Saturday, December 05, 2009

Nightmare of the Nurse Mare Foals

Thoroughbred horseracing's invisible victims

For decades, the thoroughbred racehorse industry has practiced a shockingly cruel breeding method that activists have only recently brought to light. The result of this compulsory procreative procedure are nurse mare foals — the unwanted offspring of female horses used as nursing surrogates for thoroughbred ponies. Every year, tens of thousands of these horses are killed or orphaned simply because they are useless to a multi-million dollar enterprise that thrives on equine exploitation.

Here's how it works: in order to get thoroughbred mares to produce as many potential racehorse champions as possible, breeders push their biological limits to extremes by forcing them to reproduce once a year. Maximizing productivity requires breeders to have the mares reimpregnated right after giving birth, which precludes them from nursing their own babies. The newborns are therefore taken away from their mothers within days of delivery, and nursed by surrogate mares (of “inferior” breeds) who have just given birth to their own offspring — the “by-products” of this process known as nurse mare foals.

Permanently separating thoroughbred babies from their mothers is tragic enough, but most nurse mare foals face a far worse fate than either racehorses or surrogates. While some are killed soon after being born or starved to death, others are sold (as young as one day old) to the tanning industry, which slaughters them and turns their skin into handbags, belts, and other high-grade leather products. The lucky ones are rescued by horse advocacy groups, which, just like the tanners, must pay the going rate of $200 to $400 apiece — and then spend several hundred more dollars feeding and raising each horse for months before they are ready for adoption.

Rescuers nourish nurse mare foals by bottle-feeding them milk replacer, which could theoretically be used to feed thoroughbred foals as well, thus eliminating this exceedingly inhumane breeding practice altogether. There are two main reasons that they don't do this: formula is expensive, and horse breeders maintain that thoroughbreds need to drink real (albeit surrogate) mother's milk from the source to achieve peak athletic performance. Plus, the larger nurse mare farms (concentrated in New York, Kentucky and Tennessee) produce 50 to 100 foals a year, and it is more operationally efficient to make the surrogate mothers do all the work rather than paying human caretakers to feed the foals by hand.

Another possible solution to the problem of unwanted foals is a new domperidone-based drug protocol that induces non-pregnant mares who have given birth before to lactate. Though chemically manipulating horses' hormones poses ethical dilemmas in the context of animal rights philosophy, in practical terms it would prevent tens of thousands of unwanted foals from being born into a life of suffering and untimely death. It could also dramatically reduce the number of surrogate nurse mares by enabling thoroughbreds who are too old for breeding to nurse foals.

There are many ways to help relieve the suffering of nurse mares and their orphaned foals, from urging elected legislators to pass humane laws to financially supporting horse advocacy organizations or adopting a rescued foal. Learn more about how to take action at


  1. pat Cuviello1:22 PM

    Thanks Mat. This is a great article with important info that is not well-known.

  2. This is really sad .. And worse, not commonly known. I bet most people who find horse racing entertaining don't even know about these foals.

  3. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Like most AR terrorists their facts are flawed. I am sure they are overstating the number of foals blah blah blah. your groups pulled the same bullshit stuff with the premarin farms, then you got horse slaughter shut down which is now causing even more suffering and not a one of you that pushed to get it shut down are stepping up to help these horses. Find a damn plan that works first before makeing things worse and if you support something stand up and do something about it during and after dont just preach the choir and then run when the fall out hits.

    I hope several of these states that are pushing to bring slaughter plants in get them and they are up and running. Maybe then the horses wont suffer true cruelty in Mexico and Canadian slaughter plants which is much worse then the United States could ever do to them. Horses ARE livestock, NOT companion animals, I dont care how or what you argue about it, the state's and USDA list horses as livestock and that is what they are like it or not.

  4. Yeah, and like most idiots, you run your mouth before you check out the information. People like you should not even own horses. To the people that own horses, they are companion animals. It is cruel and unusual punishment what these nursemare foals have to go through, and no the numbers are not overstated. This happens everyday in the horse racing world in the quest for the almighty dollar. So maybe you need to know the facts before you open your mouth!