Foals can lose their mothers for a variety of reasons, whether it be a mare who will not accept her foal, a mare that does not produce milk, or, in the worst case scenario, a mare that dies before the foal is weaned. In any case, having an orphan foal is not especially uncommon. People used to believe that orphan foals would never turn out to be like normal adult horses because they would be too small and unthrifty or would have horrible behavior. Now, with the help of advanced equine nutrition practices, orphan foals can grow up to be healthy, well adjusted adult horses.
While all orphan foals must be managed carefully, those orphaned at birth present a specific problem. Newborn foals rely on the mare’s colostrum, or first milk, to provide essential antibodies (necessary to fight off infection). If a foal does not consume these antibodies within the first 24 hours of life he is at great risk for serious infections. Supplemental colostrum can be stored and kept on hand in case a foal is orphaned at birth, but often times veterinarians will give orphaned foals an equine blood plasma infusion to ensure immunoglobulin uptake. Either way, orphan foals must have their immunoglobulin levels checked regularly to be sure they are protected from infection.
Once you are sure your foal has immune protection, it’s time to plan a nutritional program. You have two main options in feeding your orphan foal: find a nurse mare or manually feed the foal. While finding a nurse mare may seem like the most natural choice, there are a few concerns with this method of action. First, finding a nurse mare in your area is sometimes extremely difficult, and it can be quite costly. Even if you find a nurse mare, there is no guarantee that you will be able to convince the nurse mare to accept the foal. Most importantly, however, is the fact that sometimes milk from a nurse mare does not provide the foal’s needed nutrition. Mare milk quality is best right after foaling but declines as time goes on. If a young foal is placed on a nurse mare that has been lactating for six months, that milk may not provide the orphan foal with the nutrients he needs.
Because of these problems with nurse mares, many breeders choose to feed orphan foals manually with a milk replacer. There are many milk replacers on the market today, but it is absolutely vital that owners choose a species-specific milk replacer. If you have an orphan foal, you want to make sure you’re using a milk replacer formulated to match the milk of a mare, not a cow or a goat. Foals have nutritional needs different than those of babies from other species, so they need a milk replacer targeted to fit their needs.
Once a milk replacer is chosen, the question becomes how to feed it. It’s important to keep in mind that young foals will nurse from a mare several times per hour, and an owner must mimic this frequency when manually feeding a foal. You can either feed your foal via bottle or bucket. Bottle feeding is quite labor intensive and can be impractical, especially considering how often a young foal needs to be fed. Feeding by a bucket is much more practical and is better for the foal as it allows him to feed in a natural, free-choice state. Foals can easily be taught to drink from a bucket. To do so, dip your fingers in the milk replacer and insert them into your foal’s mouth. This should make him start to suckle. While he is still suckling on your fingers, slowly lower them into the bucket of milk replacer. A bucket of milk replacer can be left in the foal’s stall for up to 12 hours. It’s important clean the bucket containing the milk replacer regularly, and always provide fresh water next to the milk.
In addition to a milk replacer, foals should be offered small amounts of creep feed starting at two weeks of age. Because a foal’s digestive system is not fully developed at this time, owners should choose a feed formulated for the nursing foal and stay away from a grain mix formulated for the mature horse. These grain mixes will not hurt the foal, but he will not be able to digest the ingredients in the grain mix and therefore cannot utilize any of the nutrition. There are a few creep feeds designed for nursing foals on the market today and are usually milk based. The general rule of thumb for feeding rate of these products is 1 lb per month of age per day. Once the foal is three months old, he can be transitioned slowly from the milk replacer/creep feed combination to a grain mix formulated for breeding stock or growing horses. By this age, his digestive system has developed and matured enough to process the ingredients in normal grain mixes, so he can now utilize them.
Having an orphaned foal can be a complicated, labor intensive endeavor, but it is possible to produce a foal who looks and acts no different than his normal counterparts. Owners of orphan foals should work closely with a trusted veterinarian and equine nutritionist to carefully monitor and tailor the feeding rates of any milk replacer and creep feed to the particular foal. With proper management and the right effort, there should be no long term effects of having an orphaned foal.