of $100,000.

“I’m surprised people aren’t snatching nurse foals up,” she says. “I guess they are a byproduct, but they’re amazing horses that are easily trainable.”

Photo series showing Rocky’s progression from nurse foal to trained saddlehorse. For the Kentucky Humane Society’s adoption fee of $250, Tiffany Rowe got a horse likely sired by a grandson of the famed racehorse Deputy Minister. PHOTOS: Courtesy Tiffany Rowe and The Kentucky Humane Society.

THE NURSE FOAL PROBLEM seems intractable. For every proposed solution, there’s a counter argument that makes it unfeasible.
Some want The Jockey Club — the official registry of Thoroughbred horses — to allow artificial insemination and embryo transfer, technologies that would make it unnecessary for mares to be shipped for breeding, thereby eliminating the scenario depicted by Last Chance Corral, of high-quality mares having their foals removed in order to be shipped for the mare to be rebred. That scenario represents a minority of the instances when nurse mares are leased. Plus, there’s a convincing argument that advanced breeding technologies would create a boom in the number of Thoroughbred mares bred every year, thereby increasing the number of mares who reject their foals or orphan them by dying — leading causes for nurse mare use.

Equine researchers, including Fedorka, believe hormone therapy could be a solution. By treating a dry mare with a series of injections, she can be induced to produce milk. Fedorka is running clinical trials as part of her research at the University of Kentucky. But the process can take up to two weeks to take effect. When breeders need nurse mares, it’s usually urgent and on short notice.

A promising solution could be if the Kentucky nurse mare industry adopted the practices of JNP Horses, a nurse farm in Hugo, Oklahoma. Their band of 90 nurse mares is comprised mostly of registered Quarter Horses. Rather than relying on customers to breed them back, JNP manages the breeding with one of its two registered Quarter Horse stallions, Snow Jack Pococito and Mister King Bar.

“If the foals are registered, people will take the extra time, effort and expense of going ahead and raising those ‘bucket babies’ and doing something with them,” says Nancy Pearson, owner of JNP.

JNP’s herd management practices help produce nurse foals that are sound of mind. They are born in the pasture and run with the broodmare band, getting socialization that’s critical to their development. When a customer contracts for a nurse mare, the foal is weaned and taken to Pearson’s daughter’s ranch, where it is trained to eat from a bucket. There it continues to be exposed to full-grown broodmares with foals at their sides.

Instead of needing help from equine rescue centers, JNP has a list of clients wanting to buy the foals. They’ve created a community Facebook page, Equine Orphans: Past and Present, where their nurse foal customers share stories of what the horses have gone on to accomplish. The page is an archive of nurse foals who have become show horses, race barrels, even a few roping horses.

“We want our babies that come out of these mares to have a chance at life,” Pearson says.

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Originally published in the January 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

Ryan T. Bell

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Writer and photographer focusing on food, agriculture, and the environment. | National Geographic, NPR, Western Horseman, and others. |