The Nurse Mare Nightmare: The Exploitation Of Mares And Foals For Human Greed

On Easter Sunday I read a Facebook post by Stacy Westfall asking for her followers to watch and share a video highlighting the compassionate work of the Last Chance Corral foal rescue.  As a sucker for a cute face (and what foal does not have one), and an advocate for horses, of course I watched, and, of course, I will share the video (below.)

But rather than stop with only a passing thought required to offer a simple video share, I want to take the time to explain why I wish there was no need for wonderful organizations like Last Chance Corral.

Below is the video, filled with adorable moments; heartwarming, and chock full of impossibly cute babies playing and falling asleep on caregivers.  However, although free from horrible graphic images, it is still, nonetheless, heartbreaking if you stop and ask one simple question:

where did these foals come from?

A Little Bit About The Nurse Mare Industry

For those of you who do not know much about the nurse mare industry, it is a predatory industry that exploits equines for profit on an atrocity scale that too few people fully appreciate. Think along the lines of the rapid succession breeding that goes on in puppy mills.  These horrible breeding farms exist to mass produce puppies for sale and the quality of life of the “breeders” and the quality of prodigy are secondary to profits.

The nurse mare industry is not much different, except that the foals are only created so mares can make milk.  Mares must be impregnated each year in order to continue producing milk.  The foals that are born to nurse mares are ripped away from their mothers (which are sometimes simply left to die from dehydration/starvation, or are killed using inhumane methods) so that the mares can nurse other foals that have also been ripped away from their own mothers (the broodmares.)

Nurse Mares Are Not The Equivalent Of Human Wet Nurses

Some pro-nurse mare folks make the argument that a nurse mare is the equivalent of a human “wet nurse” or, “wet nanny” — a stand-in to nurse another mother’s infant.  Other than both human women and mares being mammals that produce milk given to someone elses’ baby there is no other comparison that can rationally be made.

Historically, (before formula was widely available) human “wet nurses” were often used to nurse babies born to the wealthy, royalty, orphaned infants, or when a mother could not nurse her own child.  Before modern times, women were more likely to die during childbirth and so wet nurses also stepped in to care for infants without a mother.

In humans, the act of suckling itself can stimulate milk production, often, within days.  Women are not impregnated in order to produce milk for other women, and they do not have their own infants taken from them and killed so they can raise another woman’s baby instead.  In fact, wet nurses were not seen as substitute moms but more often team members in the feeding of an infant; the birth mom was still involved and ultimately kept and raised her own child.

Wet nurses are still used in some places in the world, and because the human female body is capable of producing milk without involving pregnancy, there is even a small, growing trend among adoptive mothers who stimulate milk production to nurse their adopted babies.

It is not that simple with horses.

To produce milk, mares must become pregnant, and because mares cannot easily nurse two babies, in order for a nurse mare to feed another mare’s foal, her own baby must be taken away from her.

The Job Of A Nurse Mare Is Fueled By An Endless Cycle Of Greed

A nurse mare is a mare who was deliberately bred solely for the purpose of producing milk to nurse another horse and not her own foal.  The problem is, these mares are impregnated only for their milk (the assets) and the foals (the liabilities) that are born are unwanted.

These unwanted foals may be taken and immediately killed at birth, or left to slowly starve within days.  Even though it is illegal in the U.S. to take a foal under the age of six months to slaughter, they are still slaughtered illegally because the “byproducts” of foals is in high demand in some places.  This includes their tendons for medical purposes, skins for leather (that “fine Corinthian leather in your car may actually be foal skin), and even for their flesh.

The foals that are fortunate end up at caring rescues willing to take on the extreme challenges and expenses of nursing newborns who often need special colostrum, formula, transfusions, and due to the stresses surrounding their birth separation, often also need urgent medical care.  Nurse mare foals run the same risks of illness, failure to thrive, and colic that any foal has, but they almost always require extra special care and handling of some sort because of the trauma they were made to endure during separation, transport, and more often than not, because they are seen as dispensable, suffer from severe neglect from the moment of birth.

Needless to say, taking on a single nurse mare foal is time consuming and expensive, and organizations that rescue these babies often take in 5, 10, 20 or, in the case of Last Chance Corral, 100-200 foals at one time rely on the financial generosity of others (and volunteers) in order to meet their expenses.  But the emotional toll of picking up the broken pieces the nurse mare industry creates is hard on humans as well as the foals.

Below is a picture Last Chance Corral posted on Facebook on April 15, 2014 showing (with a little sense of humor) the grueling regiment involved in caring for some of their nurse mare foals:

Last Chance Corral White Board

Perhaps, I have no right to speak on behalf of those who rescue these tiny fragile foals, but to not say anything would be a far greater disservice than being afraid to speak at all.   So I will speak  out for the people who run rescue organizations and who, from front-line experience in the trenches, can truly appreciate the magnitude of what goes on.  The rescuers, to some degree, are also victims of a professional breeders’ equine world that claims to love horses but sanctions the foal casualties in extraordinarily disproportionate numbers that are completely unjustifiable.

