Learn how to care for and raise an orphan foal with advice from experienced vet technician Donna Hanover.

As you wait your mare’s impending foaling date with excitement, raising an orphan foal is likely not a scenario you’re anticipating. While not a common occurrence, there are situations where a foal is left without its mother due to complications during birth, rejection by the mare or other issues. An orphaned foal doesn’t mean the youngster will never reach competition greatness. With careful management of the early days and intentional training, a horse that received a rough start can still succeed.

When Birth Goes Wrong

During her time as head technician in equine ICU, Donna Hanover saw her share of orphaned foals. This could be due to a number of reasons: the mare died or was euthanized due to birth complications such as uterine arterial rupturing, or if the mare rejects the foal for some reason.

Before any birth, Hanover tries to have colostrum—antibodyrich cream produced around the time a mare gives birth—on hand. Whether she milks the mare about to give birth or freezes milk from another mare, collecting that liquid gold can provide an orphaned foal with essential antibodies it would otherwise miss.

Even if the mare does unfortunately look like she’s not going to make it, Hanover will do her best to collect colostrum to help the baby.

“If your mare has a uterine arterial tear, there’s nothing you can do,” Hanover said. “All you can do is milk that mare out and give the colostrum to the foal. Call your veterinarian as soon as possible. It’s one of the hardest parts of breeding horses—losing mares that way.”

The First 72 Hours

If you have an orphan foal, Hanover says your veterinarian needs to be involved as soon as possible. One of the biggest concerns in the first hours of birth is to get colostrum and milk into the foal so the baby does not become hypoglycemic or experience failure of passive transfer of antibodies.

“Failure of passive transfer means the foal did not receive any good colostrum within the first six to 12 hours of its life,” Hanover said. “Typically, we like the foal to ingest colostrum within four to six hours, and by eight hours you’re getting very close to when the gut closes the ability to absorb antibodies from the mare.”

Sometimes mares do not have good colostrum. There’s no way to know this unless you have a colostrometer and have the foal checked by a veterinarian within the first 12–24 hours of life. During the examination, the veterinarian will draw blood for an IG test to determine the level of antibodies of the foal.

Finding a nurse mare for your orphan foal will help instill good social skills in the baby as it learns to join the herd.

“In the first 72 hours, it is vital that the foal has ingested colostrum and that the foal passes his meconium—the first feces the foal defecates after being born,” Hanover said. “Typically, that happens after they suckle. If they don’t do that or don’t completely pass all of the meconium, they will become colicky immediately.”

Hanover advises watching for the foal to show signs of discomfort, such as twisting its body or excessive rolling. A warm soapy enema may be gently performed to try to give the foal relief. Within a few minutes the foal should expel more meconium. If not, contact your veterinarian immediately.

“If you come into the stall and you see the foal looking like a pretzel, he’s got major problems,” Hanover said.

You’ll also want to make sure the umbilical cord is treated with a dilute iodine solution or a dilute Nolvasan solution two to three times after birth. Check the navel to make sure it is clean and dry.

“If the navel is wet, it could be a possible patent urachus, in which urine is dripping out of the urachus when the foal urinates,” Hanover said. “The foal needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately for a thorough exam.”

The urachus is the tube within the umbilical cord through which urine from the unborn foal travels from the bladder to the allantoids—a fluid-filled sac surrounding the unborn foal.

Hanover says normally, the urachus closes at the time of birth and the navel dries up and shrivels within hours of birth. When the urachus doesn’t close—persistent urachus—or closes and re-opens at a later date—patent urachus—urine continues to leak from the umbilicus. The amount of leaking urine varies considerably.

If your foal is a male, you also need to be watching to make sure he urinates, ideally within the first 24–48 hours.

“If he doesn’t urinate and is straining to urinate, acting colicky, or the abdomen seems to be distended, he needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately, because he could have a possible ruptured bladder, which can happen during parturition or rough handling by the foaling personnel,” Hanover said.

If a horse has been diagnosed with a ruptured bladder via ultrasound and thoroughly examined, surgery will be required.

While all of these issues are potential problems with any birth, a foal that has lost its mother is even more at risk. Hanover says you must be vigilant to spot problems before they become life-threatening for the foal.

“He doesn’t have his mama looking out for him and will be totally dependent on humans in the beginning,” Hanover said.

Nutrition is Key

The biggest hurdle newborn orphans face is getting enough nutrition. Hanover says she’s rarely seen an orphan foal without it showing signs of gastric ulcers.

“[Being orphaned] is very stressful on them,”Hanover said. “They are hungry. A lot of times you hear people say ‘Oh, he’s an orphan. He’s not very big. He didn’t grow properly.’ But there’s only one reason for that, and that is lack of nutrition. Not enough milk. Period.”

