The Nurse Mare’s Tale

This cute foal, one of many purposely orphaned for the benefit of some sport horse breeders, is a lucky one – he has been given a home instead of a death sentence.

By Rachel Hairston

A beautiful draft mare is taken into a foaling stall where after much labor she gives birth to a healthy and strong foal. The foal is allowed to bond to his mother and take his first taste of colostrum. Days later, the mare is quickly removed from her foal and put on a trailer destined for another farm, never to see her foal again. Her job and only purpose now is to be a nurse mare and surrogate mother to another mare’s foal, leaving her own foal an orphan. Is this just a sad tale? Regretfully, it is a harsh reality.

Nurse mare farms have been in existence for the past 30 years serving the sport horse breeding industry. The sole purpose of these farms is to breed healthy open mares and turn them into lactating mares through pregnancy and birth. These mothers are called nurse mares or wet mares. After foaling, the mare is made available for lease to a farm that wants a wet mare for their sport prospect foal. The original use of a nurse mare was primarily by people who tragically lost a mare during birth, leaving a foal motherless. With mare mortality rates dropping due to advances in equine reproduction and parturition, the demand for nurse mares should be decreasing. This is not the case. The demand for nurse mares is increasing with unethical sport horse breeders wanting to relieve their athletic mares of nursing responsibilities, allowing them to return to sport competitions or be quickly bred back for another high priced foal.

It's inhumane enough that the sport horse foals are yanked from their dams unnecessarily, but the real victims of the nurse mare industry are the birth foals of the nurse mares. When the day comes for their mothers to be shipped off to another farm, their fates are sealed. The newly orphaned foals are usually euthanized, auctioned, abandoned or sold to the leather industry to be used as “pony skin”. They are thrown away like trash, because they have served their main purpose, and are no longer needed. Some nurse mare farms will occasionally give the foals away, but most sell them discreetly for profit.

With most states lacking in stricter laws on the humane treatment of livestock animals, which horses are usually classified as, nurse mare farms are able to do what they want and are recognized as legitimate livestock operations. We embrace nurse mare farms that provide the legitimate and ethical service of surrogates for orphans, yet the same operation may be producing orphans. It is a profitable business for both the nurse mare farms and the breeders.

On top of the already inflated number of rejected sport horses is added a high number of rejected orphan foals - compounding an already serious problem for rescue organizations that have reached capacity as a result of overbreeding and PMU production. Rescues are only a temporary solution; we need to address the sources of the increasing 'homeless horses' problem. Are horses to be considered expendable? Breeders have apparently gotten out of control and there is a need for a change.

Luckily, there are incredible people like Kenneth, Jeannie, and John Holland, who run Casey Creek Horse Rescue and Adoption (CCHRA) in Kentucky and have dedicated themselves to saving as many nurse mare foals as possible. “We sometimes have to drive 10 hours to pick up one foal, but we’ll do what we have to,” says Jeannie Holland, Co-Director of CCHRA. Most of the orphan foals are draft crosses, born to draft mares that produce larger quantities of mare’s milk than other breeds, but there may be any breeds mixed in. The nurse mare farms do not disclose the pedigree or provide any breed registration papers on the foal. No matter what breeds the foals are, CCHRA will buy or rescue as many nurse mare foals as they can care for. Besides rescuing, caring for, and training these foals, CCHRA manages the entire adoption process, offers orphan foal care instruction, and participates with orphan foal support groups.

As of February 2003, new orphan foals will become available for adoption, and CCHRA is looking for good homes for all of them. To adopt a nurse mare foal, you can download the adoption form off their web site, or have one sent to you. The adoption fee varies on how much CCHRA had to pay to save that foal. “We only charge $100 above what we paid for the foal to cover expenses and supplies,” says Jeannie, “We usually have to pay between $250 to $400 for the foals depending on the farm.” Each foaling season photos of available foals are regularly posted on their web site, and the Hollands are willing to answer any of your questions. When the adoption process is complete, you can arrange to come pick up your foal in Casey Creek, KY. Once there, the Hollands will give you a quick course on caring for and traveling with an orphan foal. Nurse mare foals usually are quite healthy and their mothers were required to have current vaccination records and negative Coggins results to be nurse mares on breeding farms. If you want a health exam or Coggins test done on the foal prior to picking him up, CCHRA can arrange for it with their veterinarian at an additional fee of $62. For a road trip and a few hundred dollars, you could save an orphaned foal and give him a chance for a new life.

The more foals CCHRA gets adopted, the more space becomes available for other foals. Adopting an orphaned foal is a wonderful thing, but it does mean dedicating time. Your new foal will need several daily feedings and good quality bonding time to gain a new sense of security and trust with you. If you are willing and able to bring a new foal into your life, please seriously consider sending in an application. Besides adoption, you can greatly help CCHRA by sending them donations either as money, supplies or by sponsoring a foal of your choice. To find out what supplies and equipment are needed, a wish list is posted on their web site and since CCHRA is a non-profit organization your donations are tax-deductible.

The sad reality is that nurse mare farms are not dying anywhere near as fast as their orphan foals are - if anything they are silently expanding. Until we can halt this problem at its source, adopting and supporting groups like CCHRA who are dedicated to saving orphaned nurse mare foals sends a message that these foals are not disposable garbage, but priceless and desired creatures worth saving and caring for.

For more information write to Casey Creek Horse Rescue, 624 Wilson Creek Road, Casey Creek, KY, 42728. Visit their web site: or call them at 270-789-4198.

About the author:
Rachel Hairston lives in Cameron, TX with her husband Randall, daughter Emma Isabella, and their buckskin Morgan mare, Saint Martha. Rachel holds a BS in Animal Science/ Equine Industry from Texas A&M University, is a practicing Equine Sports Massage Therapist, and works as a Veterinary Technician in Austin, TX. She has written articles for Horse Talk Magazine and Renaissance Magazine and is currently writing a book to be published in 2003 on general horse care. She believes in natural horse care with necessary veterinary care, acupuncture, chiropractics, aromatherapy, and equine massage.