Ken Holland likes to say that he and his wife Jeannie are just “regular people.”
Maybe so, but they have actually been instrumental in making big changes to the horse industry.
Ken and Jeannie, along with son John, operate Casey Creek Horse Rescue and Adoption on 20 acres in rural Taylor County. What makes this rescue unique is that the Hollands are rescuing orphaned foals, babies who were only born so their mothers could nurse other foals.
These mothers are known as nurse mares. When they give birth, their foal is taken away, and the mare is used to nurse another’s mare’s foal, generally a more valuable, purebred horse.
There can be several reasons for this: without a foal to care for, a mare can be more quickly bred again, returned to competition, or perhaps her health precludes raising a baby.
Regardless, the result is the same: a foal with no mother.
“Nurse mares are more prevalent than you might think,” says Jeannie. “And at one time, these orphans were considered worthless.”
Indeed, in the past, these orphans might have been destroyed, for they served no other purpose than providing milk for another foal. But rescues like Casey Creek have changed that to a large extent, saving numerous foals each year.
And the Hollands remain nonjudgmental about the use of nurse mares in the horse industry.
“We’re not blaming or criticizing them,” Ken says. “We understand it’s a business, like raising cattle.”
“Our only concern,” Jeannie adds, “is to care for these foals until they’ve been adopted.”
These orphan foals may be considered misfits by some, but to the Hollands, they are every bit as precious as expensive thoroughbreds. Most of these foals are gaited, such as Tennessee walkers, saddle horses, standardbreds, and saddlebreds; others may be thoroughbred crosses.
Ken and Jeannie started the rescue soon after they married in 1999. They were looking for a horse to buy, and a friend suggested getting a young foal instead. It was during that search for a foal that they learned about nurse mares and their orphaned foals.
“We didn’t even get to have a honeymoon,” Jeannie laughs. “We just started bringing the babies home!”
As word spread of Casey Creek Horse Rescue, more training and breeding facilities began contacting the Hollands about foals that needed placing. Each spring, during the foaling season, the Hollands rescue an average of 80 foals; each one comes in only days old, and hopefully was able to nurse their mother at least a little before being removed.
Ken and Jeannie assess each foal’s health, and begin the process of teaching foals to drink milk replacement from a bucket. Drinking from a bucket, they say, is safer than bottle-feeding, where it’s too easy for a foal to aspirate milk into its lungs or air into its stomach.
Their training is also begun. They learn to wear a halter, be led around, pick their feet up, and to be mannerly while being handled. John does a lot of this socialization, and even serves as a surrogate brother, playing chase with the foals out in the fields, as they would normally do with other foals.
“I think these orphans, being raised by people, they trust you more,” he says.
Foals remain at Casey Creek for seven to 10 days, then become available for adoption. Amazingly, the Hollands have adopted out all the foals over the years. These foals have gone to homes all over the country, and have varied careers: dressage, jumping, trail riding; one horse does rescue work in the mountains of Colorado, and another was even on the Olympic equestrian team. A foal born just this year will soon go to her new home in California, where she will train as a trick horse for TV commercials.
The Hollands delight in hearing about their foals’ new careers, and urge adopters to stay in touch. Ken and Jeannie remain available for help in raising these babies, or to answer questions an adopter may have after bringing a foal home. And if an adopter is daunted at the idea of raising so young a foal, Ken and Jeannie have “foster parents” that will keep the foals and continue their training until the adopter is ready to bring the foal home.
Ken and Jeannie are staunch believers that “just because they’re orphans, that doesn’t mean they aren’t as good as others.” Through their rescue efforts, they have been able to dispel some of the common myths about orphan foals: that they are too difficult to raise, that they cannot be trained, or that they will never respect humans. All false, the Hollands say, as long as the foals are physically cared for and trained properly.
The Hollands try not to get too attached to the foals—”We generally don’t give these babies a name”—but it’s difficult, particularly when they have an extreme case, such as a foal that was born prematurely, which they brought into their house to care for. Another foal was unable to either nurse a bottle or drink out of a bucket. The solution? A goat, which the foal was able to nurse.
“That goat would automatically jump up on a hay bale when we called her,” John laughs, “and the foal was able to reach her that way.”
Raising an orphan foal is not as difficult as it may seem, the Hollands maintain. The trick is in discerning what is best for each foal.
“All foals have individual needs,” says Jeannie, “and we’ve got to figure out what those needs are. Some foals need medications, some like their milk warm, some like it cold. It keeps us busy.”
The Hollands will gladly work with anyone interested in adopting one of their foals, and a big priority is on how the foal will be socialized. If an adopter has no other horses, the Hollands urge them to adopt two foals—horses simply need the company of other horses, or even other animals.
“The biggest problem with orphans,” Jeannie says, “is if they aren’t raised with another species besides people.”
Adoption fees for these foals vary, depending on what the Hollands paid for the foals and how much was spent on their care. But if you are up to the challenge, they’re much less expensive than a trained adult horse.
Casey Creek Horse Rescue is the largest orphan foal rescue in Kentucky, and the Hollands would like to see other rescue organizations get involved.
“It would be great to work with other rescues,” Jeannie says, “to get the word out about these orphans and rescue them. We’d be glad to help and support anyone wanting to get involved.”
Despite their intentions, there is one foal here the Hollands have become attached to, and yes, even named him. The yet-to-be-adopted foal called Molely comes up and nuzzles Jeannie, asking for some attention.
“You know, Molely,” Jeannie says, cupping the foal’s head in her hands, “if you ended up staying here, that would be okay.”