Guest Blog: A Nurse Mare Named Goldie

Please enjoy another guest blog from our talented edtiorial intern, Kelsey Riley: 

As was discussed on my previous guest blog, there is little that matches the excitement and anticipation of a foaling. For the attendants, the moment is filled with hope; hope that this foal, out of about 35,000 Thoroughbreds born in North America each year, may be “the one”-- that special horse that could parlay centuries of impeccable ancestry into a win in one of the world’s greatest races.

Underlying this anticipation is a different kind of hope. Hope that the newborn at hand will overcome the environmental odds stacked against him and emerge a healthy horse, and that the new mother will be able to pull through the tumultuous event of birth.

Not every mare and foal are as lucky as those we see frolicking in Bluegrass fields each spring, and when a situation arises that leaves a foal motherless, owners often turn to nurse mares.

Nurse mares are horses that act as surrogate mothers to raise the foal until it is weaned. These mares are typically not Thoroughbreds, but Quarter Horses, Paints, or mixed breeds that are leased out to raise orphans deemed more valuable than the biological foal they have produced. Some of racing’s top stars have been reared by nurse mares, including champions and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winners Rachel Alexandra and Afleet Alex.

The use of nurse mares is undoubtedly one of the most controversial practices in the Thoroughbred breeding industry. I do not, however, intend to delve into these politics here. My wish is to highlight the amazing work these mares do, whether one agrees with their use or not. In a desperate situation, nurse mares defy their natural instincts, accepting a foreign foal and protecting someone’s valuable asset. Nurse mares are heroes. In April 2007, I met a true hero.

It happened about three weeks after the birth of a striking chestnut filly at the breeding farm I was working on. The daughter of a perennial leading sire out of a grade II winner and champion producer, “Katie” was arguably the most valuable foal our small scale operation would produce that year. At two weeks of age, Katie fractured her left hind leg while running in the paddock with her dam. While non- life threatening, the injury would isolate Katie to her stall for six months.

This schedule did not fit Katie’s mom, who needed to travel to Kentucky to be bred. The nurse mare was on her way.

As sometimes happens, the first try was not meant to be. The big, boxy Standardbred mare we were paired with refused to accept Katie, and despite 15 all-night vigils with the pair encouraging them to bond, our efforts proved fruitless.

Just as we were reaching our wits end, a call came from a nearby farm. There was a nurse mare available, and she was being offered to us. With nothing to lose, we said yes, and upon bringing her home we knew we were right. What we still didn’t know was how the roan Kentucky mountain horse nurse mare named Goldie would impact our lives.

I’ve heard the theory that if the nurse mare does not accept the foal within 24 hours, they will not accept it at all. With Goldie, the connection was instant.

Before our story continues, here is a bit of history on Goldie. She is one of two or three nurse mares kept annually at the Ontario, Canada-based Sam Son Farm, one of North America’s leading breeders. The operation campaigned grade I winner Smart Strike, now a two-time leading sire, as well as the late Canadian Horse of the Year and champion broodmare Dance Smartly. Sam Son had acquired Goldie a few years previously from John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm near Lexington, but had not yet had to use her as a nurse mare. Katie was her first test, and she passed with ease.

For the next two months, Katie and Goldie lounged the days away in their stall, happily watching the other mares and foals move in and out and soaking up the sunlight that peeked through the windows. Goldie was not much for humans; it took us many tries and a lot of carrots before we could effectively scratch her neck or adjust her halter. Goldie was not adept to human contact, but she loved her baby. We tried to reward Goldie for being a good mother by letting her go outside on her own for 15 minutes a day, but to no avail: she would simply go into panic mode when Katie was out of sight, and would not be happy until she was returned to her little filly. So house arrest it was.

As spring melted into summer and Katie and Goldie both packed on the pounds, the time came for Katie to begin testing her healing limb. This meant hand walking twice a day, beginning with exploring the barn aisle and progressing to long strolls around the driveways and paths of the farm. But not without Goldie. So off we went, twice daily, exploring every nook and cranny of the farm on our quest for exercise. By this time, Katie had developed quite a standout personality.

She was comical and cocky, yet charming. I can only imagine what it must have looked like--me, a comparatively weak human, attempting to restrain a bouncing, bolting baby while dragging a shaggy, cellulite-covered nurse mare in tow.

