Last year when birthing complications took the life of her mare, Nora Garza Uribe urgently needed a nurse mare for her newborn filly. So she turned to Facebook.
“It’s a scary thing when you find yourself with a helpless baby,” she said. “I bottle fed the foal every four hours, and someone was with her 24/7, but it wasn’t the same—she needed a mare.”
Now a year later, the filly, Xena, is thriving.
“You have no idea how social media saved my baby,” Garza Uribe said.
She’s not alone. Every year—mostly in springtime—thousands of horse owners across the United States and Canada whose mares have lost foals or whose foals have been orphaned turn to Facebook to connect with one another. So far, two Facebook pages claiming 11,000 followers combined have helped save 400 foals, said Jackie Weatherman, who created the Nurse Mares & Foals and the Nurse Mares-Foals pages on Facebook.
“Facebook works because you can reach 7,000 people in a matter of seconds, and the horse community really steps up,” Weatherman said. “People help people—nobody charges anything.”
Making the connections is vital because, while orphan foals can eat by other means, reproductive specialist Benjamin Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, believes they benefit most from connecting with nurse mares.
Said Espy, nonlactating mares can be induced to lactate via drug administration, which takes about a week.
“But in the meantime, a foal needs to eat every four hours,” Espy said.
Owners might also use milk replacers to bottle or bucket feed foals. While the foals will grow, they miss out on the mare-to-foal contact they require to thrive, he said.
“It’s not just putting the foal onto the mare, it’s the hormones in the naturally lactating nurse mare that help the foal thrive,” Espy said. “In effect, the nurse mares are raising a child, so it’s 100% better if (the foals) nurse.”
Garza Uribe learned this after she connected with Karen L. Wegman-Pritchard, whose mare Luna had lost a foal shortly after it was born. Within hours, Garza Uribe and Xena made the seven-hour trip from Southern California to Wegman-Pritchard’s farm in Reno, Nevada, but Xena and Luna didn’t connect at first.
“We had to hold Luna to allow Xena to nurse, but after three days, we didn’t see how it was gong to work,” she said.
Eager to try again, Wegman-Pritchard allowed Garza Uribe to take Luna home with her.
“I don’t know if it was a different environment or what, but Luna and Xena bonded,” Garza Uribe said. “Xena was her baby, and nobody was going to take her away from her.”
Said Espy, social media can make the difference in making good matches between nurse mares and orphan foals. But he advises that the best matches are made locally, or at least within a tight geographic radius.
“The foal needs to eat every four hours, so if you’re in Texas and the nurse mare will arrive next Tuesday, it’s not going to work,” he said. “That’s why finding potential matches works best if you live in an area where there are a lot of horses such as Ocala (Florida) or Lexington (Kentucky)—it’s not as easy in a place such as San Antonio,” where Espy practices.
Ultimately, Weatherman believes the nature of the equine community makes the matches possible in the first place.
“It really does take a village,” she said. “And the horse community really steps up, especially in an emergency.”