Nurse Mares: Four-Legged Mary Poppins to the Rescue

by | 03.28.2013 | 7:39am
Rachel Alexandra's Bernardini filly with nurse mare, Ojos

When veterinarians discovered a bacterial infection following exploratory abdominal surgery on champion race mare Rachel Alexandra, her 2013 Bernardini filly was immediately transferred to a nurse mare.

Although they aren't well-publicized players in the breeding industry, nurse mares are much-appreciated surrogates in a variety of situations. Most commonly they are brought in by Thoroughbred breeders when a foal is born to a mare who dies or experiences major health issues that render her unable to care for a foal.  The latter was the case with Rachel Alexandra, who returned home to Stonestreet Farm Tuesday after several weeks at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. Nurse mares may also be called in if a broodmare rejects her foal or if she has difficulty producing milk.

WinStar Farm general manager Chris Baker said that for mares in the latter category, managers employ hormonal therapies such as domperidone or oxytocin (both of which are used in women) to encourage milk production or letdown in mares before bringing a surrogate into the mix.

“Nobody takes the decision of putting a foal on a nurse mare lightly,” he said. “A foal is best raised by its own mother. You're going to make efforts to get the mare to produce milk if that's the issue.”

A nurse mare may be requested if a broodmare is shipping out of the country to be bred and the foal is too small to make the journey, although such cases are relatively rare. Nurse mares are not brought in for the one to three hours in which a broodmare is sent away from the farm to be bred back, Baker said.

“There's a bonding process that has to take place that's not something you can do temporarily,” he said. “You're not going to try to do it temporarily; it's kind of like flipping a switch. When you go with that, you stay with it for the safety of the mare and foal.”

Some larger farms keep their own band of nurse mares, while others lease nurse mares as needed. Bill Roseberry, who manages Roseberry's Nurse Mares in Central Kentucky, said he gets calls throughout the foaling season, although this year seems especially busy. He's already sent 26 mares out to help struggling foals and has received an additional 60 or 70 calls requesting his mares. Roseberry keeps close to 100 mares on his farm, many of whom are Quarter Horses and Tennessee Walkers.

While there is concern about mistreatment to nurse mares or their foals, Baker and Roseberry said that nurse mare facilities operate like any other aspect of the equine world—some may mistreat their horses, but “the majority” strive to find nurse mare foals good homes.

“I would like to get people to understand that we have been doing this for over 30 years, and we have yet to kill a foal for any reason unless it had some sort of physical problem that can't be fixed,” Roseberry said. “If I had to ‘dispose' of foals like that, I'd be out of the business. I feel very strongly about that.”

“Responsible nurse mare owners love those foals like their own,” echoed Baker, who said in his experience, mistreatment of nurse mare foals is not the norm. “There are people who are feeding their horses before they're feeding themselves.”

Nurse mare, Blondie, with foal at Roseberry's Nurse Mares farm

Nurse mare, Blondie, with foal while leased out on assignment

When a nurse mare is sent out to care for a new foal, the introduction process is slow and steady. She is often outfitted with restraints such as a blindfold and/or hobbles to allow her to move and gradually acclimate to the new baby while preventing her from kicking or biting the foal in surprise if the meeting doesn't go well. Managers may also employ a mild tranquilizer or Vicks VapoRub to keep the mare calm and reduce the number of overwhelming scents that might put her on edge. The acclimation takes between 12 and 24 hours and is carefully monitored by farm personnel who gradually remove the blindfold or hobbles. After the bonding period is over, nurse mare and baby are considered a pair and remain together until the foal would normally be weaned. Once a foal is attached to a nurse mare, it will not be reunited with its dam, since it likely would not recognize her.

Baker and Roseberry said that experienced nurse mares handle the transition well and need minimal management, and young foals don't act stressed or depressed by the change. Older foals who have developed recognition of their dams are slower to transition, Baker said, but usually settle in with some extra attention when they get hungry.

As adults, WinStar's Baker said he doesn't often see any lasting effects of a horse's upbringing by a nurse mare as opposed to its biological parent. In cases where a foal was bottle-raised for a period of time before transitioning to a surrogate, however, he said adults tend to be more people-oriented than average.

