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.  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.  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.
Go figure – chickweed is actually an equine delicacy!I had notice Maisy eating it every chance she got over a period of a few days this spring.This is from the April 2013 Natural Horse Newsletter (wonder if you can make an essential oil out of it??? :-):
Chickweed – Stellaria media by Katharine Chrisley of Dharma Horse
Chickweed is a creeping herb with tiny white flowers. It is entirely edible for all animals (although it can be too rich for some if eaten fresh and abundantly!). It is considered a cancer-preventing herb and a premier healer of the digestive tract. It is fed to arthritic horses and used to reduce lipoma/fatty tumors.
Chickweed nourishes the Pineal and Pituitary glands, helping them return to normal function when afflicted. It is full of the mineral – organic Iron – which is necessary for all mammals to transport oxygen and maintain youthfulness. Food additives/preservatives deplete iron from the body which causes anemia, lung and circulatory damage, blood sugar imbalances and weakness. Mothers, equine and human, can be low in iron (especially after giving birth) and it should be returned to the body through a gentle, organic mode.
Chickweed is a mild herb used to gradually return health to tissues and the whole plant can be fed fresh or dried; or a tea can be made from the dried herb. I feed a half cup of the dry, cut and sifted herb in a mash once daily for mares who need it. I drink a cup of prepared tea for myself when feeling weak. An infused oil can be made by warming the herb into olive oil for use externally on swollen joints, tumors or fatty deposits.
It’s been known for decades that animals such as chimpanzees seek out medicinal herbs to treat their diseases. But in recent years, the list of animal pharmacists has grown much longer, and it now appears that the practice of animal self-medication is a lot more widespread than previously thought, according to ecologists. Source: U of Michigan, Apr 11, 2013
Zoopharmacognosy is a term used to describe the process by which non-human animals self-medicate. In the domestic equine world this is a very difficult thing for the horse to accomplish as his world is typically very manipulated. However horses in a natural environment are perfectly capable of doing this. Daniel Janzen first observed this behavior in various wild animal species in 1978. It is an important behavior function for parasite control and general health – the domestic horse can be kept in such an environment!
Applied zoopharmacognosy can be done on a case-by-case basis, using plant extracts and/or essential oils. Carolyn Ingraham in the UK has been instrumental in bringing a scientific approach to this discipline.
The preference, of course, is to see the foal with the dam outside grazing a mixed species pasture – and not in a stall being fed hay. The hay can be fed ad lib. And then there are the issues of how the horse is being “used”. Nevertheless, at least the industry is beginning to realize that moving away from concentrate and fortified feeds is a good thing, and that can be translated into some amount of progress!
There are many references on the internet to a “study” supposedly done by CSU (Colorado State University) on whether or not to blanket a horse in winter. It apparently was first posted on FB by Big Sky Morgan Horse Association here. In April 2013 I received a comment from an individual stating that this “study” is a fake and that a certain professor she contacted at CSU could not find any evidence of it ever having been done. I honestly do not know whether this study is fake or not, but I will say that I cannot locate any legitimate citation to it associated with CSU. Nor does the Big Sky Morgan Horse Association list any citation. At the bottom of this post, there is an article from Rutgers that I know is legitimate.
It should first of all, be understood that blanketing (or rugging as it is known in Europe) quite obviously is a construct of domestication, and more specifically of the equine show industry due to various clipping requirements. People may also body clip (shave) their horse’s winter coat that engage the horse in high-energy performance requirements that would cause the horse to sweat under his natural heavy winter coat. This can get quite complicated as the Rutgers article indicates. While blanketing itself may seem a rather innocuous practice (or even seen as beneficial to many people), it is the underlying reason for doing so that creates an adverse situation for the horse; nor is the act of blanketing itself without compromise.
As for body clipping in the winter…this is ONLY done because the human desires it; the horse does not. Horses that are body clipped in the winter should be given extra protection in cold weather as they have been stripped of their natural ability to protect themselves against the elements. Blanketing itself may not particularly pose a physical threat to those horses that are kept stalled with minimal and restricted turn-out (it’s the restriction that causes the problems!), but I definitely would not recommend it for active horses that are kept in a natural herd and allowed freedom 24/7. But then again, why would you blanket a horse in a natural herd situation? Those horses have not been deprived of their natural protection. Blanketing does prevent growth of a full winter coat; therefore, once you start blanketing for a given winter season, it is not an option and it must be continued for that season.
