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The Orphaned Foal:
Proper Care and Nutrition for a Newborn Horse Without a Mare's Milk

A foal may become an orphan in many ways, and not all of them are permanent. The death of its mother, rejection, or lack of milk production is common reasons a foal might not be able to be nursed by its dam.
Temporary situations, such as the dam’s illness or being shipped away for breeding without the foal, can also result in a briefly orphaned foal.

The age of the foal when it is orphaned is the key in determining how it should be cared for. A newborn foal or one under three months of age will need foster care. This can be provided by hand-rearing by the owner, which requires a great deal of time and energy, or by using a nurse mare.

 All foals orphaned or not, need their immunoglobulin status checked within twelve to fourteen hours after birth. You can use a commercial kit for this, as they are reliable. An antibody concentration of 400-800 mg/dl or higher shows that passive immunity transfer has occurred.

Four to twelve hours from birth, foals usually nurse colostrum from their dam. They can also be bottle-fed a colostrum replacement or, if the foal is too weak to nurse from a bottle, can have it administered by the veterinarian via nasogastric tube. Another option is to contact a colostrum bank. The colostrum is good for at least a year if it remains frozen, and these banks store it for orphaned foals. If it is doubtful whether the foal has received any colostrum, the veterinarian will usually give the foal an intravenous bolus of plasma. Confirming the immunoglobulin status of foals is a vital step that should never be skipped or overlooked.

Ideally, an orphaned foal should be adopted by a nurse mare. This allows the foal to grow on its normal diet of mare’s milk, as well as experiencing normal socialization. After the foal has bonded with the nurse mare, there is no additional labor to the normal care and feeding of the foal.

Commercial nurse mare managers are experts at facilitating this bonding process. However, their expertise does not come cheap. The added expense, $800 to as much as $1500 for a six-month lease, can be more than the value of the foal. If leasing a nurse mare is impractical, the only other alternative is to hand-feed the foal.

Bottle feeding a foal is not risk-free. If the foal’s head is held too high, or if the foal lies flat while feeding, milk can run down the trachea into the foal’s lungs. This can cause aspiration pneumonia, which can be fatal if not quickly diagnosed and treated. A foal that is lying flat should never be bottle-fed. It should be fed standing, or braced between your knees, with the bottle held so that the foal’s nose does not rise above its eye level.

A safer and easier method is to teach the foal to drink milk from a bucket.

To do this, don’t feed the foal for four hours. This ensures it will be hungry. Pour the warm milk or milk replacement into a shallow pan or small bowl to begin with. Push the foal’s muzzle into the pan or bowl, and use your fingers in its mouth to stimulate its sucking reflex. It may take several attempts for the foal to catch on, so be patient, and make sure that the foal doesn’t go too long without food.

Newborn foals under five days old require feeding every two hours. This tight schedule can gradually be expanded, and the amount fed can be increased, until the foal is eating every six hours by seven to ten days of age. Foals should be offered grain and hay as soon as they seem to be interested in them.

If the foal is already eating solid food when it is orphaned, it can be fed milk replacement pellets so long as it is drinking enough water. Clean, fresh water should always be available, and a loose mineral supplement should be used.

Set up a vaccination and worming schedule with your veterinarian. Whatever their age, foals need shelter in hot or cold weather.

It is important for orphaned foals to spend time with other horses to learn how to behave around other horses socially. While the foal’s playful behavior with humans is cute when they’re little, it can become dangerous when they are grown. Orphans do well when raised with other orphans, or if they have a quiet adult horse or pony for a companion. Also, orphan foals do well when they are turned out with the other weanlings. These things help to raise that orphan colt into a well-socialized adult horse.

Read the next horse breeding article on What to Expect.
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