Nurse mares are often bred back to teaser stallions on the breeding farm during their lease, and Roseberry said he prefers they be sent to stallions “with some color” to make the nurse mare foal more marketable as a riding horse.

Although milk production can be enhanced by hormones, a mare must have a foal each year to continue lactation. Roseberry said that on his farm, which has been in operation 32 years, his family raises nurse mare foals until they are old enough for sale.

Roseberry said he ensures nurse mare foals receive the antibody and nutrient-rich colostrum from their dams in the first hours after birth, and he does not separate them until he is sure the foal's immune system is off to a good start. Foals are allowed to nurse until the mare is needed, at which point the process is similar to the weaning that all horses go through. Nurse mare foals are raised together and appear content to drink from a bottle or bucket.

“Everybody has their own opinion, but I would say that they do not know any different,” Roseberry said. “They're well taken care of, and it's very seldom we have any problem getting them to eat and drink.”

Because nurse mare foals are bottle-raised, they tend to be very gentle and people-oriented, making them easy to market as riding horses or 4-H projects. Roseberry said he sells many for this purpose, keeps a few to add to his band of mares, and works with a farm in Ohio to successfully place those that don't find homes right away.

  • Tom Goncharoff

    Thank you for posting this Ray. Judging from some of the comments related to the Rachel Alexandra story there are a lot of misconceptions of how this works. Nurse mares are a godsend when needed.

    • ziggypop

      Yes, but there remains a plethora of the unscrupulous that stay in business.

    • Lhartley

      they’re a godsend for the foal in need, but what happens to their foal is what is in question. that seems to be a big part of the story which wasn’t addressed in the article.

    • Can’t you imagine how distressing it is for the mare to have her baby taken away? This is a shameful business regardless. All for the money! Horse racing is a horrible industry.

      • rhonda fleming

        leave this link if you think horse racing is horrible

    • Stanley inman

      Thanks for taking time
      To bring some Yin (balance)
      To all this Yang
      From the crowd

      • Letty Grayson

        Have you been to many nurse mare farms? I think not, Yang.

  • There may be good farms that offer nurse mares but there far too many that are not good. Babies are left to die and are often killed. Recently one rescue in Florida named Pure Thoughts took in 8 babies from Kentucky so they could be saved. People need to realize this is a huge problem in an industry that demands this kind of service. As long as it is needed, there will be farms that exist that will NOT do the right thing and babies are simply born to suffer and be killed

    • Langleyite11

      I know what you mean, see my comment above. I wish the farms would use this tactic as opposed to taking foals away from their mothers so that their mothers can raise another foal.

      • Lee

        No one takes foals away from their mothers so that their mothers can raise another foal. Anyone telling you they do this is lying. It is biologically impossible. You cannot speed up the gestation of a horse. They come into season and are able to breed within a couple weeks of giving birth. Nursing a foal or not.

    • the farm that Pure Thoughts’ foals came from is one of the good ones – I am currently fostering a foal from that farm for a friend. The proprietor always finds homes for the foals and they are very well cared for.

  • Langleyite11

    My filly lost her mother during foaling. We put her with an older mare on the farm who didn’t have a foal that year, we gave her Domperidone to bring her milk in and it was an easy transition. That mare raised my filly like it was her own, she was great and she’ll always hold a special place in my heart. I think she also liked the fact that she finally had a filly to raise (without stretch marks or labour pains) because she’d only ever had boys!

    • yvonne

      We tried the same thing but unfortunately it didn’t work for us. The mare was accepting enough, however after initially producing a little milk, she dried right up.

      • Acgibson

        If you ever need to try again, please let me know. A little estradiol and P&E in addition to the domperidone usually does the trick. Or it may work better on a different mare. My email address is [email protected]

  • ziggypop

    Here is a link to a “nurse mare” foal rescue site. One of many.

    • Nurse mares are NOT needed for live cover. Why keep repeating the lie that AI is the solution? What insurance are they talking about? Why do you think breeders would risk transferring an expensive foal if they didn’t absolutely have to?

