What is a Nurse Mare Foal?
and how they are produced
Every year, thousands of racing Thoroughbreds are born in the US. Even with the declining economy, over 23,000 mares were reported bred in 2012. Every thoroughbred must be registered with the Jockey Club to be registered to race. And every thoroughbred has the same January 1st birthday regardless of their actual date of birth. Due to the horses 11 month gestation period mares are often bred in February and March in hopes that the foal will be born in January or February of the next year. In order for the mare to have a foal the same time next year she will need to be rebred only a month after giving birth. Some mares must travel to a stud farm as the Jockey Club has a rule that states that Thoroughbreds cannot be registered (and cannot race) if they were not conceived by live cover. This prohibits the use of artificial insemination (A.I.), a common technology used throughout the horse world. A.I. allows more mares to be impregnated from each stallion collection. While much more convenient, A.I. devalues the semen, which is a “no can do” in the Thoroughbred industry where stud fees often surpass $100,000 per collection. Due to the value of their semen, many stallions are insured for millions of dollars. To keep the cost of insurance down many stallions do not leave the stud farm, requiring that the mares be brought to them.
Thoroughbred brood mares are highly valued and are insured as well. After all, the breeder is expecting to get a “Lil Seattle Slew” out of her. The newly born foal will also require insurance, but the often the cost of shipping the foal cross country with the mare is too high... not to mention risky. Foals are often not welcomed at the stud farm. So what is a Thoroughbred breeder to do when he wants to send a mare to be rebred to produce yet another “Seattle Slew Hopeful”? Separate mama and baby. Without the mother, the Thoroughbred baby obviously won’t survive. Their solution? A nurse mare, of course! The decision is then made to get a nurse mare. After all, she has milk that she’s not doing anything else with, right? WRONG!
In order for the nurse mare to have milk, she must have given birth. Bringing a mare into milk without breeding her is substantially more expensive than breeding her to whomever and bringing a life into the world. That life is a nurse mare foal. There are farms that specialize in leasing nurse mares to breeding facilities. The foals are considered a byproduct of the industry, and once it is born; its purpose has been served. The nurse mare foal is then disposed of several different ways. Foal meat is considered a delicacy in some places, and pony-skin has become quite popular in Europe. Many nurse mare foals are born and are simply destroyed, not necessarily using humane methods. Whether or not it is legal does not matter- it still goes on. If the nurse mare farm gets a call for a mare and they do not have one ready inducing a labor, though illegal, is common practice.
The Last Chance Corral rescues between 150-200 foals every year. The biggest year was 2008 when 207 foals were rescued! January through June is known as “foal season”, and for good reason. The foal barn is its own intensive care unit where a small team works to save the helpless foals twenty-four hours a day. Once the foals are stabilized and drinking milk well, they are put up for adoption. Then we try to save more. The summer and fall is the preparation time for next foal season, both financially and mentally. It is a never ending cycle.
People ask why we do not go after the nurse mare farms and try to shut them down. The problem lies not with the nurse mare farmers, but with the Jockey Club and Big breeders of all varieties. Not all nurse mare are leased to TB breeders there are many other breeders that prefer using a nurse mare rather than allowing the foal to nurse on its dam. They feel that it is too much of a strain on the mare that is once again pregnant. There are also instances where the mare dies or does not produce milk and a nurse mare will be used. If artificial insemination were allowed, the mares could stay at home with their foals and there would be no need for the nurse mare foals to exist. The problem is kept ‘hush hush’ by the big guys with… you guessed it… the money, making it an extremely tricky situation to solve. Until the Jockey Club and big breeders decide to make some adjustments, the most important thing to do is to be there for the foals that are being born to die. People like you can help us help those that cannot help themselves.