With routine checkups indicating progress, Katie and Goldie were allowed to be turned out by August, and by September, they joined the herd of 12 others mares and foals. In October, the unlikely pair were weaned, Katie jumped on a van to South Carolina for the winter, and Goldie headed home to prepare to have her next foal.

It would be seven months until I would see Katie again, but she returned to Canada in May 2008 bubbling with personality. Katie was always the first filly to approach when you entered the paddock, immediately raising her head and marching up to you as soon as she caught wind of your presence. Even as a writer, I cannot find the words to appropriately describe the aura Katie carried with her. She was like a queen with grace: she treated herself like royalty, but treated her humans like her best friends.

I spent each day that summer grooming and caring for Katie, and by August I was breaking her. Not surprisingly, she was a quick learner. Goldie must have taught her well. Just two weeks after introducing the tack, I rode Katie in the paddock for the first time. We romped around the paddock, walking, trotting, and cantering circles and figure-eights. It was so perfect that I couldn’t help but feel as if this was the only thing either of us was ever meant to do. Perhaps I was right. The next day Katie went off her grain. Two weeks later, she died. While the reasons for her death were never completely conclusive, it was believed that she suffered from a neurological illness.

Two years and many miles later, I look back on the time I had with Katie and there are some specific things I remember: Exploring the farm with her as a foal; Riding her around the paddock as a yearling; Sitting with her helplessly in the stall in the days before her death, praying that my grief alone could be enough for someone to decide that she didn’t have to die. The time I had with her was limited, but the little time I had was because of Goldie.

In a recent phone conversation with Sam Son Farm manager Dave Whitford, I learned that Goldie is still with Sam Son and doing well. She raised an Afleet Alex Thoroughbred foal last year, and is due to foal again any day to a Warmblood stallion, a mating that was planned by a Sam Son employee.

“One of our employees has taken a particular liking to her and she wanted to breed her to a certain horse,” Whitford said.  “So she covered the stud fee on him, we covered the vet work, and she’ll be able to have that foal once it’s weaned.”

Katie’s biological mother produced a full sister to Katie the following April, a little bay who is currently winter training in South Carolina with hopes to race in 2010. After being barren for 2009, Katie’s mother is currently in foal with another full sibling. While this is proof there is reason to look forward to the future, it is also proof that legacies live on, and I will forever have the fond memories of the little chestnut filly with the shaggy roan nurse mare.

32 Comments

Leave a Comment:

joe

hey--thanx for this-a wonderful tribute to both goldie and katie.

18 Mar 2010 6:59 PM
krisgreg

Such a heartwarming but tragic story...what happens to the nurse mare's baby?  Is the foal hand raised?

18 Mar 2010 7:51 PM
LAZMANNICK

Kelsay.....you sound like a special person.  I enjoyed your story and wish you all the best.

18 Mar 2010 8:19 PM
Trish

What a great story.....Thanks for sharing. Nurse mares are the unsung heroes of the TB industry.

18 Mar 2010 8:25 PM
txhorsefan

Thanks for sharing another story with us, Kelsey.  I have very ambivalent feelings regarding the nurse mares, but as you said, won't get into all that here.  Katie looks like such a beautiful little filly, it is wonderful she had the opportunity to live the brief life she did and be loved and cared for by Goldie and you.  Since you spent so much time devoted to her, it is such a sad loss, but you have these great photos and you've told her story so very well.  Thank you.

18 Mar 2010 8:50 PM
LCM

that is such a touching story and a very sad one.  I can see by the photos that Katie truly did have a real "presence" about her.  what a loss.  I'm very happy to hear that Goldie is being bred to stallions that produce WANTED nurse mare foals!!  To me this is extremely important.  No nurse mare should be bred to a stallion if the resulting foal ends up being of no real use to someone. That practice needs to end.

18 Mar 2010 8:59 PM
nina

You should delve into the nurse mare controversy. The problem won't go away by ignoring it. These babies are either killed,starved or rescued . Pretty horrific compared to your little happy story.

18 Mar 2010 9:01 PM
EPence

I agree with "Nina", the practice should be confronted more honestly than this sentimental article depicts.

19 Mar 2010 12:44 AM
DinkyDiva

Lovely story, thank you for sharing it with us.  The ranch that I worked at we had 3-4 mares that would act as nurse mares with their own foals. Meaning: that one mare would have two babies to look after and feed etc.. Sometimes, one mare won't take a certain foal but, the next one you try, they do.  Mares are like woman: always changing their minds. lol...  I am very thankful for Mares that are willing to do this!  Many foals would die without them, that is for sure.

