The scrap of a day-old foal, pale chestnut and fuzzy, is unmistakably thoroughbred; once his toothpick legs grow sturdy and his woolly tail uncurls, he might fetch a record price in Keeneland's auction ring. So how come his mother is that blocky, rough-coated creature that looks rather like a draft horse? She nudges her baby from the paddock fence, where curious yearlings stand, and protectively licks his coat. Fussy mother.
If motherhood is powerful, not to mention fussy, adoptive motherhood may be more so. The chunky mama and spindly child are no genetic accident. The colt is a valuable one, from Kentucky's Mint Lane breeding farm, orphaned at birth: the mare is his surrogate dam, a wet nurse enlisted to raise the hungry baby and provide the nurturing so crucial to a thoroughbred's early development. Without such foster dams, motherless foals would have to be bottle-fed, a practice that in the case of thoroughbreds is hardly satisfactory.
"A hand-raised thoroughbred tends to be undersized and mean," says Bill Taylor Jr., who runs one of Kentucky's biggest nurse-mare operations. "As he gets older, he lacks the coat and conformation of a foal reared on a mare. That can't be made up for in later growth." Also, thoroughbred foals raised on the bottle tend to act like oversized lapdogs. "When as foals they put their tiny hoofs on your shoulders, looking for a bottle, that's cute," Taylor says. "When they weigh 1,200 pounds, it isn't." Like most of us, a thoroughbred will grow up healthier and more civilized with a mother to guide him.
The use of nurse mares is hardly an innovation in the thoroughbred industry. Breeder Tom Gentry recalls seeing them in his father's stable as a child, and there are undocumented tales of oldtime horsemen who resorted to female donkeys, or even dairy cows, to nourish their expensive orphans.
It was a Kentuckian named W. Henry Graddy who pioneered the use of nurse mares, in the 1920s. As a boy, he heard that Kentucky Senator J.N. Camden's favorite broodmare had died after foaling, and that the Senator was concerned about the orphan. Graddy lent Camden his own riding horse to nurse the colt. The foal thrived, and Graddy launched a new era for horsemen. At its peak in the 1950s, Graddy's Welcome Hall farm sent out 80 to 100 nurse mares a year, numbers that dropped off about 10 years ago. But demands for nurse mares have been rising again lately as horsemen have begun calling upon them for other purposes than raising foals.
"A breeder may want to save an older mare's strength by not letting a colt tag after her for five months," Taylor says. "Or a maiden mare will try to savage her young instead of claiming it. Some mares just don't produce enough milk. Others may be booked to out-of-state stallions, and the owner doesn't want a newborn subjected to that long van ride."
Taylor and his partner, Wilson Nicholls, keep about 80 mares, mostly heavy draft types, at Springland Farm in Paris, Ky. Their horses' own foaling dates coincide with the thoroughbred foaling season, so when a frantic owner phones, saying, "My best mare just broke her leg. Can you help save the colt?" Taylor is ready. Usually at least one mare has a youngster, which is separated from her as soon as a thoroughbred needs a nurse. Taylor sells these foals for $50 to a waiting list of buyers eager to make pets of them. They are tough little animals, far tougher than the thoroughbred foals, and will get by on bottle feeding with no serious problems. "They just don't need mothers as much as potential racehorses do," says Taylor. (If such deprivation sounds hard on the nurse mares' foals, it beats being knocked on the head and sold for pet food, as is the practice of perhaps half of the farms in the business.)
Springland Farm doesn't send its mares directly to needy clients, as other nurse-mare farms do. "We feel that's a mistake," Nicholls says. "When a foal comes here, Bill and I can oversee the adopting process. We know what to do if anything goes wrong, and it's less bothersome to owners this way. People who've had no experience in the business can waste time. Sure, a foal can go 24 hours without milk if he has to, but you want to get him on a mare as fast as you can."
Nor does Taylor think much of the nurse-mare operation in which the mare is separated from the strange new foal by only a plywood plank until she grows accustomed to him. "She could kick it over and kill him in a minute," Taylor says. Nothing so rudimentary is used in Springland's nurse-mare barn. The tidy concrete structure contains two roomy box stalls and four specially designed nursing stalls. Each is 10' by 10', divided by a pipe-and-mesh partition with a rectangular opening in it just large enough for a foal to reach through to get at the mare's milk bag. The partition is adjustable, and Taylor can move it over far enough so that a mare is literally up against the wall. With a hayrack to keep her busy, she has enough standing room to be comfortable, but cannot move away and thus deprive the baby of food.
Taylor tranquilizes and tethers a mare while waiting for the thoroughbred to arrive. "We try to take her own foal away about half an hour before the other one comes in," says Taylor. "She begins to wonder where her foal is, and will be anxious to mother one." Maternal instinct helps here, but the drugstore standby, peppermint spirits, eases the transition. Taylor rubs a peppermint-soaked rag over the mare's nostrils, then rubs it over the tiny thoroughbred's entire body. When the mare sniffs the mouthwash-scented foal, she assumes it's her own and allows it to nurse. The foal is so hungry he doesn't care who is feeding him. Nicholls and Taylor stay close by in case there is difficulty, but as soon as they are satisfied, mother and baby are transferred to a box stall.