‘I’m the Phone Call That No One Wants to Make’: In Emotional Chaos, Nurse Mares Bring Peace

by Sally Spickard /

Published on

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ronwyn Watts sat on the porch of her temporary rental in Chile. It was a long, winding road that had brought her all the way down to South America. As she sat in reflection, she thought of the tumultuous past few months that had sent her out on a traveling hiatus, in search of whatever it was she was supposed to do next.

Bronwyn, 34, spent the past few years dedicated to the profession of grooming. Heavily involved in the eventing world, Bronwyn groomed at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event seven times. Working for upper-level riders such as Laine Ashker and Jonathan Holling, Bronwyn had found success in the behind-the-scenes work, the endless travel, the peace of providing for her charges.

But last summer, Bronwyn found herself in the throes of change. She finally found the courage to leave an abusive relationship in which she had spent the past three years. She felt a mix of emotions: relief, shame, happiness, and more than a bit of bewilderment. Life was supposed to be better now — but what next?

She found herself selling her belongings and booking a one-way ticket to Belize, embarking on eight months of travel throughout Central and South America.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Bronwyn recalls. “I just had this feeling that it would come to me in my travels. A few people gave me a hard time about it, saying I was irresponsible for leaving everything behind. But I always knew I would have the horses to come back to, and I just wasn’t worried. I needed to figure things out.”

It was during this whirlwind of traveling when Bronwyn found herself in Chile, scrolling idly through her phone. She came across an article published earlier that year on the topic of nurse mares. The article featured the founder of Nurse Mares of the Northeast, Laura Phoenix. Through a program that provide nurse mares for orphaned or rejected foals, it was Laura’s mission to offer a (reluctantly needed) service — and an ethical one, at that.

The need for a nurse mare can arise from several factors, including the death of the mother or rejection by the mother. Once this happens, the foal becomes an orphan who needs valuable nutrients from a mare’s milk, not to mention the love and guidance a mother provides. However, just as humans cannot lactate on command, the mares must also be lactating in order to serve as nurse mares. As a result, the reality of the nurse mare industry can be grim.

There are some operations who separate newborn foals from their mothers in order to put the mares to work as surrogate mothers while they are still lactating. As an alternative to this highly controversial practice, newer methods of using carefully scheduled hormones to produce lactation were introduced, which meant that mares didn't have to have foaled to be a nurse mare, and even barren mares can be used. Through the hormone induction method, a new way of solving a painful problem emerged, but despite these newly established methods, the practice of nurse mare operations producing throwaway foals still exists. Laura Phoenix wanted to change that.

Bronwyn couldn’t stop reading. She finished the article and immediately searched for more articles on the topic. She felt something stirring inside — she needed to get involved. “It was almost instant,” she says. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

It was this determination that brought ColdSpring Nurse Mares to fruition. Bronwyn saw an opportunity to provide a service for foals up and down the East Coast of the United States, and so she set about formulating a way to get her business off the ground.

“Laura Phoenix really inspired me to start my business,” Bronwyn says. “She has been a huge help and inspiration to me since I was so new to the concept.”

Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

As ColdSpring Nurse Mares grew, Bronwyn wanted to have the resources available to assist those who needed a solution, and fast. The business took off quicker than originally anticipated, initially through word of mouth. Soon, she had acquired several mares and was making weekly trips to transport mares to foals in need. Now, she has a herd of 23 mares and a 100% acceptance match rate between mare and foal.

The nurse mare field is a busy one. The search for a nurse mare, which is needed quickly in order for the foal to survive, is often a desperate one fraught with emotion. It’s also an expensive and emotionally taxing process. Bronwyn explains that much of her business comes from Thoroughbred breeding operations. “We lease the mare to the farm for up to six months, up until the foal is weaned,” she says. “We also will deliver the mare and supervise the entire bonding process between mare and foal.”

