Crystal Kusak always knew she wanted a foal from her mare, Daphne.
“Daphne was so special. The best personality, so pleasant and loving and calm,” Kusak said. “She did lessons with people who were nervous about riding. She was just one of those horses that’s a pleasure to be around 24/7, and I had to breed her.”
The off-the-track Thoroughbred had arrived to Kusak nervous and distrustful after her time at the racetrack. Kusak hoped that with a little love, the mare might turn into a nice eventer.
Her patience paid off, and Daphne (Whywhywhy—Forest Bay) became a reliable partner with training. She evented through the novice level and did the .80-meter jumpers with Kusak under the name RTB Mystery Machine. (Remember Daphne from Scooby Doo?)
Last year, Kusak chose the California-based Hanoverian stallion Wild Dance (Wolkenstein II—Milva, Matcho X) for Daphne, then 11 years old. Getting Daphne pregnant was easy.
But in the middle of her pregnancy, she began to colic every so often, despite no previous history of colicking. Up until then, Daphne had been a generally healthy horse. As her pregnancy progressed, the colicking got worse.
She gave birth June 10 to a healthy colt that Kusak named Fonzi. But shortly after, Daphne colicked again, worse than before. She rushed the mare to Ohio State University, but on June 26, Daphne had to be euthanized. Kusak was devastated.
“When she passed away, I had to run all over Ohio looking for milk replacement,” she said. “I was able to find some milk replacer pellets, and I basically bought whatever they would sell me.
“I had let a couple people know that she passed. I put it on Facebook, and everybody just took it upon themselves to try and help me find a nursemare,” Kusak recalled through tears. “And while I was driving, everybody was searching. I had so many people calling me to offer their horses.”
One friend called Kusak to tell her about a 20-year-old mare named Violet a couple hours away, in Findley, Ohio. Although she was mothering a foster foal, the foal was due to be weaned. She’d fostered a couple other foals too, and might be able to help Fonzi.
“I already knew who Violet was, and something told me to just try and see if I could get her, because I just knew that I could trust her completely,” Kusak said.
Kusak’s friend put her in touch with Violet’s owner, Sarah Zistler, and her current foster foal’s owner. The foal could be weaned immediately, and Zistler was supportive of Violet heading to Kusak’s barn next. Kusak hitched up her trailer the next day, June 27, and hit the road for the two-hour drive to pick up Violet.
Violet and her foster foal were easily weaned, and the mare loaded onto Kusak’s trailer without issue. Upon arrival to Kusak’s farm in Springfield, Ohio, a friend was on hand to help with the mare-foal introduction, just in case.
“As soon as she walked into the barn, Fonzi put his head up and whinnied,” Kusak recalled. “And she put her head up, talked to him, and then marched herself right in there and just took over.
“He nursed almost immediately,” she continued. “I mean, they are like two peas in a pod. And the thing that’s really helped me out is that Violet looks identical to Daphne. I’ll be walking into the barn, and she’ll have her head out, and I’ll forget that it’s not Daphne because they look so much alike.”
She said Violet is producing a lot of milk. “I think Fonzi’s actually getting kind of fat—he’s getting a little belly,” she said, laughing.
“Her owner [Zistler] is just so freakin’ amazing. I don’t know anyone else in the world who’s just like, ‘Just go pick her up and take care of her. Do whatever you need to do, whatever is best for your foal.’ That’s how selfless Sarah is,” she said.
Zistler, 47 and based in Lebanon, Ohio, purchased the Dutch mare around 10 years ago while shopping for a new hunter-jumper in Ocala, Florida. Violet, then showing as Violet Rain, had competed in both eventing and hunter-jumpers, and so had Zistler.
“When she came out, I got the chills right away,” Zistler said. “I knew that she was exactly the horse I wanted—she was for me. She was the most phenomenal cross-country horse I’d ever sat on. I’d looked at probably 50 horses by that point. And as soon as they brought her out, I just was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the one. That’s the one I’m looking for.’ And I just sat on her, and it gave me chills.”
Zistler said she’s always liked mares. “Bay mares are my jam.”
And long before she became a mother herself, Violet showed an interest in foals.
“Whenever we would ride or hack around, and there was a field with babies, she would always just stop and stare and take them in,” Zistler said. “I could always tell she wanted to be a mom.”
After competing on and off for a few years, Zistler decided to breed Violet to the Thoroughbred stallion Flagship (El Prado—Swift And Classy, Clever Trick). But after weaning her filly Lola four years ago, Violet kept producing milk.
“She just never stopped making milk for whatever reason,” Zistler said. “We didn’t really notice at first, but she’d gotten a little bit bigger that summer. All of a sudden we noticed her teats were completely full of milk. We really thought the stallion [at the barn] had gotten with her somehow. We had an ultrasound done, but there was no baby. She just for whatever reason never stopped producing milk.”
Violet’s second foray into motherhood, with her first foster foal, started after one of Zistler’s friends who works with rescued horses got a big surprise: an unexpected, premature foal was born to a recently rescued Thoroughbred mare, only to be rejected by the mare.
“One morning, they went to call the horses in, and [the mare] didn’t come up the hill. She didn’t come in,” Zistler recalled. “They finally went down and found the baby in a creek, basically hypothermic. And the mare ended up rejecting the baby.”
The mare’s owners scrambled to find a solution. Zistler’s friend gave her a call, remembering that Violet had continued to produce milk.
“We were like, ‘Well, she’s still making milk. Let’s just see what happens over there,’ ” Zistler said. She brought Violet over and used a saddle pad to rub the mare’s scent all over the foal.
“She didn’t take to her, like, right away, but it didn’t take long at all,” she said. Within half an hour, Violet was a committed mother.
“So she successfully nursed and raised that baby, and then a year later she was still making milk,” said Zistler.
Violet’s second foster foal was an orphaned colt. She bonded with the foal immediately, catching on to her newfound role as a foster mother.
So it wasn’t a surprise to Zistler that Violet took to Fonzi quickly. The two are enjoying a mix of turnout and stall time, depending on the Ohio weather. Kusak’s business, an equine laundry service, is conveniently next door, so she’s able to keep a close eye on the pair.
“I’d love it if Fonzi eventually became my upper-level horse,” Kusak said. “But I’ll do whatever he wants to do. I will never get rid of him, never in a million years.”
As for Violet, Zistler hopes to give the mare a little break from parenting after Fonzi is weaned.
“But if someone else needed [her], I’m happy to help,” she said. “It’s such a horrible thing for them to go through. So if she can provide any comfort or sense of relief, especially since it’s so stressful for a baby to lose its mom, too—it does make me happy to help.”