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.
April 23, 1979
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.
"If she stands guard over the foal when it sleeps, that's a sure sign we're O.K.," Taylor says. And if she nickers to it when both horses go into a small paddock for the final testing of the bond, the mare has completely accepted the little stranger as her own. Once she has done so, she can be counted on not to turn on it. An average adoption ritual takes 36 to 48 hours, but there are exceptions. For the Mint Lane colt, it happened quickly. He arrived the same day he had been foaled and went home with his new mother the following afternoon. On the other hand, Nicholls remembers one mare that took four weeks to claim her charge. "By that time you're about ready to give up on her," he says.
When a nurse mare does go with her adoptive foal to its home turf, the owner pays $850 for use of the mare through the five or so months of weaning, though he can get a $100 rebate by returning her in foal. "This is our biggest problem," Taylor says. "The whole process is a circle that shouldn't be broken. Our mares must be bred at the same time thoroughbreds are if we hope to have nurses available next year." In 1978 only about 50% of Springland's mares came back pregnant, and because a mare carries her foal 11 months, this season nurse mares are at a premium. Taylor's own stallions are turned out with the non-pregnant mares to get them in foal for next year. "I let nature stagger the foaling dates, and it usually works well," says Taylor.
On the rare occasions when a nurse mare is not available, Taylor checks them all and speculates as to which looks closest to foaling. "Very often we don't know the exact date, since people who've had the mare don't tell us when she was bred," he says. "I don't like to rush things, but sometimes it's necessary." He or Nicholls gives the horse a shot of oxytocin, to induce labor, and she usually delivers within the day. Taylor is reluctant to use the drug, however; not only does a mare often lose her own foal, but she may also not have a large enough milk supply.
Some breeding establishments have their own mini-nurseries on the premises, but Taylor calls this an expensive gamble. "Even if those owners do keep close track of nurse mares' foaling dates, horses always try to fool mother nature," he says. "It's difficult to coordinate needs on such a limited basis, especially if they have late-foaling nurses and an early thoroughbred. Then, too, suppose no nurse mares are required this year. Now they've still got to breed and feed tons of horseflesh till next year." Most horsemen have found it simpler and cheaper in the long run to rely on ready-made milk banks such as Taylor's.
Because he and Nicholls constitute the entire nurse-mare crew at Springland, Taylor does not have time to spend learning each horse's individual quirks; he doesn't even name them. "Oh, we know which ones are quick to take on a foal, and those that are sassy," Nicholls says. But the mares don't suffer from lack of affection. Clients, or, more often, clients' children, lavish attention on them. Last summer a strapping sorrel returned to Springland was accompanied by a letter from a customer's young daughter. "She wrote us that the horse's name was Lady, that she especially loved carrots and asked would I please scratch her ears every day," Taylor says. "Some folks start thinking of our mares as part of their own stables." Or, in certain cases, as part of their families. Gentry is so smitten with an old brown-and-white mare that he once included her in a photo for his family Christmas card.
"Most repeat clients do request specific mares," Taylor says, "but usually it's impossible. I can't reserve mares for anyone." In fact, although thoroughbred horsemen are his bread-and-butter trade, Taylor would not hesitate to lease a mare to someone with a saddle-horse foal. "My first concern is the mare: Will the person do right by her?" he says. "If so, I'm glad to let him have her." But he draws the line at allowing his horses out of Kentucky. In the past, Springland horses have gone as far as Canada and Michigan, but one disappeared in Maryland a few years ago. "We never saw a trace of her again," Taylor says. "I can't risk losing my horses like that."
Springland's business is good, though Taylor does not advertise, relying instead on word of mouth and steady, satisfied customers. He is fairly closemouthed on the profit he makes, saying only, "Whatever we make is put right back into the farm. We're just a small family operation and have to put it back to survive." He doesn't advise anyone to enter the business unless they're inordinately patient and unconcerned with making a fast buck. "Because you won't," he says.
Taylor's father started Springland's program in the early 1960s, so Taylor, now 30, has been in the nurse-mare business nearly all his adult life. Bill Taylor Sr. had always used horseman Tollie Young's nurse mares while at Claiborne Farm, and when Young wanted to sell out, Taylor Sr. bought most of his mares. He turned Springland over to his son and Nicholls when he became manager of Bluegrass Farm in 1975.
