From the moment a newborn foal enters the world, it has a bevy of hopes and dreams riding on its back. Ideally a newborn overcomes life’s first few challenges in short order–it is delivered without incident, gets to its feet and nurses for the first time, consuming the colostrum and receiving the vital antibodies necessary for the foal to develop its immune system.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. Whether due to dystocia, a lack of milk production or a mare who is simply not the motherly type and rejects the foal, scenarios may play out that prevent a foal’s biological dam to adequately care for it, necessitating the immediate need for a surrogate mare to step in and take the place of the foal’s actual mother.
For decades, the nursemare business has been a vital part of the breeding industry, providing a life-saving service at a critical time. But, it has also been rife with controversy.
Traditionally, in order to bring the nursemare into lactation, the mare was bred and its biological foal was taken away so the mare could care for the newborn in need. In the best-case scenarios, these foals were bottle fed and raised as orphans, however many were simply thought of as a byproduct of the business and ended up neglected or killed.
Hormonally Induced Lactation
In recent years, an alternative to traditional nursemare practices has been developed; one that allows the mare to be brought into lactation without having to produce a foal as a byproduct of the process. In its simplest sense, hormonally induced lactation tricks a mare’s body into producing milk without the mare having to be pregnant.
Lauren Phoenix, owner of Nursemares of the Northeast and Nursemares of Kentucky, provides hormonally induced nursemares for Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. They can also make special accommodations for needs outside of their regular service area or can refer people to other such providers throughout the country.
“Typically, through hormonally induced lactation, we can get a mare to produce really good milk within 11 to 14 days,” said Phoenix. “Every mare is different and it’s a very regimented process to get them induced to lactate and often we need to adapt to the individual and think outside of the box.”
Phoenix and her team take a hands-on approach, managing and overseeing the introduction of the foal to the nursemare and troubleshooting any potential issues.
“We go through the same procedures and precautions for each mare, whether it’s her first time being a nursemare or she’s been doing it for years. It’s an intricate process and we wait for certain signs and signals at every step of the introduction before proceeding,” said Phenix. “Thanks to these decisions made in the moment based on what I’ve learned over the years, we can pretty much get any mare to not just take a baby, but to love, protect and care for it as if it’s truly their own. ”
According to Phoenix, she and her team have a near 98-percent success rate. In the event that issues arise, they work with the foal owner to either work through the challenges or deliver a replacement mare from their herd.
What Makes a Good Nursemare
Being a nursemare isn’t a role for which all mares are well suited. It takes a kind and adaptable mare to take on another’s foal and raise it as her own.
Phoenix looks for mares that have had a few foals in the past and have proven to be a good mother and seemed to enjoy raising a foal.
“We look for mares who are kind, easy to handle and don’t have any major bad habits or dangerous behaviors,” said Phoenix. “While we serve major breeding operations, we also provide mares to private people as well, so it is important for the mares to be safe and easy for anyone to handle.”
The majority of the mares in Phoenix’s herd are adopted from previous clients or from rescues or Thoroughbred aftercare organizations, offering such horses a unique opportunity for a second, third or even fourth career.
“The business of providing nursemares used to be rather secretive due to what happened with the nursemares’ biological foals. They often weren’t cared for very well and there was no honor being given to these mares who were literally saving lives,” said Phoenix. “We take very good care of our mares. They’re vaccinated, well-handled and loved, and it shows.”
A New Age of Nursemares
Phoenix originally started her groundbreaking approach with Nursemares of the Northeast, a New York-based farm that serves as her homebase to this day. As demand grew and she was getting more calls from breeders in Kentucky and the surrounding states, she decided to expand and opened up a second facility, Nursemares of Kentucky.
“When I started in New York, my goal was to perfect the practice of hormonally inducing mares to lactate and over the years we’ve perfected how we introduce the mares and foals,” she said.
One of many farms that has utilized Phoenix’s services this season is Win-Mick Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. After seeing several posts about people utilizing the services of hormonally-induced nursemares, farm manager Justina Severni reached out to Phoenix about reserving a nursemare to step in for one of their mares who has a history of rejecting her foals. Little did she know, that would be one of two nursemares she would need this season.
“We made plans to have a nursemare on hold for a mare we have who is aggressive toward her foals, but then we had a second mare whose uterus tore during delivery and needed surgery. With the trauma and recovery, she was not producing enough milk, so after five days we went ahead and got a nursemare for her foal.”
Severni said Phoenix’s staff at Nursemares of Kentucky were extremely responsive and attentive, managing the bonding process between the mares and their adopted foals.
“They came out and stayed with the mare and foal until they were fully bonded and the foals were nursing. It took a bit longer with the five-day-old foal, but they knew exactly how to handle it,” said Severni. “Their approach is a much more ethical way to produce a nursemare and their customer service was incredibly helpful. They followed up numerous times afterward to make sure things were continuing to go smoothly and to answer any questions we might have.”
Phoenix says she and other hormonally induced nursemare providers have seen a steady uptick in their business in recent years. People are eager to learn more about her approach and, when the unfortunate need arises, use a nursemare option that is more ethical.
“One day I was in the stall with one of our mares and was thinking about that saying, ‘Blessed are the broodmares,’” she recalled. “Then it hit me, and in that moment I thought about the follow-up, ‘but heaven-sent are the nursemares.’”