Raising orphan foal worthwhile challenge


Have a plan, create options for owners to help orphans become healthy, well-adjusted adult horses

Now is the time of year when the equine practitioner gets to see the results of all of last spring's labors.

There may be no more pleasing sight than a spring field full of broodmareswith playful foals by their sides. These attentive mares watch over theiryoung and begin the slow process of teaching them the ways of the herd.There may also be no sadder sight than that of an orphaned foal withouta mare to care for it.

Many reasons

Foals can become orphaned in many ways and even the best-run farms willoccasionally experience situations leading to orphans. The most common causeis the death of the mare. Ruptured uterine arteries in older mares and uterinetears at the time of delivery with subsequent peritonitis can lead to thedeath of a broodmare shortly after foaling.

Some mares may not die but can become so ill that they cannot care fortheir foals and must be separated. Mares that colic or develop severe infectionsfollowing foaling fall into this category. While every attempt should bemade to keep mare and foal together, it is occasionally not possible.

The mare may have to undergo surgery and recovery treatment that requirestoo long a separation from the foal or the mare is taken to a facility fortherapy and the foal must be left at home.


Some foals are rejected by their dams. This behavior is more common incertain breeds (Arabians) and in certain bloodlines. Many steps can be takento reduce the chances of rejection or to encourage the mare to accept herfoal but, occasionally, all efforts fail and the foal is orphaned. Occasionallymedical conditions can cause the mare to fail to produce milk. These maresmay become irritated by the nursing attempts of their foals and they maythen reject them.

Down the road

Whatever the cause, an orphaned foal is a problem and how that foal ismanaged for the first several months of its life will play a large rolein its later development and in its eventual adjustment to life as an equineadult.

Many one or two horse clients tend to readily take on the challenge ofraising an orphan foal. These owners often have an emotional attachmentto the ill or dead mare and they are very motivated to care for its foal.Unfortunately, if these clients are not properly educated and guided asto the correct steps to take when raising that foal, many poorly adjustedand often dangerous horses result from what were only the best of intentions.

Foal age

The age at which the foal is orphaned will be the first factor in determiningits management.

Newborn horses and foals up to 3 months of age must have foster care.This can be done either by hand rearing or through the use of a nurse mare.Nurse mares are mares that have lost foals or that are willing to readilyaccept other foals. The difficult aspect of using a nurse mare is findingone that is available exactly when you need one for your foal.

There are commercial nurse mare farms operating in certain areas of thecountry and every effort should be made to find a suitable surrogate damif at all possible from a logistical and economic standpoint.

The nurse mare provides the optimal situation for the foal in that itremains on its normal diet of mare's milk and becomes socialized in thenormal way. Sometimes such mares are not available, however, or the $900to $1,500 price for a six-month lease may be cost prohibitive. In such casesthe only alternative is to hand rear the foal.


Hand-rearing can be a rewarding undertaking and it certainly is a time-consumingone. Newborn foals should be given colostrum, preferably from their owndams.

It can be difficult to remember to milk out the mare in difficult birthsor post-foaling emergency situations, but this colostrum is crucial to thefoal. Clients with more than one broodmare should be encouraged to set upa colostrum bank. This can be done simply by milking out a little colostrumfrom the mare during the first 12-18 hours of the foal's life. The mareshould be milked after the foal has fed well and gone to sleep. Small amountsof such milk can then be pooled and frozen in plastic bottles or plasticfreezer bags.

If a mare were to die during birth or if a broodmare were to fail toproduce milk, then this frozen colostrum could be thawed and given to thefoal.

Properly frozen colostrum may be usable for more than two years. If thereis no natural or frozen colostrum for the foal then a commercially availableoral or intravenous product should be used.

An IgG test should always be done to ensure that the foal has receivedthe necessary level of immune protection.

First, biggest concern

Feeding the orphaned foal is usually the first and the biggest concern.

Normal foals commonly nurse up to eight times per hour during the firstmonth of life. They may consume only 50 ml per nursing, but they are constantlyat it.

Orphaned foals can be successfully raised by feeding every two hoursfor the first few days. Smaller amounts of milk, taken in more frequentlyreduce the chances of neonatal colic and diarrhea. Hand-reared foals tendto have a higher percentage of problems with these conditions.

Clients have a tendency to overfeed orphan foals since these youngstersare eating less frequently, and the thinking often is that if the foal eatsa bit more at one feeding then the weary owner can sleep an hour more andstretch the time until the next feeding. Such practices are detrimentalto the foal and small frequent feedings are optimal.

Bottles, pans

Foals can be taught to drink from a bottle or a pan.

If the foal is orphaned late at night, there may not be any way to obtainmilk replacer until the next morning. Foals that do not begin nursing soonafter birth become weakened and can experience significant problems.

Goat's milk and cow's milk can be used in an emergency. Goat's milk tendsto be more palatable to horses and it does not cause as many intestinalupsets in neonates, but can be difficult to find.

