Over the last several weeks, the world has turned its attention to horse racing and the exciting possibility of a Triple Crown winner after a 36 year drought. During all the pomp and circumstance, there have been articles highlighting the shady side of racing: drugging, racing injured horses, and the most appalling, horse slaughter have all been covered by several mainstream media outlets. What no one has discussed is one of the dirtiest secrets in the sport horse industry. Nurse Mares, and the foals that become the tiniest victims of a billion dollar industry.
Nurse Mares are often used when a mare who has died, is sick, or has rejected her foal. Another reason, one with only one thing in mind, money, is sending Thoroughbred mares to breeding farms for live cover breeding. In order for a Thoroughbred to be eligible to race, it must be a product of a live cover breeding, not by artificial insemination.
Transporting high priced Thoroughbred foals is a risky business, and while some breeders will take the chance, many don't see it as good business, so they lease local mares from farms that are in the business of only breeding mares so they can become Nurse Mares. Hundreds of mares a year, mostly draft and draft crosses (because they produce higher yields of milk) are bred, and when a breeding farm calls, the Nurse Mare's own foal is pulled from her side and she is transported directly to the breeding farm.
This now leaves the Nurse Mare's foal an orphan. The foals are often only a few days old when this occurs. Even more tragic, it is common when there is a high demand for mares, they will be less than 24 hours old. Some foals do not even receive the mother's 'first milk' which contains the colostrum critical for their survival. Though it is not a common practice among the majority of the industry. Equine babies usually get 4-6 months of their mother's milk and time with their dams. During this time they grow, they learn, and they begin their journey to being someone's pride and joy.
Nurse Mare Foals do NOT get that option.
For many years farmers would often kill the babies outright, usually with a hammer, as to not waste bullets. They were viewed as a disposable by-product of a necessary industry. Other practices were to leave the foals in barns in the back of the property, and if they survived and were female they would eventually become Nurse Mares. The male horses didn't even get that option at these farms.
Jump forward to present day, and these nurse mare foals that once had no chance have been now given one. Horse rescues, private buyers, and even Nurse Mare farmers have recognized the value in the foals left behind. And these foals, while still at high risk for infection, depression, and death are often sold for a fee. And, there are still farmers who do not view the foals as worth anything and continue with inhumane practices such as culling by neglect.
One of those rescues, Pure Thoughts Horse Rescue, in Loxahatchee, Florida, has been involved in the rescuing of orphan foals since 2007. And thanks to co-founders, Jennifer Swanson and Brad Gaver, along with devoted volunteers in North Carolina and Florida, they have been able to help close to 150 foals. Volunteer and foster mom, Michelle Tolley and her husband Bobby, travel to Nurse Mare farms outside of Florida to pick up foals as young as a few days old. The orphan foals need intensive care and must be stabilized before making the trip to Florida. This means teaching the foals to drink replacement milk from buckets, which in the first few weeks must be given to the orphan foals every 2-3 hours.
"These foals are often separated on the day they are born or soon after," Michelle explains from her home. "The condition of a nurse-mare foal is fragile at best, and they need round the clock feedings, and continuous monitoring in order to survive in the first weeks of their lives."
Once the foals are strong enough for the rest of their journey, the Tolleys bring the foals to Pure Thoughts' farm, where they are often greeted by several volunteers. In order to care for as many as a half dozen foals at a time, along with the 50 plus rescue residents, many of which are former race horses, the rescue relies on volunteers to help with the feeding, halter training, and socializing of the young orphan foals.
Michelle also shed light on what the future could hold for the Nurse Mare industry, "There are viable alternatives to intentionally breeding large numbers of mares just to produce milk, now that technology has started to catch up with this practice. If it is implemented with the Nurse Mare farms, all that would be needed is giving mares a hormone shot to induce milk production. It is the only way to cease this senseless breeding for profit. And there would no longer be thousands of unwanted newborn foals. As it stands now, this is an annual occurrence that causes the crisis we face in our foal rescue efforts. And as long as the breeding continues and produces these unwanted foals as a result of the business practice, then we will be there to do whatever we can to save the lives of as many foals as possible."
The "Baby Barn" at Pure Thoughts will have two new residents this Saturday, June 7, 2014. The same day a horse named California Chrome will race to become an American sports legend. The two foals who will be looking for a forever home, lost their mothers to foals who may go after that same glory three years from now. And Michelle sums it all up in one final statement, "Tragically, there are many foals who do not survive, they are killed or starved by the farmers who only see them as a 'by product' of this industry. However, we see them as individual and precious equines, complete and full of love, curiosity, playfulness and loyalty to the ones who saved them."