The bonding process can be the most difficult step, sometimes taking several days. Bronwyn prides herself on the gentle and natural techniques of introduction that ColdSpring offers. “We’re almost always packing up after two hours, mare and foal happy together.”

The difference? Nurse mares created through hormone induction versus a breeding are often more receptive to a foal. Oftentimes, Bronwyn sees mares who have rejected orphan foals not long after having their own biological foal taken away, so they have not yet processed their own emotions of the situation and may not have the capacity to accept another foal right away. The hormone induction method, however, encourages a mare’s body to react with more maternal instinct.

"I like to think of us as the calm that comes after a big storm."

The important thing to remember when it comes to this method, Bronwyn explains, is that there is no cookie cutter formula, no magic potion for making a mare produce milk and take on a new foal. “We understand that every mare is different and every mare has different requirements, so a lot of our success is dependent on knowing everything about them.”

Bronwyn is highly selective of the mares she accepts into the nurse mare program — she’s had some people try to defraud her into taking an unsuitable mare in an effort to unload an unwanted horse.

“I have a long list of questions that I ask about each mare,” she says. “I won’t take a horse that I haven’t physically had my hands on and seen in person. I want to see proof that she’s had a foal before, look at her udder, and just get a feel for her overall temperament and personality.”

It’s this special care taken in the selection process that results in much of Bronwyn’s matchmaking success.

Have you ever heard of triplet mares? Meet this trio.

But Bronwyn hasn't chosen the easiest career. It’s an emotional gig, she admits. A lot of it, she says, comes down to pure horsemanship — something she has years of experience in.

“A lot of people try to take shortcuts with their mares or rush the process,” she says. “It’s a hard environment to be in. When you arrive, the foal is panicked and screaming for its mother, and a lot of times there has just been the trauma of the mother passing away or being taken away.”

The introduction process is all about patience and the ability to read body language. “It’s really special to watch the foals soften from being absolutely terrified, to being curious, to finally linking up to the mare,” she explains. “These moments are really heart-wrenching, but they’re also quite special.”

Despite the emotional gravity of her newfound profession, she feels she has finally found the path she was meant to take.

Photo courtesy of ColdSpring Nurse Mares.

When not paired with foals, Bronwyn’s mares live at her farm in Virginia. They get time off between each foal, but they’re handled daily, groomed, loved, and are happy. Bronwyn isn’t rolling in stacks of cash, but she’s found a sense of fulfillment that was missing last year in the wake of her relationship’s demise.

“This isn’t a business where you’re going to make a ton of money,” she says. “You have to have the passion and understand the impact of what you’re doing. That’s my main purpose. We’re helping the orphaned foals, and we’re also helping the barren mares who are perfectly healthy but who need jobs. We aren’t producing throwaway foals like some operations do, and we’re offering a service to the industry.

“I like to think of us as the calm that comes after a big storm,” she continues. “I’m the phone call that no one wants to make. These people and these foals have had such a bad day, usually, and so I like to come in and help make the ending of it a little more positive.”

With the help of horses, this rider was able to endure five years of IVF treatments.

That light at the end of the tunnel is perhaps something that can be paralleled in Bronwyn’s own life. An animal lover and caregiver, as well as a professional nanny for over a decade, Bronwyn calls herself naturally nurturing and giving. After everything she’d been through in the past few years with her career and her past relationship, Bronwyn felt that she was in that tunnel full of light, ready to take care of the next animal that needed her.

As I was working on this article, I reached out to Bronwyn to ensure that it was okay for me to mention the fact that she had been in an abusive relationship. She called me from the road, always going somewhere, always helping someone.

“I went through a period of shame and embarrassment right afterward,” she told me. “And I’ve come to the point now where I feel that if one other woman reads this article and feels that loss and that lack of clarity on what you’re supposed to do next and understands that there is a way to find it — I think that’s enough for me.”

Read this next: My Mare Had a Career-Ending Injury. How Do I Know If Breeding Her Is the Right Choice?

Feature photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

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Written by Sally Spickard

Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.