      • Acgibson

        Occasionally, an owner may choose a long-distance stud for the mare to be bred back to, and insurance won’t allow the foal to travel that far at such a young age. Many farms also lease nurse mares to relieve an older mare of the stress of trying to raise a foal while also being bred back. I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m saying that’s what happens.

        I’m hoping that by introducing hormone induced lactation to the industry, the number of nurse mares bred back each year will start to decline.

        Ariella Gibson
        [email protected]

      • Valarie Maughan White

        The TB registry will not allow for AI. TB mare must be bred by the actual stud horse.

  • ziggypop

    Thank you for doing this timely article. It would be great to hear from the rescues as well.

  • Roisin

    We know not all nurse mare foals are saved. I wonder what the stats are or if anyone really knows. As always, money is the deciding factor for which foal will survive. It is a tough business all around.

    • Acgibson

      There’s no actual stats out there, but having been to many of the farms, a large majority don’t make it off the farm. And the majority of the ones that do are usually leaving with a kill buyer. I can think of six farms that have 200-300 mares each, and two to three rescues that take in about 100 foals combined. There’s usually a few locals that will take one or two, but there’s just not enough homes for all the foals that are born every year.

      Ariella Gibson
      [email protected]

  • keonic

    Yes, there are situations in which nurse mares are needed, but this does not tell the entire story.

    Nurse mare foals called dirty secret of the thoroughbred racing world

    • DKitty

      It’s no fun to be the result of a dirty little secret! of any kind!

  • In tears

    This is a good aricle on nurse mares, well informed. But as others have offered their opinion on resulting foals of nurse mares. They do not often end well. There was a place in the state I live in where the owner just took new borns and dumped them in the woods. It was really sick to see. How many possible nice horses never had a chance to live. And the resulting foals from mares used for female hormones extracted from preg mare urine fair no better. It is really a ugly situation that is kept hidden. This Roseberry sounds like a responsible person.

  • Abbers

    If a nurse mare foal can be bottle fed without any ill effects then so can a foal from a champion TB. Over-breeding is rampant in any case, why add this to the already sordid slaughter industry. To pretend that most of these foals go to good homes is ludicrous and naive.

    • ziggypop

      Are the breeders to lazy or too cheap to actually take care of their orphaned babies?

  • Rachel

    They said it best: ““A foal is best raised by its own mother”…
    If its so great and wonderful to be raised as an orphan…why do we even need nursemares?
    Just sayin…

    • Lhartley

      to ensure the best care for a quality foal like a well-bred thoroughbred… the nurse-mare foal is not equated the same value.

      • Roisin

        Yes, this is true when “value” is strictly defined in terms of money alone then the nurse mare foal is not valued.

    • Acgibson

      Unfortunately, the thoroughbred industry, like most industries, is driven by money. An owner wants to ensure the highest dollar when the foal is being sold as a weanling, yearling, or two-year-old, and is not willing to risk putting a foal on milk replacer, because while a foal can sustain on it, nothing is as good as true mare’s milk.

      Ariella Gibson
      [email protected]

  • This is a huge problem not addressed in this article. Many nurse mares had their foal taken away from them and then expected to take care of another’s foal. Some of the foals pulled from their mother are sent to rescues while others are killed. This is a nasty business for which no one seems to be held accountable. It is Shameful! And I also hope Rachel Alexandra isn’t going to be bred again. It is all for the money. All for the money and it is sickening to me.

  • RT

    I agree with the comments below. I see no reason that a thoroughbred foal could not be bottle or bucket fed. What’s the difference in it and the nurse mare foal? EXCEPT THAT IT’S WORTH MORE MONEY! I have heard way too many stories of nurse mare foals who were killed or abandoned. I love horse racing but this is a shameful practice and needs to be stopped. I wonder how Ojos foal is doing? So sad that she had her own mother ripped away from her. There is truly no excuse for this. Feed the thoroughbred foal a bottle if his mama is gone for some reason. There is just no difference!

    • Roisin

      The difference is a nurse mare is easier for the farm. Also, the owner if other than the breeder foots the bill for the nurse mare.

      • RT

        But easier for the farm or owner is not what’s best for the animal. I think that’s the real issue here. We have a responsibility to all horses who serve us well as human beings. The racing folks who do this should be ashamed. I could never ever support it!

