Q. For two of the last three years, we have lost a foaling mare and had an emergency need for a nurse mare. We are trying to figure out if it might be better to keep a couple of mares at our farm that could be used as nurse mares.

I am told that not all mares work out and that some are much better at taking a foal. I have heard that the big foaling operations that keep a few nurse mares on hand and the specialty nurse mare provider farms apparently know how to pick a good nurse mare prospect. Other than being fertile and good milk producers, I assume this is based on their behavior? What type of behavior should you look for in a nurse mare prospect? We have been offered a 10-year old Thoroughbred broodmare from a rescue/retirement farm, but I don't want to end up with a mare that doesn't work out. Is it better if the nurse mare is the same breed as the foals? How long after a mare foals can she be used as a nurse mare? via e-mail

A. Your information is correct. The behavior nurse mare providers are looking for involves being somewhat unbothered when the mare's own foal is removed and readily accepting a foster foal. Some are very stressed by the removal of their own foal and will not efficiently accept the new foal. Some might not be bothered by separation from their own foal or accepting the new foal.

Most of the nurse mares I know have been big, stout mares with some draft blood, so were not the same breed as the Thoroughbred or other purebred foal. I have heard mostly two reasons for choosing drafts: They are good milk producers and they have fairly quiet, compliant temperaments. They also are not too bothered by separation from their foals and happily accept new ones. Even still, farm managers have told me that those specific good nurse mare behavioral traits run in lines.

If you were going to get some nurse mares, perhaps you would be better off trying to acquire proven nurse mares or young mares from these good lines. TheHorse.com/Source (select "Nurse Mares" category) has a list of nurse mare farms. These experts at fostering foals can also better answer your questions about their recommendations for how long after parturition a mare will likely accept a foal. My experience and understanding is that the earlier the better, and after only a few days it gets more and more challenging, even in those mares that are excellent in the early days. Unless you have a large number of nurse mares, it would be tough to have one available when you need it, and that's why nurse mare farms in busy horse breeding areas are such a valuable resource. An alternative to acquiring a nurse mare is to induce lactation in a nonpregnant mare. See TheHorse.com/8204 for more information.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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