It's a crisp February afternoon at Diamond A Farm near Versailles, Ky., and Emmett Davis backs his red pickup truck and trailer up to a foaling barn. Inside the trailer is a 6-year-old Rocky Mountain mare named "George." As Davis puts his truck in park, an 11-year-old Thoroughbred broodmare named Yekaterina (by Strawberry Road) is led blindfolded out of the stall she shares with her six-day-old foal, a colt by Deputy Minister. George is led into one corner of the stall followed by the new foal; two farm employees keep the mare and foal on separate sides of the stall. After a few minutes of looking around, the foal is led toward George. He begins to nurse. When he is finished drinking, the colt is led out of the stall to test the bond created with his new mother. George immediately notices the foal is gone and begins to nicker around the stall and squeal for his return. The colt is returned and the bonding process continues.
When foaling goes smoothly, the outcome is a healthy, energetic foal and an attentive mare. Unfortunately, not every birth goes as planned and the above scene is played out on farms everywhere during foaling season. When problems arise resulting in a foal not having its mother's care, immediate action is needed, leaving the owner with two options—bottle-feeding or acquiring a nurse mare.
George was needed because the colt's mother had been known to savage her foals. "She's fine in the stall, and she's fine in the paddock, but once she gets in the field, she goes right after them," said Diamond A assistant manager Mac Carr. "She's had other foals and has been fine, but we can't take any chances."
If a nurse mare is necessary, a call is placed to people like Davis, who along with his wife, Althea, owns Horse Play Farm near Paris, Ky., or Sandy Kistner, owner of Sugar Plum Farm near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Davis and Kistner are two of a handful of nurse mare suppliers across the country.
Both Davis and Kistner, who consider themselves lifelong horse people, got into the nurse mare business a bit accidentally. Davis leased out his first nurse mare in 1957 and didn't lease another one until 1975. He said he did it as a way to make extra income since he already owned several horses. Kistner said she received a phone call about 20 years ago asking if she had any nurse mares available. That call turned into a dozen or more the next year and her business has since blossomed.
"I get calls from everywhere," Davis said. "At one time I leased out 100, but I'm too old for that now. This year, I figure to lease out about 25 to 30 and turn down about 50 to 100 people."
Kistner will lease about 30 mares from Maine to Virginia this season. "I'm a small operator compared to what they have in Kentucky," she said. "But we'll cover the whole Northeast."
Val Murrell, of Clear Creek Stud near Folsom, La., said the nurse mare is an invaluable part of raising foals. "They raise the foals really well and take a lot of the stress off the dams," said Murrell, who has ready access to about five nurse mares. "If the foals are weaned early, then it is more likely the mare will conceive the next year. I'm surprised more people don't use them."
There are many reasons nurse mares are needed. Some broodmares are inattentive mothers while others can't produce enough milk. Other foals find themselves with mares that appear nurturing, but refuse to let them nurse. Some, like Yekaterina, become vicious and injure their offspring. More often than not, nurse mares are needed to care for orphaned foals whose mothers died from the trauma of foaling.
"Hopefully, you won't need any (nurse mares), but sometimes you just can't help it," Carr said. "We'll use about two or three and we have about 250 mares."
Nurse mares are easier to come by during the late-season foaling months as compared to January and February. "It seems more are needed earlier in the season," Davis said. "In late spring there are more to go around."
Carr said George would remain with the Deputy Minister colt until he is weaned. "We'll wean this colt in July or August," Carr said. "She'll stay with him until he is weaned and then we'll get her in foal and send her back."
Securing the services of a nurse mare is only the beginning. The real work starts when it's time to trick the nurse mare into accepting a foal that is not her own. "You gotta have more sense than the horse," Davis said. "There are about a million different ways to do it and each time will be different."
During the acceptance process, Davis believes in putting Vicks VapoRub inside the nostrils of the mare and on the back and rear of the new foal. The scent of the medication will disguise the scent of both the Thoroughbred mare and the nurse mare's foal.
Carr said it is important the foal not be fed for at least an hour before the nurse mare arrives to ensure it is hungry. The hungry foal will seek out the nurse mare to drink.
