When foals can’t nurse from their own dams for reasons ranging from foal rejection to lack of milk production, breeders often call on nurse mares to provide them with life-sustaining milk. This scenario played out in a highly unique way recently in Prineville, Oregon.
The Ochoco National Forest is home to a small herd of wild Mustangs numbering between 130 and 155. Most of the time the herd is self-sufficient. However, right before Mother’s Day, a driver noticed a filly standing alone, seemingly lost.
“It’s a small herd, and then we have this baby on the road,” said Kate Beardsley, executive director and founder of Mustangs To The Rescue, an all-breed volunteer-run equine rescue in Bend, Oregon.
The man who spotted the filly observed her for three hours in hopes the dam would return. However, despite the foal appearing less than a day old, her mother was nowhere in sight. The man flagged down motorists, determined the foal needed help, and alerted the forest service, which contacted Beardsley.
A group of Mustangs To The Rescue volunteers arrived and split into three teams to search for the missing dam. They spotted one mare they presumed to be the dam, but she had returned to the herd. Beardsley said the mare “just was not thriving as much as the rest of the herd. I couldn’t see any sign that she had recently given birth, but all the other mares had babies with them except for her. So I believe it was her mother. But for whatever reason, they were not together.”
Beardsley knew they had to intervene to give the foal the best chance of survival. “It was evening, the baby was so dehydrated, and we decided it was critical that we get her to veterinary care,” she said. “So we didn’t want to waste more time looking for the mother.”
They brought the filly to Bend Equine Medical Center for evaluation. Aside from being dehydrated and tired, she was in good condition. “We know the foal had a mother for at least a few hours after birth and that she nursed,” said Beardsley. “Her blood levels were great, and she got colostrum (antibody-rich milk).” She received plasma and fluids and stayed at the clinic overnight, before relocating to the Mustangs To The Rescue facility.
Uniting the Foal With a Surrogate
While a local mare was available to mother the foal, the process of getting a mare to lactate takes several days.
“We utilize a combination of the hormones estradiol and domperidone to bring the mare into milk, and this takes five to 10 days,” Bend Equine Medical Center veterinarian Shannon Findley, DVM, told The Horse.
Until the filly could be united with her surrogate mother, Mustangs To The Rescue volunteers fed her every two hours and provided intravenous medication to mitigate a mild infection.
Before mare and foal are introduced, Findley said, “The mare is given a high dose of a drug called cloprostenol. This is a prostaglandin analogue that is typically used to help bring a mare into heat for breeding purposes. However, when given in a high dose it creates significant cramping, kind of like a much-tamped-down birthlike experience, as well as a hormonal willingness to mother. While the mare is experiencing the symptoms of the drug, which last approximately one hour, she is very likely to accept a new foal.”
Findley explained the process of introducing the pair and how to determine if the match is a success. “The foal is brought to her head, and the mare generally immediately starts nickering to it and licking it like she has just given birth to it,” she said. “Once the signs of bonding are clear, we bring the foal back to her udder and encourage it to nurse. We ensure the safety of the foal with an individual mare and foal handler. Once the mare has willingly let the foal nurse, the foal is briefly moved out of the mare’s sight, and if she acts upset or anxious, it is generally considered a successful graft. The pair is then watched carefully over the next several hours.”
The match went perfectly. “Honey, the mare, absolutely thinks this is her baby,” Beardsley told The Horse. She immediately nickered and allowed her to nurse, and the pair are now turned out together and acting like a typical mare and foal duo.
Grafting a foal onto a surrogate mare doesn’t always go so smoothly, Findley added. Sometimes the “foal is too anxious to accept the mothering of the mare,” she explained. “If it has been a long time since it has nursed or had a mother, it may be too fearful of the mare or refuse to nurse despite the mare accepting it.”
A Happy Outcome
A month later, the foal, now named “Quest,” is happy and thriving. Once Quest is weaned, she will return to Mustangs To The Rescue to learn basic groundwork before finding her next home. For now, she is growing up with other foals to learn valuable equine social skills.
Beardsley added they have since found more clues as to why the foal was separated from her dam. “This is where it gets interesting,” she said. “Someone took a video from afar of a stallion chasing a foal across the road and harassing it an hour and a half before the foal was found. … There is a high likelihood that the stallion harassed the baby in the video enough that the mom just stopped trying. But we don’t know.”
Beardsley is impressed and thankful for how the community has embraced the foal and said the story has taken on a life of its own. “Mustangs To The Rescue has only asked the public for funding four times in 10 years,” she said. “We did for this one, and we did raise enough to cover all the initial veterinary costs. We want to lend some support to her foster family, too.”
Additionally, Beardsley is thankful for the positive attention Quest has brought the rescue. “There are seven Ochoco horses at the rescue, and I love to promote them,” she said. “I think they are amazing, and I could go on and on about everything they can do.”