    • Hossracergp

      Actually there is a big difference between what a TB foal is intended to to in it’s career vs other equine athletes or pleasure mounts. The types of daily exercise needed to build bone and muscle through play with other foals, and the nature of competition within the herd are very important. A mare can raise a foal better than a human with a bucket or a bottle not to mention that mares milk is better than any sort of milk replacer on the market. People don’t generally breed horses to be companion animals like dogs and cats. The financial facts are quite different. Most equine endeavors are money based be it racing, breeding, showing etc. Life is not free and if it means putting a future riding horse on a bottle to save the life of a valuable TB foal then logically that’s what will happen. Maybe it’s time folks took a reality pill and quit living in utopia because life isn’t fair and everything isn’t always equal. The best you can hope for is that the nurse mare foal is well cared for and gets a good home.

      • RT

        I do not live in utopia but in this life, the truth is–animals are treated either fairly or unfairly based on what us human beings do or don’t do. Their lives and the quality of them are solely up to us. I already know that money is at the root of all this and I think it’s really horrible that we as human beings would think that is ok. The Thoroughbred foal can play and exercise and get everything it needs from being bottle fed and of course it’s best if a mare raises a foal–that’s the whole point. The nurse mare’s foal needs it’s own mom. It’s no less valuable just because the racing industry says it is.. Money is #1 above what is best for these animals and some people are ok with that. Sorry, but I’m not one of them. This is a despicable practice and I hope it’s stopped in the future. I certainly would be one to support getting rid of these farms who loan out the nurse mare. As i said, I do love horse racing but it has a bad rap for many many reasons and only we, the people who love it can stop it and make it a humane thing for the animals who serve us so well and through no choice of their own. I’m not going to write anything more here but these stories make me sick. Either we treat animals fairly and humanely or we don’t–there is no sugar coating it like these articles try so hard to do. May God prick the conscious of all who are involved in something like this. I will never never support it!

      • SR

        I think that a nurse-mare should be able to feed two babies. That is point one. And even if this is about money, there is still no excuse to treat animals this way. Oh, as long as they make money they (TB) are good, but if not, just let them die slowly. And I know, since I rescued a mare (in foal, as it turned out), almost skin and bones, so were the other 25 (about) TBs on that farm. I got her back in shape and the filly turned out fine. I could of had her pedigree confirmed and sold her good, a cousin or half-brother won two of the Tripel-Crown-Races. But I did not. Just two great pleasure riding horses now. And no more foals – too many out there!!!

    • Lee

      When humans raise a foal instead of a horse they become very imprinted on humans. it strongly effects their performance as race horses and their personalities. Bottle fed horses may make great pets but not great race horses which is why nurse mares are used if Thoroughbred foals are orphaned.

  • Just me

    We use milk replacer. Why breed all those extra horses. Sometimes the Kentucky market is just spoiled

  • tatyakutis

    Harris Farms in CA has had a tremendous success rate with a foal “grafting” program for orphans. No nurse mares are needed, just a surrogate that is open that has had a foal before. They induce milk production and have a method of slowly introducing the orphan. It is a combination of good horsemanship, experience and a well timed hormonal treatment for the mare. It works through very careful timing and a well designed stall with safe strategically placed window to the foal next door. The foster mares do not produce as high a volume of milk, but the foal can be supplemented a bit and be raised by a HORSE, not a human. It’s amazing.

  • Eddie Donnally

    Ray, I am seeing nothing but horror stories about mistreatment of the foals of nursemares after their mother’s leave. Way back in the early 80s I wrote a piece for Thoroughbred Times about the mistreatment of horses after their career ends and it won an Eclipse Honorable Mention. This was long before horse rescue became a popular cause and we found Exceller sold for horse meat in Europe.
    These days I provide spiritual care to the traumatized and dying and their families, but I do hope a writer, not worried about political correctness, would to some real journalistic investigation, dig up and expose the truth on this subject. I doubt it is as rosy as this piece suggests.

    • Acgibson

      I have been to many of the farms, and have seen and heard things that made my stomach turn. I now have a nurse mare business of my own, and am hoping that over time, I will be able to use it to show others that breeding nurse mares isn’t necessary, and providing quality care IS.

