Nurse mare foals are not always given much of a fighting chance at a good life. Victoria Goss of the Last Chance Corral is working to change the future for these little lives.
The horse world is full of “dirty little secrets” – things most people would rather turn a blind eye to. In many cases, they’re defended as the cost of doing business in such a risky and wavering industry. The nurse mare industry is one of those blind spots. Each year, hundreds of foals are born, only to be orphaned in order to provide a more “valuable” foal with milk, and to allow that more “valuable” foal’s mother to be taken off to be bred again.
“A nurse mare foal’s job in life is over when they are born,” says Victoria Goss of the Last Chance Corral (LCC). “Most of our foals are one to three days old when we purchase them. About one fifth of them are induced-labor (premature) foals.” These orphaned foals, called nurse mare foals, and are primarily a by-product of the Thoroughbred racing industry. However, the Thoroughbred industry is certainly not the only one that uses this practice.
By-products of the breeding industry
When it comes to Thoroughbreds, the broodmares are only allowed to be bred by live cover. Some breeders want to send a mare off to be bred again as soon as possible after foaling in order to have her produce a foal each year. The foal cannot travel with his mother while she is being bred, resulting in the need for nurse mares. Nurse mares are kept in foal for the main purpose of providing milk to more “valuable” foals than their own.
As with anything, there are some breeders who do right by their nurse mare foals. “Not all nurse mare farms are horror shows,” says Victoria. “There are good and bad – as with any industry. At this point, I deal with three farms. The ‘farmers’ are kind and caring – I have a relationship with them that spans 26 years.”
Nurse mares can be a lifesaver in situations where a foal has lost or been rejected by his mother. However, nurse mare foals that are simply a byproduct of the breeding industry are lucky that places like Last Chance Corral exist. Without such organizations, many of these orphaned foals would simply be euthanized.
Filling a need – caring for nurse mare foals
Victoria started the Last Chance Corral in the early 1980s. “Initially working as a trainer, I took in behavioral problem horses that people had given up on,” she says. “Over time, I became aware of just how many horses were ‘at risk’ and began taking more and more of them into my barn.”
Last Chance Corral now places its focus on nurse mare foal rescue, and has become well known for its knowledge and care of these foals. Orphaned foals have special needs and often require round-the-clock care in the beginning stages of life. “When I found out about the nurse mare foals my life was forever changed,” says Victoria. “We now represent the largest equine neonatal facility in the country. Our facility has undergone many changes in design and materials while becoming what we jokingly refer to as the ‘horse-anage’ [like ‘orphanage’]. I would also like to say, because I’m pretty darn proud, that our mortality rate is less than 3% — unheard of at most hospitals dealing with these kinds of patients.”
With the number of foals LCC takes on each year, it is no wonder they are experts! “We take in 150 to 200 orphaned foals annually,” says Victoria. “Placing our focus there has cut back on our ‘bigs’ (grown horses and ponies), but we still average about 50 to 75 of the latter per year. At any given time, we are equipped to house up to ten grown horses and 30 foals. We generally do not use foster homes because of the specific set of skills and commitment the babies require.”
Raising orphaned foals
The lucky foals picked up by Victoria and her crew at LCC are cared for and available for adoption once they are healthy. “When foals arrive at the LCC, they are treated for an array of conditions, depending on what they display,” she says. “When they are healthy enough to go to homes they are offered up for adoption. Some will be ready in a day or two – others may take a month. The first days are the difficult ones. We spend our days and nights running IV fluids, feeding tubes, blood transfusions, oxygen, and washing poopy bottoms.”
When you see pictures of the adorable foals that have come through the gates of the LCC, it is hard to understand how and why these lives could be discarded so easily. Many LCC foals go on to lead amazing lives – some have even been adopted by mounted police forces and compassionate horse people like Stacy Westfall. It is hoped that over time, breeders will become more responsible, and more organizations like the LCC will exist to help these little souls.
Kelly Howling is a writer, equestrian, and former editor of Equine Wellness Magazine. She manages a large boarding facility and starts young horses for the hunter/jumper divisions. Kelly has completed courses in equine nutrition and acupressure, and has received certification in equine bioenergy work.