Keeping the foal safe during the acceptance process is also important. The use of hobbles on the back legs of the nurse mare is often necessary. Dividing the stall into two sections using a rope secured into the wall of the stall is another way to prevent the nurse mare and foal from getting too close. More often than not, the mare is cross-tied for at least a day near her feed tub and water bucket while the bonding is still questionable.
"This mare is very gentle and she knows what she is doing," Davis said of George. "It's not always this easy."
After the mare and foal have accepted one another, they can be turned out with other mares and foals.
"We'll watch her closely for two to three hours, so the foal and mare can't smell one another, then we'll leave them alone and they can be turned out in the paddock tomorrow," Carr said.
Kistner employs a different process for the mare and foal, but said, "It all comes down to knowing your mare. You have to know how your mare is going to react in different situations and how easily they accept new foals."
Mare owners spend anywhere from $1,000 to $2,200 for the service of a nurse mare, with some suppliers collecting more for a one-season lease. The price is inexpensive considering the value of the broodmare and her foal. The mare owner is responsible for caring for the nurse mare throughout lactation, so any blacksmith, veterinary, and feed expenses are extra.
In addition to expenses, it is also important the mares are returned in foal. If the nurse mare does not produce a foal of her own she is unable to produce enough milk to nourish a foal in need.
"If the mares don't come back in foal, then it's another two years before they can be leased out again," Davis said. "Nobody wins in that situation. It leaves them with a smaller supply and us with the decision of whether to sell the mare or pay to get her in foal."
The type of mare used in the nurse mare trade varies. Mares of draft or draft-cross breeding are often used because of their strong maternal instincts. They normally provide plenty of milk, and rarely reject a foal. Other mild-mannered mares, such as Paints, Appaloosas, and Quarter Horses have also proven to be successful.
"I've always had really good luck with Appaloosas," Kistner said. "But I have a Thoroughbred mare that I use, too. You can use just about any breed. Once again it just depends on the mare."
Beyond the mare's disposition and willingness to accept a foal that is not her own, another consideration is the health of the mare. Foal owners should always insist on a vaccination and deworming history of the mare, in addition to test results for equine infectious anemia (negative Coggins test).
"We always send health papers out with our mares," Davis said. "They are checked and are healthy."
The flip side to the nurse mare business is the question of what happens to the foal produced by the nurse mare.
"We don't have any trouble finding homes for the foals," Davis said. "A lot of people are interested in adopting these foals. If they aren't adopted, we will raise them up."
Nurse mare foals aren't immediately taken away from their mothers. It is vital these foals have access to colostrum as soon as they are born. The foals remain with their mothers between three and four days before the mother is taken away.
Orphaned foals can be given a milk replacement such as Mares Milk Plus. The powdery supplement is mixed with tap water and fed from a bucket, allowing the foal 24-hour access as if the mare was present. As the foal gets older, the amount of milk replacement is lessened and the foal is slowly introduced to grain.
Kistner said she often sells or gives away the colts and keeps the fillies for use as future nurse mares. "I've got one nurse mare family that goes back six generations," she said. "Some of the babies end up being better nurse mares than their mothers. I always try to keep the fillies and usually sell the colts at auction or sell them privately."
If the nurse mare supplier is unable to care for the orphaned foal, places like Kenneth Holland's Casey Creek Horse Rescue and Adoption near Casey Creek, Ky., is available to care for the foals until a new home is found.
Holland, who said he works with five Kentucky nurse mare farms, takes in between 75 to 100 nurse mare foals per year.
"We pay between $250-$400 per foal and then adopt them for $100 over the price we paid," he said. "It's pretty easy to get these foals adopted. There are a lot of people looking for a good horse."
Holland said the adoption money is used to buy more foals and to pay the feeding and veterinary expenses.
The foal produced by George is back at Horse Play Farm and will be cared for until he is adopted. "He's in good hands," Davis said. "I will take care of him. He's good looking so I know someone will want him. These foals make really good pets."
About the Author
Leslie Deckard is a former staff writer for The Blood-Horse magazine.
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