      Ariella Gibson
      [email protected]

  • Kathy Young

    I may have missed this fact in the comments, but mares can often handle two foals–their own and the “stepchild” without an issue. They have two spigots and nursing produces more milk. Not saying Rachel’s foal should not have gone to a nurse mare or anything–just saying the nurse mare’s foal doesn’t have to be “sent away.”

    • Acgibson

      The TB foal stays at the farm where he was born, and the nurse mare comes to him. Her original foal stays at the farm where he was born, until he either dies or is adopted. Some mares can support two foals, but most can’t. And it’s not practical to send the foal with the mare to the TB farm.

      The answer is hormone induced lactation. I use a combination of P&E and domperidone to induce lactation, so I’m able to provide nurse mares without breeding them first. My goal is to get the industry to accept this as a viable method, so that they’ll cut back on breeding.

      Ariella Gibson
      [email protected]

  • Gail

    What a godsend Roseberry was to us. Our mare bled out 12 hours after foaling and in less then 24 hours the mare you see in the photo above was here. Thank you so much for saving our foal’s life. Since our experience Roseberry mares have also served others we have known. Cases where bottles and buckets and Domperidone failed. We will never forget Blondie and will forever be in her debt.

  • ziggypop

    More babies arriving at rescues. This account is particularly troubling. Breeders need to stop this abject unethical behavior they alone have created.

  • Dream Big

    How do you get in touch with these farms to take in the foals. I run a rescue and would love to help these little guys out.

    • Acgibson

      If you’re still interested, please contact me. I can get you some names and phone numbers.

      Ariella Gibson
      [email protected]

  • Letty Grayson

    Thank you for posting this, I sincerely hope that people will read it and become educated on this subject.

  • Acgibson

    It’s happening sooner than I had expected, but I have a few nurse mares available this year! All are retired broodmares, and some are rescues that are in the process of being rehabbed before being leased. I will use a combination of P&E and domperidone to induce lactation, so that they can be utilized as nurse mares without having been bred first. If this is something you are interested in, my Facebook page is called Bluegrass Nurse Mares. I’ll have pictures of the girls up soon, and the first one is booked for a foal that is due March 2nd!

    If you’re interested in learning more about this method, for use on your own mare, I’d love to hear from you! I’m also available if you’re interested in finding out how to contact rescues or the farms themselves i you’d like to adopt and raise a foal. And I’ve also worked with many of these foals myself, and am available if you have questions about raising a foal. My email address is [email protected]

  • kp

    I’m sure there are many sides to this and that some nursemare foals receive good treatment while others are discarded. However, the one argument (that I’ve seen people and rescue sites claim) that the nursemares are needed because the mothers have to be taken away immediately to be bred again – that happens rarely. Breeders want the foals to be raised by their mothers and they can take the moms away for a few hours to be bred and then bring them back. I often see posts on facebook for example of TB foals happily out playing with their moms even when they’re a month old. I’m not saying that nursemares are never needed for the reason of breeding the mares…but just think about it – if nursemares were being called in every time a mom had to go somewhere to breed, you’d need a LOT more nursemares…

  • Judith

    I was present this week at a farm savint nurse mare foals…the foals were shipped from ky to va…they all looked pretty healthy and were easy enoughh to hande (adoptable). It seems the responsibility of these foals are on the farms that make money off the mares. If a nurse mare brings in ? $ , a part of that money must got towards the care of the foal and ensure adoption to a good home. Currently the foals are sold for $100 to whomever will take them at this paticular place…they are then resold for $350…at that price how do we ensure proper care? Maybe the babies are better off dead or we make nurse mare practice veterinary controlled or something to ensure humane treatment.

  • S E C

    Im a horse trainer in Ky. I have had great success with some nurse mare babies. They tend to accept people as a good leader and feeder of the bucket, which is rhe first necessary step in training good riding horses. Just saying. Found this article cuz i was looking up to see where my good large ponies were coming from. S.E.C

  • Lee

    I was referring to Thoroughbred foals being taken away from their mothers, not nurse mare foals. I am well aware that nurse mares are real. However, there are many email forwards and internet postings about nurse mare foals that are untrue.

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