Commercial equine milk replacer products are the best. The newer milkreplacers can be mixed up and used over a 24-hour period, which makes themeasier to use.

Many milk replacers come in pellets as well, and orphans should be encouragedto nibble on them when interested.

Some foals will show a willingness to consume hay and grain at 4 weeksof age. This early solid food consumption can make dealing with an orphanmuch easier.

Social rearing more difficult

While there are many products available to help with the feeding of orphanfoals and plenty of nutritional information that can be of use, there isreally little information available to help with the social rearing of thesefoals.

The unfortunate tendency for owners is to respond to these sympatheticfoals with a lot of attention.

Foals are fun to play with and easy to spoil. Orphan foals raised byhumans with lots of contact and attention tend to become oriented to humans,however. These foals begin to prefer the company of humans and are anxious,afraid and unwilling to interact with other weanlings when they are laterintroduced to horses.

Jerry Modlin, head trainer at Jabar Arabians in Georgia, cautions thattoo much love and attention can backfire.

"Don't make a pet out of orphan foals and let them learn to be ahorse," says this trainer who has raised a number of orphans.

Modlin points out that very young foals are extremely adaptable.

"As far as the foal knows," he says, "this (being bornand not having a mother) is the way it works."

While a nurse mare is optimal, if one is not available Modlin startsthe foal out drinking from a bucket as quickly as possible.

"We go into the stall, hang the milk bucket and walk out,"he explains.

While the foals are halter broke and handled every day it is the normalhandling and attention that all foals receive.

"We groom them and rub them, handle feet and such but we do notdo anything special to the orphans," says Modlin, "and we don'tget into their world."

With their own

These foals are then weaned with age-matched normal foals and turnedout together.

It is in these groups that the orphan foals learn most of their socialbehavior. Because orphans are usually eating solid food at an early age,it may be possible to wean these foals somewhat earlier than normal. Insituations where a group of weanlings is not available, a quiet, acceptinggelding may be used as a "teacher" for the orphan foal.

The foal must be past the nursing stage before being introduced to thegelding, however, because nursing attempts are not well tolerated by theseolder horses and poor socialization will result in such situations.

It is generally felt that social contact between young horses and otherherd members is most necessary around 3 to 4 months of age. Most orphanfoals can be easily introduced to a quiet gelding or other weanlings duringthis timeframe.

Orphans raised in such a way are generally indistinguishable from non-orphanedhorses as adults. Modlin goes on to say that properly raised orphans can,and do, become good breeding stallions and good broodmares that show normalsocial behavior and maternal instincts as adults.


There is one other factor that practitioners may want to consider whenadvising clients on the rearing of an orphan.

It was long thought the practice of coprophagy (eating feces) by foalswas designed to introduce the correct bacterial flora into the gut as thefoal prepared to consume less milk and began eating more solid food.

While this may be a small factor, recent research has pointed out someother reasons for this behavior in foals.

Coprophagy is commonly observed in foals from weeks 1 to 24. This behavioris rare in adults. Most foals will exclusively consume the feces of theirmother. Drs. Hornicke and Bjornhag, writing in a paper in 1979, suggestedthat this indicated a pheromone preference. Research in rats confirmed thispheromone attraction between young rats and the feces of their lactatingmothers.

But the really interesting point is that this same research and othersimilar projects showed that this maternal feces contained high levels ofdeoyxcholic acid. Young rats are deficient in this acid which helps withintestinal immunocompetence. Deoxycholic acid is believed to protect againstinfantile enteritis.

This research also showed a second possible function for deoxycholicacid. Long chain fatty acids must be emulsified by bile acids before theycan be absorbed. These absorbed acids are needed for the production of myelinthroughout the nervous system.

Young rats denied access to maternal feces failed to produce normal levelsof myelin in their nervous systems and demonstrated deficits in a varietyof neurobehavioral development tests. These findings suggest that the consumptionof its mother's feces may be necessary for the neurological developmentof some young animals.

It has long been thought that orphan foals were often difficult to trainbecause of their lack of normal socialization and their lack of a mare duringearly development. The studies concerning deoxycholic acid and the lackof it in orphans may explain this training difficulty in a more scientificmanner as a lack of proper myelination and neurologic dysfunction.

At the very least, these studies suggest that orphan foals be allowedaccess to the manure from a lactating mare during the first few weeks oflife.

Worthwhile challenge

Taking on the rearing of an orphan foal is certainly a challenge butit need not be as difficult as it is often made out to be.

Having milk replacer available before it is needed is a plus and rememberingto let the foal be a horse rather than a pet are probably the two most importantpoints.

Access to mare's feces, proper nutrition and socialization round outthe important areas of concern with orphans. Attention to these points shouldresult in a healthy, normally socialized and correctly developed foal andshould keep one tragedy (the death or illness of a mare) from causing another.

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