When foals are born, so too are the hopes and dreams of their owners and caretakers that they grow up strong, fast, healthy, and sound so they may one day compete on the same hallowed ground as champions before them. Foaling season is a magical time, when pastures at Thoroughbred farms everywhere are peppered with sweet, playful foals staying close to their birth mothers, learning the lessons they will carry with them throughout their lives.
Every once in a while, however, those foals don't grow up as planned.
Such was the case last year at Larry and Karen Doyle's KatieRich Farms in Midway, Kentucky. The breeding and foaling season was in full swing and things had gone more or less as expected when tragedy struck. One of their mares, who had gone through a bout of colic several months prior, was displaying symptoms of abdominal discomfort once again.
When it became clear the situation would require surgical intervention, the decision was made to separate her from her foal, who then four months old, and rush her to the clinic for life-saving surgery.
“It was a traumatic weaning, and not at all how you would prefer things had gone, but it had to be done to save the mare,” said Erin Mayer, who handles administrative duties for KatieRich. “They decided to keep the foal with the herd she and her dam had been with and to supplement her diet with Mare's Match [a milk replacement].”
But, just hours after turning the foal out with the herd, farm personnel looked out to see one of the mares standing quietly with both her own foal and the newly-orphaned foal nursing from her.
The mare was Byzantine, a stakes-winning and graded stakes-placed daughter of Quiet American. Apparently, in addition to being a phenomenal racehorse, she was a compassionate and accommodating mother.
“The three of them were instantly inseparable, so we kept them together until it was time to wean them both several months later,” said Mayer.
Answering the Call of Duty…Again
The farm decided to retire Byzantine from breeding that year. Years prior, she had experienced foaling complications which resulted in her needing a caesarean section to deliver a foal.
“With a mare like that, you don't want to produce a foal every year, and with her being 20 years old this year, it would have been increasingly risky for her,” said KatieRich president Mark Hubley.
The plan was for Byzantine to live out her days on the farm with the other retired mares. That was, until tragedy struck again earlier this spring.
Soon after an apparently routine foaling, a broodmare began to seize, a symptom of internal hemorrhaging. The mare and her foal were rushed to the clinic and thanks to skilled surgeons, her life was saved. Within days, however, the mare's body stopped producing milk in response to the physical stress.
Dr. Carol McLeod, who serves as the primary veterinarian for KatieRich's mares, had an idea. McLeod, who has spent decades practicing as a reproductive specialist, had read a number of articles by mare reproductive physiology expert Dr. Joe Lyman on hormone-induced lactation.
“Using purpose-bred nurse mares is a very difficult choice for both the people who raise them and the people who use them, because you are creating an orphan foal,” said McLeod. “I had read about inducing lactation with a specific hormone regime of domperidone. Byzantine was so impressive in caring for an orphaned foal in addition to her own the year before, and I didn't want to use a nurse mare if we did not have to, so I used what Joe had worked on in his research, my own experience, and a bit of common sense, and within three days Byzantine was once again producing milk.”
The following day, the farm sent a van to the clinic to pick up the foal, and within a span of 30 minutes after leaving his dam's side, he was nursing off Byzantine.
“We did not tranquilize Byzantine or restrain her with more than a lead rope, and we didn't use anything to make the foal smell differently. We simply got the foal from the clinic to the trailer to the stall as efficiently as possible,” said McLeod. “This mare knew what we were doing and through her body language and actions, it was as if she said, “I get it – I know what you need me to do. I've got this.”
An Alternative to Traditional Nurse Mares
McLeod stressed this scenario would not work with all mares, as it takes a very specific temperament from the mare, but she feels this could be a viable option for farms when situations arise in which a nurse mare is needed.
“I definitely believe farms could do this and not be as dependent on [purpose-bred] nurse mares,” said McLeod. “The farm has to be all on-board with the plan. In addition to the proper temperament of the mare, it requires a strict regimen to administer the hormones at the right time in order to get the mare lactating. It has to be every 12 hours – not ten or 13 1/2 – but I think it is a viable option when the need arises.”
As for Byzantine, her adopted son was recently weaned and is doing well, and his birth dam has recovered from her near-death experience. The team at KatieRich finds comfort in knowing that if the need arises again in the future, Byzantine will be there and will rise to the occasion.
“It's heartwarming to see a mare like that, who is so maternal and enjoys being a mom, be useful in that way,” said Hubley. “It's nice to know that if we or one of our neighbors has something like that happen in the future, that 'Mom of the Year' is available to play the assist.”
As for McLeod, she hopes stories like Byzantine's help to create a solution to the practice of purpose-breeding nurse mares.
“It is important for people to know that we don't have to produce orphan foals to produce nurse mares,” said McLeod. “We have to be cognizant of the over-population of horses. Producing orphan foals isn't the right thing to do, especially if we have a viable option. I think we do, and Byzantine's story is the proof.”
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others. While she currently has no plans to build an arc, she is the go-to food source for two dogs, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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