Raising orphan foal worthwhile challenge

Raising orphan foal worthwhile challenge

Jun 01, 2002

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 broodmares with playful foals by their sides. These attentive mares watch over their young 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 without a mare to care for it.

Many reasons

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

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

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


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

Down the road

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

Many one or two horse clients tend to readily take on the challenge of raising an orphan foal. These owners often have an emotional attachment to 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 as to the correct steps to take when raising that foal, many poorly adjusted and 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 determining its 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 readily accept other foals. The difficult aspect of using a nurse mare is finding one that is available exactly when you need one for your foal.

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

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


Hand-rearing can be a rewarding undertaking and it certainly is a time-consuming one. Newborn foals should be given colostrum, preferably from their own dams.

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

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

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

An IgG test should always be done to ensure that the foal has received the 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 first month of life. They may consume only 50 ml per nursing, but they are constantly at it.

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

Clients have a tendency to overfeed orphan foals since these youngsters are eating less frequently, and the thinking often is that if the foal eats a bit more at one feeding then the weary owner can sleep an hour more and stretch the time until the next feeding. Such practices are detrimental to 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 obtain milk replacer until the next morning. Foals that do not begin nursing soon after birth become weakened and can experience significant problems.

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

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

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

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

Social rearing more difficult

While there are many products available to help with the feeding of orphan foals and plenty of nutritional information that can be of use, there is really little information available to help with the social rearing of these foals.

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

Foals are fun to play with and easy to spoil. Orphan foals raised by humans 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 later introduced to horses.

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

"Don't make a pet out of orphan foals and let them learn to be a horse," 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 born and not having a mother) is the way it works."

While a nurse mare is optimal, if one is not available Modlin starts the 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 normal handling and attention that all foals receive.

"We groom them and rub them, handle feet and such but we do not do anything special to the orphans," says Modlin, "and we don't get into their world."

With their own

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Coprophagy is commonly observed in foals from weeks 1 to 24. This behavior is rare in adults. Most foals will exclusively consume the feces of their mother. Drs. Hornicke and Bjornhag, writing in a paper in 1979, suggested that this indicated a pheromone preference. Research in rats confirmed this pheromone attraction between young rats and the feces of their lactating mothers.

But the really interesting point is that this same research and other similar projects showed that this maternal feces contained high levels of deoyxcholic acid. Young rats are deficient in this acid which helps with intestinal immunocompetence. Deoxycholic acid is believed to protect against infantile enteritis.

This research also showed a second possible function for deoxycholic acid. Long chain fatty acids must be emulsified by bile acids before they can be absorbed. These absorbed acids are needed for the production of myelin throughout the nervous system.

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

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

At the very least, these studies suggest that orphan foals be allowed access to the manure from a lactating mare during the first few weeks of life.

Worthwhile challenge

Taking on the rearing of an orphan foal is certainly a challenge but it 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 remembering to let the foal be a horse rather than a pet are probably the two most important points.

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