"I feel as if I've grown up in this business," says Taylor Jr. He has found, often the hard way, how to deal with .certain clients. A customer who sends a mare back to Springland in bad shape does not get a second chance.
Among Taylor's best clients are Lee Eaton, Bluegrass Farm ("It has nothing to do with my father") and Gentry, who praises him as a "scientific" nurse-mare man. Gentry uses five or six Springland horses each year, although he doesn't entirely agree with Taylor's methods. "Having a foal come to his mare invites viruses, even if Bill does disinfect constantly," says Gentry. "And the sudden change of environment can be unhealthy for a newborn. Even if you're just putting him in the back of a station wagon, it's still an adjustment. But listen, it works for Bill, and he's the expert."
Of nurse mares in general, Gentry says, "Psychologically, the knowledge that a horse has been brought up this way can have a negative effect on a buyer. He may say, 'Any horse not raised by its own mother will be weak and sickly.' But, of course, the opposite is true. Graustark was raised on a nurse mare. So was Hearts of Lettuce. And Canadian Bound, the Secretariat colt that went for $1.5 million three years ago."
Other high-priced horses have passed through nurse-mare barns, including Taylor's, but he doesn't know which ones. "I'd hate to exploit people by going back to check," he says. "Maybe they'd rather not have it known." Nicholls adds, "We treat all foals—worth $500 or $50,000—exactly the same. Yeah, we've had some Secretariats, but if no one tells us the breeding, we don't ask. In fact I'd rather not know. It makes me nervous."
Springland's mares, however, have no qualms about nursing a foal who may win the 1982 Triple Crown. When not busy nursing throughbreds, Taylor's hardy stock lives out in the fields year round, "partly because they eat so much." Indeed, they give meaning to the old expression to "eat like a horse." Their prenatal care is identical to that of thoroughbred broodmares, from worming to virus abortion vaccine.
"Clients' biggest gripe, if you can call it that, is that their foals get too fat," says Taylor. "They just don't get any exercise." He prefers big horses for nurse mares, not because they give more milk ("That's just a reasonable-sounding fallacy"), but because of their quiet temperament. The bigger a mare, the dumber she is, Taylor believes, and thus more easily led to nurse a foster colt. He and Nicholls are constantly scouting good-sized animals, which are scarce and costly today. Horse fanciers don't breed many Clydesdale-or Percheron-type animals anymore, so to fill out his "herd," Taylor uses Appaloosas and quarter horses.
Taylor and Nicholls would like to raise their own nurse mares, as some nursery owners do, but say it would be far too expensive and time-consuming. "For the type of horses we want, we'd need a big stallion—a Belgian or a Clydesdale," says Nicholls. "Used to be you could buy one for $400, maybe $600 tops. Now they're more like $2,500 and up. That's too rich for our blood." Then, too, before a mare can begin earning her keep, she must be at least four years old. "Four years is a lot of alfalfa," Taylor says. "That's why we don't keep any of the fillies from our mares, even if they look promising. It's much better if we can buy them." There are no pure Belgians or Clydesdales at Springland, though a few have the fetlock "feathers" of the latter breed. Most are what Taylor calls "second-generation draft horses," with drafters' bulgy necks and broad hindquarters, and the smaller heads and more slender legs of saddle-breds or quarter horses. Such crossbreeding doesn't result in many beauties—some are downright homely—but in their line of work, who's looking?
The rush at Springland is normally in mid-April, but summer orphans crop up, too. "A colt came in last July and we had to put him on a mare whose own foal was 30 days old," says Taylor. "There is a huge difference between a month-old colt and a brand-new one. That mare knew something was up." Taylor gives his mares foals as close in age to their own as he can. And color? Horses are color-blind, so a gray filly will look the same to her as a chestnut, but Taylor says that when pinto nurse mares drop spotted foals, it's a struggle getting them to take solid-hued babies. "Probably they can distinguish shades of gray," he says. But I won't blindfold a horse even then."
Taylor has no plans to expand his business. "We couldn't do a quality job if we grew any larger." He concedes that the nurse-mare end of the thoroughbred field is not as glamorous as training horses, nor does it offer the prospect of the hefty profits that can be made at the track, but Taylor finds satisfaction in his work. "I think we're doing something very important here," he says. "We're helping to save young horses' lives."