Hanover recommends seeking a nurse mare as your first option. If there’s a mare on your property that lost a foal, that’s the perfect match. Or, if there’s a mare with a history of “stealing” other mare’s babies, you might be able to convince her to take the new foal. You can procure a nurse mare in some areas, though they can cost between $1,500-$2,500. No matter how you find a nurse mare, you need to introduce the mare and foal carefully.

“Some mares will take to the orphan right off the bat,” Hanover said. “They love them, lick them and take them on their own. Other mares will try to kill them. You can get hurt, everybody can get hurt.”

Through a two-week process, Hanover’s team and some breeding farms will put the orphan foal and a mare together in a controlled setting, sedating or even twitching the mare to let the foal nurse—and then separating them to stalls side by side. This is repeated until the mare recognizes the foal as her own.

“During those two weeks, the mare will usually come to accept the foal, and that’s because the foal will start to smell like ‘her’ baby,” Hanover said.

If the relationship works, the mare will raise that baby as her own foal, giving it the best chance to grow into a normal, well-adjusted horse.

“The goal is to have a foal grow up and be a horse,” Hanover said. “Not this obnoxious pet that will throw a fit if she doesn’t want to do something.”

Orphan foals that receive proper nutrition on the correct feeding schedule should not appear stunted in growth.

If a nurse mare is not feasible, before you start your foal on powdered foal formula, consider goat’s milk—either fresh from a goat or by the gallon. Some owners will tie a milk goat up on a stand and allow the foal to come up and nurse. If you use a nurse goat, make sure it’s scrupulously free of disease, as some illnesses can be transferred from goat to horse.

“Goat milk is expensive,” Hanover said. “In my area, it costs $7 a gallon. But newborn foals—birth to 24 hours of age—shouldn’t receive more than four to six ounces at an hourly feeding, and then you gradually build up an ounce or two at a time per feeding.”

Newborn foals should be fed every hour to hour-and-a-half, says Hanover. She concedes that this rhythm is easier when the foal is in say, ICU, where there is 24-hour nursing staff.

“At home, it’s tough to feed that frequently, but you’re talking about a brand new baby,” Hanover said. “Even if he’s a week old, he still should be eating every two hours.”

Hanover recommends teaching the foal to eat out of a bucket that encourages the foal to feed on its own rather than bottle feeding. The only time she uses a bottle is when a nurse mare is going to be available within a day or so. Caution must be used to not let a foal extend its neck too much when bottle feeding because a foal can aspirate milk into the lungs. A Coke or Sprite bottle with a lamb’s nipple is a good tool to use in bottle feeding.

Fed the correct amount and at the proper frequency, an orphan foal should not look smaller than any other foal, Hanover says. A newborn foal can eat up to one to two quarts of milk in the first days, then as the foal grows, up to one to two gallons a day. You can introduce milk pellets, small amounts of grain and hay at three weeks of age.

Babying an orphan might seem natural, but Hanover says setting boundaries between the horse and human is important for the horse’s early development.

“Foals see the mother merely as a source of food and a protector,” Hanover said. “The mare will bump a foal for nursing too rough. You can nurture a foal, but you need to keep a certain amount of discipline. A foal is not a pet. Nurturing is very important for the relationship of the foal and the human, not to be confused with spoiling of the foal.”

Socializing is Crucial

An orphan foal paired up with a nurse mare is the best-case scenario for developing social skills in the youngster. Absent that option, Hanover recommends finding some other animal companionship, such as a goat without horns, or even a weanling horse.

“You can nurture a foal and be good to it, but you are not a horse,” Hanover said. “They need to be with other horses as soon as possible.”

Once an orphaned foal is about 4 months old, Hanover says it should still be eating about four times a day but also eating hay, grain and grazing. At that age, the horse can be turned out with 5-, 6- and 7-month old horses.

“Putting an orphaned foal out with other horses will help them learn a pecking order,” Hanover said. “When you put an orphan foal out with a group that had mothers, they will immediately make sure that one knows he’s an outsider, but they’ll show him the rules real quick, and as long as they abide by the rules, life is good. As long as you don’t have one that’s too hard on him.”

Learning these social cues is everything for an orphaned foal. It will help them develop character that will show itself as the horse is trained and even in competition.

“You want them to be confident,” Hanover said. “You want them to have the bravery to go out there and be with other horses—not walk the fence looking for you.”

It may seem overwhelming to take care of an orphan foal and raise it to adulthood. But Hanover says with proper veterinary care, good diet, socialization and conscientious management, your horse can grow into a productive, successful competitor.

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