Rescue workers often stay up all night hand nursing and consoling lonely, terrified infants that should be with their mothers.  These tireless workers struggle to help colicky foals — foals that sometimes need to be put down because of medical problems stemming from poor breeding or human neglect.  The daily small victories are always framed by the reality that getting nurse mare foals stable is only half the battle — they still need to find responsible homes for so they can make room for the next batch.

Rescue workers also live with the agonizing knowledge that the next year, more foals will come in numbers so troubling they know they cannot all be rescued.

These foals are not orphans because of cruel BLM roundups.  They are not on this earth due to a careless mistake because a stallion broke through a fence and mounted a mare in heat on the sly.  They are here by the deliberate breeding actions of humans:  They are victims of greed.

If you are saying WTF? about now, good. Then you are already getting the point.  If you are thinking I am an overzealous, biased, crazy horse lady, then please, continue reading so if you choose to argue with me you will at least understand where I am coming from.

Although not unique to the thoroughbred industry, the demand for nurse mares can be largely attributed to those that stand to profit from the breeding of thoroughbreds.

When thoroughbred mares are bred, the Jockey Club and registry requirements demand the “live” breeding (the mare must be mounted by a stallion) and prohibits artificial insemination.  The mares must travel to the stallions to be bred.  Mares can be safely bred once each year when they are in good health.  However, a mare must be bred within “foal” heat (which occurs approximately 7-10 days after birth) or during the next heat which occurs roughly 21-28 days after giving birth if she is to become pregnant and produce another foal the following year.  This means that nurse mares who have just given birth must travel to a stallion to be bred.

One of the biggest problems with the necessity to transport expensive broodmares is that insurance carriers are reluctant to offer insurance coverage for the transport of newborn foals with mares who have just given birth.  And so, the broodmares are taken off to be bred and their foals are left behind to be cared for by nurse mares.  The nurse mare foals suffer and even worse fate than the broodmare foals but in both cases, each mare loses their precious baby to human greed.

I Am Against Institutionalized Breeding Of Horses For Their Byproducts

I find it hypocritical that some horse enthusiasts will stand up against the horrors involved in the breeding of “premarin mares” but tolerate nurse mare breeding. In both cases, mares are bred for the byproducts created by pregnancy:  nurse mares for milk and premarin mares for their urine to make the drug premarin.  In both cases, foals are the unhappy result of a pregnancy induced for other reasons, and in both cases the foals are treated with complete disregard and often end up dead, slaughtered for their parts, or, the “lucky” ones are picked up by rescue organizations.

In neither the premarin nor nurse mare industry is their anyone held accountable for the equine lives created — these foals immediately become someone elses’ problem.

I wish…

I wish both industries were highly regulated and held to better standards so that those who create these “throw away” babies would be required to pay for their care for the first two years of their lives.  The demand for nurse mares exists largely because, at least in the case of thoroughbreds, the Jockey Club requirements of “live” breeding, so I also wish they would allow artificial insemination.

I wish the focus was on improving the breed through careful and compassionate breeding and not on how much money can be made off a horse.

Insurance companies don’t want to offer coverage for the transportation of barely days old foals with mares to stallions to be rebred as soon after birth as possible, and so, nurse mares remain in demand partly due to insurance reasons.  I wish insurance companies would lift these restrictions.

Horses Deserve Better From Us

I understand the breeding and business advantages of prohibiting artificial insemination; but this financial advantage to preserve the demand for more stallions comes at a horrible price to horses. Breeding every other year would also help diminish the demand for nurse mares because foals could stay with their broodmare mommas and far fewer nurse mares would be needed.

People need to understand that when a mare gives birth it is her baby — not just your property — but your responsibility since you chose to create that foal.  Like pregnant women, that mare knows she is pregnant, and the bond between mare and foal begins with pregnancy.  To deny them both the simple pleasure of being together is nothing short of cruel.

Horses are expensive and require a great deal of understanding and care — bringing a horse into this world is not something that should be done without considering the life of the horse beyond birth — and profits do not justify the devaluing of any life whether human or equine.

It breaks my heart to think of why these foals are living at Last Chance Corral, but the tears I shed as I watched this video on Easter Sunday, were of gratitude for the people who take in these babies and give them a chance in life.

The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins. Last Chance Corral is a living testimony to the power of love and I am grateful for the work that they are doing. Still, I pray not just for their success in the moment, but for the day when their services will no longer be so desperately in demand.

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