Nurse Mare Foals – The “Dirty Secret” of High End Breeding Farms

Warning, the video is graphic and it is heartbreaking to watch.

Many people are captivated by the idyllic pictures of high end breeding farms, with horses grazing peacefully in lush pastures.  But one of the little known aspects of many of these breeding farms is the use of nurse mares.  What is a nurse mare (sometimes called a wet mare), and why would one be needed?  Can’t the breeding mare nurse her own foal?

The original purpose of a nurse mare was to provide a surrogate for a foal whose mother had either died during birthing or otherwise could not provide important nourishment to her own foal.  But as the sport horse industry began to grow breeders began the practice of breeding back mares during their foal heat in order to produce more annual crop, which ultimately means more money for the breeder.  In order to be registered as a Thoroughbred with the Jockey Club, the breeding must take place via live, in-hand cover and cannot be done through artificial insemination. [1]  And since many breedings are done off-farm with famous, high-end stallions, what this means is that the TB mare that just gave birth to an expensive foal is taken away to be bred again; and obviously her expensive foal needs a mother.  Enter the nurse mare.  Additionally, the sport horse industry doesn’t particularly care about the condition of the mare so long as she can produce a viable foal; they are bred young, old, lame, etc.  So even if the mare isn’t removed to be re-bred soon after foaling, she may not be able to nurse for various other reasons.  This has been an established breeding practice within the sport horse industry for decades.  Thus nurse mare farms became a rather profitable business for quite a few farmers supplying surrogate mares to high-end breeding farms that breed thousands of mares every year for the industry.

But there is a dark side to the business of nurse mare farms.  Obviously in order to be a surrogate mother, the nurse mare has to be lactating…and of course to accomplish that she has to be bred.  The nurse mare is bred solely for the purpose of providing milk to a foal other than her own; within a few days after foaling, she is taken away from her biological foal to another farm where she becomes a surrogate mother to a baby she has never seen before.  There is no consideration of the nurse mare’s breeding; that is unimportant so long as she produces milk, which of course decreases her own foal’s “market value”, and her own foal becomes a “waste product”.  These nurse mare foals were historically left to die on their own, killed, or taken to auction where they were generally purchased by kill buyers.  Some are now being rescued and adopted out.  But this is a huge industry in itself…a nurse mare farm can produce 50-100 foals per year, with hundreds of these farms in operation. [2]  There simply are not enough rescue operations that can take on all of these foals.  And this doesn’t even begin to address the emotional issues of the rescued foals.  Even if they are rescued and adopted out, they may go through several different homes before they find their “forever” home.

Is this an ethical practice?  I do not see how anyone can condone it.  It is the human centric breeding practice of the equine sport industry that is the primary underlying cause of the “unwanted horse population” – not people turning their horses out onto the streets.  And the unfortunate “catch 22” is that the very act of rescuing these “orphaned” foals does nothing to discourage the nurse mare industry.

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