Again, Thank you for the touching story and the beautiful lil chestnut "Katie"

19 Mar 2010 1:42 AM
Fran Loszynski

Your little foal runs alongside all the champions. She is there when a racehorse breathes hard at the finish line; she is there when you feed oats to a horse; she is there when you feel the wind on your face-it is a snuggle from her nose. A racehorse never dies because there is always one that resembles or reminds you of the speed or sharp eye on the track and you will say to yourself "She looks and acts like......." I hope you find a little racehorse that needs your special love again. Watch "Afleet of Angels" race she runs for the innocence and all that is good in this world. Take Care

19 Mar 2010 7:36 AM
SalemPoe

Last Chance Corral takes a lot of nurse mare foal babies.  Some do end up in good places after all.

19 Mar 2010 8:18 AM
Lmaris

The nurse mare owners I was familiar with did not kill and certainly didn't starve the foals.  They ere hand-raised and either sold or given away.  They're often good quality riding horses.

19 Mar 2010 8:55 AM
LouAnn Cingel

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story even though it made me cry.  You had such an exceptionally special experience-you've been blessed to be a part of those horses lives.

May their spirits live on!

LouAnn Cingel of Union, Missouri

19 Mar 2010 9:55 AM
Lynne Langill

I agree that this is a cute story. What happens to the foals that the nurse mares give birth to? That is what I would like investigated.

19 Mar 2010 10:08 AM
el

Kelsey--I share you pain.  Your story brought tears.  My mare had a filly, also in April 2007.  She was a beautiful appaloosa, had all the characteristics in all the right places.  She had color, conformation, speed, intelligence and a wonderful disposition.  Her mom was bred to a halter champion.  She was a willing baby, learned everything the 1st or 2nd time.  The last thing we taught her was to trailer load, the night we brought her to the equine hospital in Ocala FL to put her down.  Her heart had only one chamber functioning.  She lived for 4 1/2 months.  The cardiac specialists at the hospital said it was a fluke, that it was ok to breed the same pair again.  Her full sibling is due to be born in 2 months.  Hopefully we will have a longer relationship with this one.  Who knows, maybe "Katie" met "Billie" wherever horses go and are running around together.

19 Mar 2010 12:26 PM
Marianne

Hey Nina, don't hate. It is a great story Kelsey. Nursemares have a very important role and I have had the pleasure of dealing with many over the years. The responsibility of what happens with their offspring, lies in the breeders hands. Most of the breeders that I deal with heavily consider the life that the nursemares foal will have and breed her appropriatly. The ones that don't most likely shouldn't own ANY horses. I know Kelsey well and she certainly wouldn't ignore an issue such as this, but shine a light on one of the heroes of the business! Thanks for that!

19 Mar 2010 12:57 PM
shesfast

What a positive story. Thank you very much for posting this article, even though it brought tears to my eyes cause i am such a sap. Someday in the next 10 years, I would love to adopt a nurse mare foal. Are nurse mare foals easy to train, and would they make good trail horses? I want to get a good saddle horse to ride in the mountains near my home. A horse that I can grow old with me. when u adopt do u get to raise the foal? I would really love to hand raise a foal.

19 Mar 2010 1:47 PM
kathcoates

Is that true about what happens to the foals of the nurse mares? They should not be killed for the convenience of the another foal. There must be some way to keep them alive too. This is a barbaric practice if true. There is no excuse for avoiding the subject.

19 Mar 2010 2:38 PM
easygoer

I agree with Nina. The nursemare industry is very ugly, and while this story is beautiful, it would have been more accurate to follow the lives of both foals ie. Katie and Goldie's foal. A foal that is born to suit the money interests of breeders with "valuable" horses faces a very uncertain picture. Some are lucky and end up at Last Chance Corral but others are not lucky. The unlucky ones are starved or killed. Those that do live are considered "grade" horses and therefore, very likely to wind up in the slaughter pipeline.

19 Mar 2010 5:46 PM
sweet terchi

Thanks for sharing Kelsey. This is a difficult subject for me because I know what happens to nursemares foals. It was good to read that Goldie's last foal is a wanted baby.

19 Mar 2010 8:05 PM
Lady A

I think some people are missing out on the point of this blog.  The focus was on how this nursemare help create a special bond between Ms.Riley and the filly, not the fate of nursemare foals or the life of nursemares.  For those of us who are curious, look further into the matter.  Never base anything on what one article, blog, etc. says.