There is another reason for not blanketing that many do not refer to: Animals that are adapted to the cold display an increased production of heat from brown fat. Brown fat contains an “uncoupling” protein that diverts energy away from ATP synthesis, instead favoring heat production. This process is tightly regulated by signaling from the sympathetic nervous system. (Reagan 2013)
Please note that I am not talking about the use of blankets for specific health reasons. In rescue situations in particular, more often than we like the horse is in a debilitated body condition and does not have the metabolic and physiological resources that a healthy horse does to offer protection against the elements. Until such a day as there is no more abuse inflicted upon animals, we have a responsibility to protect that animal and the use of blankets in situations such as this is very much within an acceptable realm. (Care for rescues will be addressed more in depth in another article.)
Senior status is variable among breeds and even individual horses within breeds, though most people consider a horse 20+/- to be senior. But that doesn’t mean the horse is “old” with regard to capability. There are plenty of 30+ year olds that can run circles around the human; and in fact I have one living with me! We should go by the signs of aging rather than the actual age. With regard to nutritional requirements, the senior horse has no physiological differences from the younger adult. A horse 15-20 years old may begin to lose some teeth; as well, the horse that is 25+ years may begin to show issues with masticating food properly and we may see signs of “quidding”. The evidence of quidding of forage will be boluses of food dropped from the horse’s mouth. The longer the horse has spent his life allowed a species appropriate diet, meaning free access to forage only, the less dental issues the horse will have going into advancing age, given no other health issues. But because of the horse’s hypsodont dentition, it is highly recommended that the senior horse continue to have at least an annual dental checkup and may need to be done twice yearly in some situations.
There is never any need to remove the older horse from pasture, even if he starts to quid the grass. He will still be getting some nutrients, although he will need to be supplemented; additionally the action of masticating is a biological requirement, just as it is with any horse. There will come a point that the older horse will not be able to masticate long-stem dry hay; at this time (preferably before he starts to lose condition) weaning him onto a chopped haylage product is an excellent way for the horse to obtain nutrients that he would not get otherwise. Soaked hay cubes are another excellent feed for the senior horse, although some owners are reluctant to feed soaked hay cubes because of the perceived time “cost”. I personally have done so and found that if I simply put the cubes into soak while doing barn chores, the “extra” time required is virtually nil. There is no reason to not feed both soaked hay cubes and chopped haylage; the haylage can be fed free choice and the soaked hay cubes can become a “meal”. In this way, between the pasture and the haylage, the horse is still allowed to trickle feed as desired and the forage “meal” should present no digestive issues; it is also an excellent opportunity to provide appropriate nutrient supplementation to assist the naturally decreasing digestive functions of the aging horse. As with any forage, the hay cubes should be of high quality. Typically one finds hay cubes in either timothy or alfalfa, or a mix of both. Which to feed will depend upon the individual horse and the availability in the local area. Some people will recommend soaked beet pulp over hay cubes. In a perfect world, I have no adversity to recommending beet pulp. However, the unavoidable fact is that most commercially grown sugar beets (the type of beet that is generally used for beet pulp; and no, beet pulp is not loaded with sugar) are GMO crops. Even if they are not genetically modified, the method for kill-down on the beet tops (the greens) in order to harvest the beets (the root of the plant) is to use herbicide spray. Exactly how much herbicide is going to be taken up by the root – the beet – is a variable factor that will depend upon the exact chemical compound used and its half-life. Finding organically grown beet pulp is practically impossible (if someone has a source, this author would be very interested in knowing it). This simply is not a risk I personally am willing to take. This is not to say that the hay grown for the hay cubes has not had herbicide applied to the field, although it is generally not applied as often to hay fields as it is to commercial beet crops. It may be quite possible to find a hay cube product that is at least somewhat sustainably grown, at least easier than finding organic beet pulp!