When a new foal is born into the world, the ideal scenario is that it is healthy, bonds with its dam and nurses within its first few hours.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes a mare is injured or dies while giving birth. Sometimes she can’t produce enough milk to feed her newborn adequately or she simply rejects the foal.
When scenarios play out that prevent a mare from caring for and nursing the newborn, the need quickly arises for a nursemare, a surrogate mother, to step in and take the place of the foal’s actual mother.
For decades, the nursemare business has been a vital part of the breeding industry, providing a life-saving service at a critical time. But it has also been rife with controversy.
Traditionally, in order to ensure the nursemare had milk, the mare was bred, and then her biological foal was taken away from her so that she could care for a different newborn instead. In the best operations, the artificially orphaned foals were bottle fed and lovingly raised. But an unknown number have simply been thought of as a byproduct of the business, and ended up in auctions, or worse.
Hormonally Induced Lactation
In the past decade an alternative method has been developed; one that can bring a nursemare into lactation without the need for her to be bred and without creating an unwanted “byproduct” foal. This new method is called hormonally induced lactation.
In the simplest explanation, hormonally induced lactation tricks a mare’s body into producing milk without the mare having to be pregnant. Hormonally induced lactation (HIL) only works on mares that have had foals in the past, but it has been a game-changer in the breeding business.
Lactation is regulated by a hormone called prolactin. In order to induce lactation, veterinarians administer a drug called Domperidone, causing prolactin levels to increase. In mares who have had foals before and have fully developed mammary glands, this leads to milk production. The drug needs to be administered over the course of approximately a week, and then the mare must be hand-milked. Just before introducing the mare to the orphan foal, vets use other drugs and methods to trick the mare’s body into thinking she has just given birth and to enhance maternal bonding.
Lauren Phoenix, who is the owner of Nursemares of the Northeast and Nursemares of Kentucky, provides hormonally induced nursemares for Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. Her company can also make special accommodations for farms outside of their regular service area, or can refer people to other providers throughout the country.
“Typically, through hormonally induced lactation, we can get a mare to produce really good milk within 11 to 14 days,” said Phoenix. “Every mare is different and it’s a very regimented process to get them induced to lactate and often we need to adapt to the individual and think outside of the box.”
Phoenix and her team take a hands-on approach, managing and overseeing the introduction of the foal to the nursemare and troubleshooting any potential issues.
“We go through the same procedures and precautions for each mare, whether it’s her first time being a nursemare or she’s been doing it for years. It’s an intricate process and we wait for certain signs and signals at every step of the introduction before proceeding,” said Phoenix. “Thanks to these decisions made in the moment and based on what I’ve learned over the years, we can pretty much get any mare not just to take a baby, but to love, protect and care for it as if it’s truly their own.”
According to Phoenix, she and her team have a near 98-percent success rate. In the event that issues arise, they consult with the foal owner to either work through the challenges or deliver a replacement mare from their herd.
Finding the Right Mares
It is important to have the right type of mare to serve as a nursemare. Phoenix looks for mares that have had a few foals in the past, have proven to be good mothers and have seemed to enjoy raising a foal.
“Many of our mares are on their second, third or even fourth careers. Some we get from clients and some are rescues,” she explained. “We look for mares who are kind, easy to handle and don’t have any major bad habits or dangerous behaviors. While we serve major breeding operations, we also provide mares to private people as well, so it is important for the mares to be safe and easy for anyone to handle.” The majority of the mares in Phoenix’s herd are adopted from previous clients or from rescues or Thoroughbred aftercare organizations.
“The business of providing nursemares used to be rather secretive due to what happened with the nursemares’ biological foals. They often weren’t cared for very well and there was no honor being given to these mares who were literally saving lives,” said Phoenix. “We take very good care of our mares. They’re vaccinated, well-handled and loved, and it shows.”
Changing the Industry
Phoenix began Nursemares of the Northeast in New York, and the farm serves as her homebase to this day. As demand grew, she decided to open a satellite facility, Nursemares of Kentucky.
“When I started in New York, my goal was to perfect the practice of inducing mares to lactate through hormones, and over the years we’ve also perfected how we introduce the mares and foals,” she said.
Phoenix says she and other hormonally induced nursemare providers have seen a steady uptick in their business in recent years. People are eager to learn more about her approach and, when the unfortunate need arises, use a more ethically-produced nursemare.
“One day I was in the stall with one of our mares and was thinking about that saying, ‘Blessed are the broodmares,’” she recalled. “Then it hit me, and in that moment I thought about the follow-up, ‘but heaven-sent are the nursemares.’”