Written By: Nancy A Aronoff, D.V.M.
A foal may become orphaned for various reasons, ranging from the
dam's death, rejection, illness or lack of milk production, to
even more temporary situations, such as the dam being shipped off
to be bred without the foal.
The age of the foal at the time it is orphaned will determine how
it should be handled. A newborn or one under three months will
need to have foster care, whether through hand-rearing or through
use of a nurse mare. Hand rearing will involve a major commitment
in time and energy.
All foals should have their immunoglobulin (blood immunity)
status checked 12 to 24 hours after birth. There are reliable,
commercial kits available for this. An antibody concentration
(IgG) of 400-800 mg/dl or greater indicates that passive transfer
Within four to 12 hours after birth, foals should have either
nursed colostrum from the dam, been bottle fed eight ounces of
colostrum replacement, or had colostrum administered by
nasogastric tube by the veterinarian.
There are colostrum banks that freeze and store it. Colostrum is
good for at least one year after collection if it remains frozen
and was of good quality at the time of collection. If there is
any doubt about whether the foal got any colostrum, the
veterinarian will administer plasma intravenously to the foal.
The confirmation of the immunoglobulin status of any foal is an
important step and should not be overlooked.
The ideal situation for an orphan foal is a nurse mare. This way,
the foal remains on its normal diet of mare's milk and becomes
socialized in a normal way.
Additionally, after the foal has bonded with the mare, there is
no labor added to the normal care and feeding processes of
raising the foal.
Commercial nurse mare managers are skilled at assuring that the
bonding takes place. However, the added expense ($800 - $1,500
in some areas for a six-month lease) may be more than the value of
the foal. If a nurse mare is impractical, then the only
alternative is to hand-raise the youngster.
Bottle feeding is not without risk. If the head is held too high,
or the foal is lying flat while nursing, the milk can run down
the trachea into the foal's lungs causing aspiration pneumonia --
which can be fatal if not caught in time and treated.
Never try to bottle-feed a foal that is lying flat. Make sure the
foal is standing or braced between the handler's knees. Then hold
the bottle so the foal's nose is below its eye level.
The safest, easiest method is to train the foal to drink milk
from a bucket.
For starters, don't feed the foal for four hours, so it'll be
hungry. Warm the milk or milk replacer to body temperature and
use a flat pan or small bowl to start. Push the foal's muzzle
into the milk and use your fingers in the foal's mouth to
stimulate a suckle reflex. This may take several attempts. Make
sure the foal doesn't go too long without food.
Foals under five days of age need to be fed every two hours. The
number of feedings can gradually be reduced and the amount fed
can be increased until the foal is eating every six hours at
seven to 10 days old. Young foals should be offered hay and grain
as soon as they show interest in them.
Older foals that are already eating solid food when orphaned may
be fed milk replacer pellets as long as they are drinking
adequate water. A loose mineral supplement should be present,
along with clean, fresh water.
A good worming and vaccination program set up with a veterinarian
is also important. Foals should have access to shelter in hot or
Foals need contact with other horses to learn how to respond to
their own kind socially. Normal playful behavior with humans may
be cute when they are small, but becomes dangerous when they have
grown. It is best to raise an orphan with another orphan, or have
a quiet horse or pony as a companion. Turning out an orphan foal
with a group of weanlings has been reported to work in raising a