After an intense labor and delivery, on top of a long 11-month gestation, a newborn foal will shortly stand up and start nursing their mare. Unfortunately, there are instances when this seemingly natural event does not occur. In a worst-case situation, the mare may have died during or shortly after birth. Most of the time when this occurs, it is due to dystocia (difficult birth) or colic related to the birthing process. Rarely, a mare succumbs to a random accident or trauma during delivery.
Other reasons you may have an orphaned foal is because the mare rejects the foal, or the mare does not produce enough milk to sustain them. Mares may reject their foal if they are a maiden mare, particularly if it was a difficult labor, and delivery where there is associated pain connected to the foal.
Mares can be genetically poor milk producers or have a problem with their mammary glands and not produce enough milk. Age and concurrent illness can also affect milk production. Though this can be a difficult situation, it is one you and your veterinarian can work through together.
Circumstances that require a horse foster mom include:
Mare rejects foal
Poor milk production
Death of mare
If you find yourself suddenly with a newborn orphaned foal, the most important thing is to make sure the foal receives colostrum (first milk). This is essential for the passing of antibodies to the foal for immune protection. If the mare is present (deceased or alive), you can milk the mare and your veterinarian can feed the foal the colostrum through a nasogastric tube. If you cannot obtain colostrum from the mare, there is commercial colostrum available; or your veterinarian may need to give your foal plasma that is high in antibodies through an intravenous catheter.
Once the immune protection for the foal has been covered, it is necessary to make a long-term nutritional plan. Foals nurse up to 17 times per hour during the first week of life. In the following weeks, nursing frequency decreases to three times per hour.
One option is to manually feed the foal. Goat milk is the next best milk if mare milk is not available. In some instances, a foal can learn to nurse from a goat that is elevated on hay bales. Occasionally, goat milk can cause constipation.
There are recipes that use cow milk as a milk replacer, but whole cow milk should not be used because it is too high in fat and too low in sugar content which causes loose stool. Additionally, there are commercial mare milk replacers that are reformed with water.
Feeding Schedule for Newborn Foals
A suckling foal can consume 30 pounds of milk a day. That means a 100-pound foal drinks 50 cups of milk replacer a day. The foal should be fed every one to two hours for the first week, then every four to six hours after the second week.
The more frequently the foal is fed, the more optimal the growth rate will be. Twice daily bulk feeding is discouraged as it will cause diarrhea. The good news is that the foal can learn to drink from a bucket to make things easier and the foal will begin to consume solid feed within a few weeks. They should also have access to grass and hay.
If the above is not feasible, a second option to feed a foal is to find a foster mare.
An ideal foster mare is an experienced mare who recently lost her own foal. Keep in mind, it is necessary to give the mare time to grieve her own foal. The mare should be left in the stall with her own (deceased) foal until she is calm and quiet, then that foal can be removed, and the orphan foal introduced. If a mare that hasn’t just foaled is not available, another mare may accept the foal and your veterinarian can give it medication to help it start lactating. However, this method can take several days.
A foster mare should have a calm temperament, have experience at raising foals, and be well-trained and handled. Additionally, she must be able to produce a good volume of milk to nourish the foster foal.
The foster mare must be disease-free and preferably vaccinated against tetanus, equine influenza, equine herpesvirus, and rabies. Depending on geographical location, it would be ideal if she was vaccinated against Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile Virus as well.
If a nursing mare cannot be found to raise your foal, a “babysitter” gelding is an option to provide social education and companionship for the foal. A goat or pony can also make a good companion. This will also make the foal’s life less stressful to have a buddy around.
Mare and Foal Introduction
To ensure a successful relationship between foster mare and orphaned foal, it’s important to establish the relationship when the foal is less than three weeks old. The most important thing to consider when establishing this relationship is safety. It is likely that the foster mare will try to bite or kick the foal at first. Sometimes your veterinarian will mildly sedate the mare in order to decrease the chances she’ll reject or try to harm the foal. Another tactic to help the mare accept the foal is to disguise the smell of the foal by rubbing the foster mare’s manure placenta (if she recently foaled) on the foal or ruba strong-smelling ointment like Vick’s Vapo Rub in the mare’s nostrils to overpower the scent of the orphan foal. Ensuring the foal is very hungry is helpful. If the foal is timid and scared it may not nurse, but if it is hungry, it will likely head straight to the teat.
The appropriate setting for introductions is very important. There needs to be a barrier in between the mare and foal at first. If you have stocks, you can initially put the mare in them and let the foal come up to her. If stocks are not available, a closed stall can be used. Direct the mare’s hind end into the corner and have a handler restrain her. A twitch may be necessary. A slotted gate may also act as a good barrier between the mare and foal.
If the mare accepts the foal, she will whinny to it, may try to look at or groom it, and most importantly allow it to nurse. The foal may need to run around the stall or lie down; this is acceptable and may help the mare get used to the foal’s presence. Even when fostering is successful, it may take hours or days for the mare to fully accept the foal. The foal should not be left alone with the mare until you are confident she has accepted it.
If the mare shows aggression towards the foal, separate them and try again in a few hours. Not all mares are good candidates to be nurse mares and if the mare continues to show aggression it is best to look for another nurse mare.
Bedford, Holly. Feeding orphaned foals (umn.edu). University of Minnesota Extension. 2021
Judd, Bob. Adopting an Orphan Foal. Courtesy of Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network. 2009.
Anderson, Kathleen. Feeding and Care of Orphaned Foals. University of Nebraska – Lincoln extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. 2008.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Callipso
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