Mares and foals: adding value to the local landscape

It’s difficult to drive past a field with a mare and foal in it and not slow down to take a look. It’s eye-candy for the horseperson’s soul.  In Wellington County, established breeding stables have an interest and stake in the long game. A successful breeding and foaling operation requires financial investment, years of commitment and hard work, as well as breed and industry knowledge.  Horse breeding barns in this area include thoroughbred, standardbred, Trakehner, Percheron and Belgian heavy horses, Welsh ponies and miniature horses. Mares and foals add real value to our rural landscape and contribute to the local economy.

The average gestation of a mare, the period of time between breeding and foaling, is 340 days or about 11 months. There are three basic parts to the foal birthing process and an experienced breeder will understand the different stages and know when to get help if needed.  It has been said that the best way to help a mare give birth, is to let nature run its course; that animals instinctively know what to do.  The different stages are:  1) Contractions/Labour; which normally last one to four hours. 2)  Birthing and delivery, which happens quickly between 15-20 minutes.   3)  Passage of the placenta or afterbirth.  This last stage may take from one to three hours and the vet will need to examine the expelled placenta.  Unless a problem is anticipated, the vet is called in postpartum to examine the mare and foal. Once it is established that the foal is nursing successfully, the new baby is good to go.

If a mare rejects her newborn, falls ill or dies while giving birth, a nurse mare is the best way to provide the nutrition necessary for the young foal.  A nurse mare is a mother horse whose foal is old enough to be weaned, or whose own foal has died, and they have available milk. Once a successful match is established, the nurse mare will care for the orphaned foal until it is weaned, between four and seven months. Locating a nurse mare that is available immediately and within a reasonable driving distance is key. The University of Guelph OVC Large Animal Hospital keeps a registry of breeders offering nurse mares and there are Facebook groups which connect horse owners directly.

John Jonker, Farm Manager for Galten Farms in Erin, has been working with Trakehner broodmares, foals and raising yearlings for over 33 years.  Jonker shares this story:  “We have had to use a nurse mare at this location twice during my time here because we lost the mare at foaling, or very shortly after.  When it happens, the goal is to find a nurse mare in a very short period of time. Carson’s in Listowel had made a business of providing nurse mares. They wean their foals and send the mare out to whoever needs her. It can sometimes be a huge challenge, and sometimes it can happen very easily.  With the first mare, we had to keep the mare in the stall with the foal, but with limited ability to move around to attack the foal. It took a week of full-time monitoring before I felt comfortable enough to turn them out in a small paddock briefly together while I went to church on Sunday morning. When we drove in the driveway after church, the foal was nursing with the mare grazing at the same time, totally relaxed. From that point, there was no further concern, and the mare successfully raised that foal to weaning. The second case went much more smoothly, and the mare accepted the foal almost immediately, with no further issues. It’s never nice to benefit from someone else’s misfortune, but everybody feels a bit better when it has a good ending.”

Galten Farm Manager, John Jonker with two yearlings.
Photo by Bridget Ryan

The herd of 30-35 brood mares, filles and colts at Galten Farms under Jonker’s management have the run of fifty acres of luscious green fields.  About the foaling process, Jonker says: “The mares prefer not to be disturbed, they know what to do”.  When asked about natural predators threatening young horses, Jonker said: “Well, I used to be worried about the coyotes attacking the babies, then one day, I saw a group of coyotes running across our field with several angry mares chasing them. I didn’t worry after that.”

The Galten Farm horses have attracted the attention of Jessica Phoenix, Canadian Equestrian Olympian, Pan Am and World Cup medal winner.  Phoenix has a strong partnership with Galten Farms and their owner Charlotte Schickendanz and works with them to develop and ride many of their sale and competition horses, including the prized stallion Humble GS.  Jessica Phoenix has qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics;  the final selection of horse and riders are yet to be announced.

Galten Farms was started by Gerhard Schickendanz who immigrated to Canada in the 1950’s and developed a strong Canadian Trakehner bloodline, which has included the champion horse Abdullah (World Cup 1985, US Team Gold and Individual Silver 1984). These warmblood sport horses originated in the town of Trakehner, Lithuania (originally Prussia).

Gail Wood of Woodlands Thoroughbred Farm in Hillsbugh is an owner, breeder and trainer. Wood has been following her passion and goal to produce outstanding ‘made in Canada’ horses for over four decades. Wood works with all aspects of breeding, foaling and training, getting them ready for sale or for the racetrack.  Gail is well-respected in the industry with many awards and accolades to her credit, a recognition of her leadership and commitment to her breeding high-quality Canadian stock. In 2006, Wood achieved the ultimate trophy winning the 2006 Queen’s Plate with Thoroughbred champion, Edenwold (bred and co-owned with Bill Diament).  When asked about the future of breeding thoroughbred horses, Wood replied: “It’s a passion, like being a farmer, where you are doing what you want to do.  There are breeders who are going to continue whether they make money at it or not.  One of the things that the pandemic has shown us, is that horse breeders are a resilient group; committed to their passion and will find a way to carry on”.

Typically, a mare will give birth to a foal which is about 10 percent of the mother’s weight.  When Robert and Jennifer Black welcome a new baby at Ryan Day Farm in Hillsburgh, it is a 150 lb. baby.  A Percheron foal will grow quickly and soon will be running out in the field.  Similar to most breeders, the Black family will handle and interact with their new foals from the very beginning, imprinting and establishing a relationship based on mutual trust.  Occasionally Ryan Day will have a suitable nurse mare available to offer out, and this can be another source of income for a breeder.  Woodlands Farm owner, Gail Wood says: “We have used Ryan Day mares and they have been excellent; they make really good mothers.”

The Black family has been breeding Percherons for four generations.   Robert Black says:  “We have foaled over 100 foals over the past 30 years and are quite pleased with the Percheron bloodline we have developed.  Our stallion Lance, was the 2019 Royal Winter Fair senior champion stallion, and is a wonderful horse.  We generally sell our horses as yearlings but it varies as they get older.   Our buyers are mostly across Canada and the United States, however we’ve also sold some to England, France and Cuba.”

Breeding and foaling is an important contributor to our local equine sector as well as our local economy.  Horses raised in Erin are involved in racing, sport competition, showing, therapy, transportation and recreation.  Growing horses is a long-term investment that pays back in economic contribution while adding beauty to our rural lifestyle.

Bridget Ryan