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'Milk babies' are foals who are discarded when their own mothers become nursemaids to the babies of other mares. These orphans have a special place in the heart of Victoria Goss, owner of Last Chance Corral (LCC), a 501(c)3 nonprofit equine rescue in Athens, Ohio.
Milk babies are also referred to as nurse mare foals, alluding to their origins and the reason for their existence. “A nurse mare foal is a foal born to a broodmare in order that she’ll come into milk,” says Goss. “She’s then leased out as a nurse mare to raise another, more valuable baby.”
Anyone can lease a nurse mare, such as in a situation where there’s a troubled mare, or a first-time mother who’s rejected her foal. And nurse mares aren’t limited to any one breed. However, Goss says that one industry is the biggest customer.
“Ninety-five percent are leased by the Thoroughbred industry, so you’ll find nurse mare farms in areas where there are large, active Thoroughbred breeding operations,” she says. Preakness Stakes winner Rachel Alexandra had a nurse mare mom; so did Afleet Alex, another Preakness champ as well as winner of the 2005 Belmont Stakes.
WHEN HORSES ARE COMMODITIES
Several factors create the demand for nurse mares, and they revolve around the economic and logistical realities of Thoroughbred breeding, says Goss.
“A horse’s gestation is eleven months. On the first of January, every Thoroughbred foal born the prior year is a year older, so in order to be competitive they have to be born as early in the year as possible. Then, when the broodmare has her foal heat nine days later, she’ll be shipped out for re-breeding, because The Jockey Club (the breed registry for Thoroughbreds in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico) requires that mares be bred by live cover only, and not artificially inseminated,” reports Goss.
The days-old foal is usually left behind; equine insurance to cover a newborn foal traveling with his mom is frequently cost-prohibitive, and the travel itself can be risky. That’s why he needs a surrogate mother to assume the feeding and rearing duties. “By the time momma comes back, her milk will have dried up,” says Goss.
HIDDEN FROM VIEW
As for how Goss gets the orphaned foals, the circumstances vary but typically the hand-off is shrouded in secrecy. However, a mid-life graduate student recently documented the foals’ follow-up care at LCC in a video for her multi-media thesis project, and accompanied Goss on three ‘foal runs.’
“After the first run, I got back in the truck and said ‘that felt like a drug deal.’ I’ve never seen anything like it. She’ll meet them in the parking lots of convenience stores or farming suppliers, out in the middle of the country, to pick up the foals,” says Sue Morrow, recent Knight Fellow (2011-12) in the School of Visual Communication at Scripps College of Communication, at Ohio University in Athens.
On each of the runs that Morrow joined, anywhere from eight to twelve foals were loaded onto Goss’ trailer. “At a nurse mare farm in Kentucky, they had eight foals in one stall. One foal still with its mother was muzzled so it couldn’t nurse, and the mare was blindfolded; when they took the foal away both of them were very upset,” says Morrow. “As we were driving away, I saw they were loading the mare onto a trailer, still blindfolded.”
THE COST OF CARE
When the foals arrive at Last Chance Corral, that’s when the real work starts. “Sometimes it looks like a MASH unit in the barn,” says Goss.
For foals in severely compromised health, the combination of veterinary, nutritional, and intensive care support can run between $75 and $100 per day, per foal. And that’s not the only cost of rescuing these foals, when even the basics run into the thousands.
“Last year I spent $24,000 on milk alone. You can’t feed cow’s milk due to the creatine, it will tie up their digestive systems so they can’t absorb anything,” says Goss. So what’s on the menu? A specialized diet that includes foal milk replacer plus yogurt for the added probiotics, additional equine supplements, and even human over-the-counter medication for things like diarrhea and ulcers. “Equine digestive systems are very sensitive, and these babies, because of the stress they’re under, are very prone to ulcers.”
LCC relies heavily upon donors for financial support, but volunteers, like Morrow, are always needed for the hands-on duties. Stalls, buckets, and ‘baby behinds’ must be cleaned daily; in hot weather, a new batch of milk replacer must be mixed (and the buckets cleaned) every hour. And then there’s all the other work behind running an equine operation, not to mention simple companionship and loving care for the small herd of orphans.
Despite the hard and oftentimes frustrating work involved in equine and foal rescue, Goss says LCC has a good track record. “When I started this, I was told to expect 30-40% mortality; now we’ve got about 3%, but sometimes we have to turn away foals simply for lack of finances.”
THE LUCKY ONES
Some may point to the pregnant mare urine (PMU) industry as being similar to nurse mares, but Goss says they’re not alike at all. “Following birth, PMU foals get ninety days with their mom, so they’re essentially weanlings. Our foals might get colostrum, if they’re lucky,” she reports.
The really lucky ones are those foals adopted out into loving homes. LCC’s stringent and detailed adoption policy requires safe trailer transport, a draft-free barn, near-constant oversight of care, and solid, foal-safe fencing, plus other horses to provide companionship and socialization.
As for what happens to the unrescued foals? It’s not pretty. “Many of these nurse mare farms still aren’t what you’d call humanitarian,” says Goss. “In some places, the foals get whumped in the head and left in a ditch somewhere. And others, the foals are sold for meat and their hides used in the fashion industry as ‘pony skin’.”
The nurse mare industry used to be a hidden secret; now, word is getting out. According to Goss, awareness is a good thing. “We’re fighting an old boy’s club and traditional practices centered around money, but the more that people become aware and become outraged the more likely it is that things will change,” she says. And in the meantime? “As long as we can’t stop it, help these babies. Adopt one, or two, if you can.”
Lisa Kemp is an award-winning writer and marketing/public relations professional serving the equine industry.