Thank you Ms. Riley for the touching story.

19 Mar 2010 9:55 PM
gammyp6

I always assumed nurse mares were mares who gave birth but their own foal was still-born or died shortly there after. I really had no idea there was an industry for this practice. I just did not know about this very dark side.

20 Mar 2010 12:01 AM
DinkyDiva

I don't know what you guys are talking about! Saying that a nurse mares own foal is compromised because of the "breeders" interest???  You haven't a clue!  Look, this is what happens in my experience.  A very nurturing mare that is close to foaling; that is normally the case in "Nurse Mares." If for some unsaken reason a mare dies while giving birth to her foal, that foal will then be tested with another mare that has the milk and is known to adopt.  Then, when the "nurse mare" has her "own" foal, they usually keep both babies!  If a mare loses her foal in birth, they usually are tried as "nurse mares!"  Visa Versa!  And, if none of these special Mares will take to a foal, you hand raise them with a bottle of specific formula.

I really do not think that breeders with high calliber horse stock would even conceive of sacrificying one foal for the other!  That is proposterous if you ask me!!!!!

20 Mar 2010 3:24 AM
smartysgal

Teardrop.

20 Mar 2010 6:58 AM
GinnieJ

Thank you for sharing another wonderful story with us, Kelsey.

Your story of Katie and Goldie will be in our hearts ... and minds for a long time.  

Love the pics, too.  You're very good at this, young lady, and we appreciate your many talents.

20 Mar 2010 1:21 PM
Dr Sarah

I have worked with many nurse mares in the past, and it was certainly worthwhile.

However, with induced lactation a very practical reality, and  no market for the lower end broodmares, I can't imagine not using these mares to raise foals without having to worry about the possible ethical issues with nurse mare foals. It is more convenient and  not difficult either.

I have one mare in my vet practice that has now raised four orphans (two in one memorable year). She is never bred, and the last introduction, with a bit of hormonal assistance, took all of about 30 seconds.

20 Mar 2010 4:10 PM
Carrie

I do not see any controversy from the "nurse mares" as long as the foals are raised and cared for.  I provided my sister a lovely warmblood cross foal that was bucket raised from a nursemare that we needed for a Thoroughbred foal.  You would be amazed at what great riding horses nursemare foals can be.  Many of the times it is a draft mare crossed with a thoroughbred stallion so you can often get a nice "american warmblood".

20 Mar 2010 8:10 PM
Jan

Thank you for the lovely article honoring both Katie and Goldie. God be with Goldie and may she have continued health along with her babies. RIP little Katie.

21 Mar 2010 12:37 AM
Rachel

"deemed more valuable" sums it all up, the nurse mare is a mare with such strong "mother" instinct that when her foal is wrenched away from her, in her despair she adopts the other foal...

It's all $$$, just like Premarin babies.

Many of these mares would take on the second foal along with their own. It's pathetic (but a rescue's heart takes on the pathetic abuses) that a RESCUE that struggles for every dollar takes up the responsibility of these babies to hand raise these "low value" creatures of God.

21 Mar 2010 7:50 AM
Mrs. L

I am appalled and disgusted at this practice of having nurse mares foal their own offspring only to have these little ones off loaded so mama nurse mare can look after a mama thoroughbred's foal. This takes place because of the almighty $$$$$. Owner's/breeders, have some decency and morals and let your thoroughbred mamas raise their own foals until they are weaned, then you can breed the mares back once more.

21 Mar 2010 11:31 AM
summerhorse

What a tragedy Katie was lost.  I can tell from her pictures she was very special indeed.

Anyone wanting to know about the nursemare industry should simply google it, there is a ton of info. out there on the good and the bad.  Sadly the bad predominates.  But hopefully the purebred industries that use these mares will step up and use induced lactation for nurse mares from now on.  There is no need to be bringing more horses into this world whose lives are merely born of convenience and stand a good chance of ending up in a bad place.  

21 Mar 2010 8:56 PM
niko

This is a very sad and common practice. I think it curious that expensive foals can be raised on a lesser mare's milk - perhaps in that case the foal really isn't a "thoroughbred"!? People make no mistake this is common practice and guess what - yes the mares are often roan, paint, appaloosa and other distinctive colors in order to boost the chance that the throwaway foal will have more value as skin.

19 Mar 2011 11:33 AM

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