Feeding the Orphan Foal

Foals can be orphaned or have the need for supplemental feeding for several reasons. These include:

  • Death of the dam
  • Rejection of the foal by the dam
  • Illness of the dam resulting in decreased milk production
  • Complete agalactia (failure of the dam to produce any milk) in the dam

    For whatever reason the foal is deprived of its normal source of nutrition, the provision of appropriate nutrition is needed to insure proper heath and growth of the foal. If the foal is orphaned or rejected at the time of birth, the first question to answer is – did the foal receive colostrum? Colostrum is the first milk that the mare produces. It is different from regular milk in that it is higher in both energy and protein. The proteins that are most important are antibodies. The foal is able to absorb these antibodies during the first day of life.

    Antibodies are essential in providing the foal with protection against bacteria that are normally found in our environment. Without this protection the foal is at a high risk of developing a life threatening infection. If the foal did not receive colostrum from his dam and he is less than 24 hours of age, then he should be given colostrum from another mare. If he is greater than 24 hours of age then he can only receive the appropriate protection through a plasma (the antibody containing part of blood) transfusion.

    Once the foal's immunologic status (antibody levels) has been ensured, then one must look at the options for providing the proper nutrients and calories to the orphaned foal. Feeding options for the orphan foal include providing a nurse mare, feeding with a bottle or feeding by a bucket.

    Nurse mares provide the orphan foal with the most natural method and source of milk. The orphan foal is fostered onto the nurse mare whose own foal is orphaned and generally fed by bucket. The fostering processes vary with the different nurse mare owners. One successful method involves placing a scented coat or blanket on the mare's own foal for a period of time before the mare is introduced to the new foal. The mare becomes used to associating the scent with her own foal. The blanket is then transferred to the new foal and the mare and new foal are introduced. A handler should hold the mare while another person works with the foal. If the mare has good mothering instincts and is quiet, the process of grafting the two together may take 1 to 2 hours. Both handlers should be alert to any aggressive movement of the mare toward to foal to prevent any injury if the mare does not accept the new foal.

    Advantages

  • Good natural nutrition
  • Labor saving (after the initial introduction)
  • Socialization of the orphan foal

    The socialization of the foal is an important issue. Foals raised without the guidance of a mother tend to be spoiled and less likely to be comfortable in a herd situation. Often people will remark that their orphaned foals have an oral fixation. They may suck their tongues or hold their tongues outside their mouths as adults.

    Disadvantages

  • Expense is often a disadvantage in nurse mare fostering. Mares are generally leased for 4 to 5 months while they raise their adopted foal. Costs vary between nurse mare farms but can range from $2500 to $3500.
  • In addition to the lease cost, many contracts include that the mare be bred back before she returns to her original farm. This ensures that she will be able to function as a nurse mare the following year. The leasee is responsible for having the mare rebred.
  • Another disadvantage to the nurse mare option is that the mare's natural foal is now an orphan.

    A good nurse mare farm is set up to handle orphan foals. One should check to see what happens to these foals. Many times the foals are fed in groups to provide for socialization. Often the foals are later sold to new owners or kept as replacement mares if they are fillies.

    Nurse mares are not always available in all parts of the country. This option is more common in regions where there are large horse breeding populations.

    Hand raising a foal can be done either with bottle or bucket feeding. Bottle feeding may be the easiest at the beginning because it is more natural for the foal to adapt his sucking reflex. Ultimately it is better to teach the foal to drink from a bucket because bucket feeding is a less labor intensive method of feeding the foal than bottle feeding. Bucket feeding also minimizes bonding to humans. This may at first glance seem to be a disadvantage but if the foal bonds to the caretaker rather than other horses, he may develop undesirable behaviors.

    Behaviors in the foal may be cute, but dangerous in the adult. Foals can be taught to bucket feed by repeatedly, gently dipping their muzzle into a bowl of warm milk replacer. Alternatively, if the foal has a good suckle response, you can lead his head down to the milk as he suckles on your finger. Patience is definitely a virtue in this endeavor. It may take several hours to teach the foal where the milk is. Most foals will catch onto drinking from a bucket within 12 hours and not eat the required amount for the first 24 hours. This is not a problem as long as the foal is older than 1 week of age. Foals less than a few days old do not have the energy stores to go more than a few hours without food. Your veterinarian should be available to tube feed a reluctant newborn.

    Feeding Schedule

    The feeding schedule for foals will decrease, as the foal becomes older. The normal newborn nursing foal will nurse between 5 to 7 times per hour for short periods of time. It is difficult to mimic this type of feeding schedule in the orphan foal. Healthy foals can tolerate large deviations in this normal schedule.

    For the first week of life, foals should be offered food every 1 to 2 hours. The frequency can be decreased and the volume increased as the foal gets older.

    Generally by the time the foal is 4 weeks old you can decrease the frequency of feeding to 4 times a day. It is important to remember to keep the bucket clean. If the foal does not finish the milk offered, the left over milk should be discarded and fresh milk offered.

    Mare's milk is obviously the best nutritional option for a foal. Unfortunately it is not readily available for the orphan foal except in the nurse mare option. Other species milk, such as cow or goat milk, have been used to feed foals even though they have a different composition. Varied results in growth have been reported in the use of other species milk.

    Various commercial formulas are available to feed foals. Again the commercial feeds do not exactly mimic the components of mare's milk. They are often higher in electrolytes and minerals. Because foals less than 3 weeks of age have lactase as the predominant enzyme for digesting the milk sugar lactose, the milk replacer used in this age foal should not contain maltodextrans, corn syrup or glucose polymers which require maltase for digestion. Each product has its own mixing instructions, which can vary a lot.

    Often manufacturers will recommend 1 part powder to 4 parts water, which yields a 20 percent dry matter solution. Normal mare's milk is less concentrated at 10 percent dry matter. This can create a digestive problem with an osmotic diarrhea. If diarrhea occurs one should dilute the formula to a 10 percent solution.

    Generally the normal nursing foal will eat 25 to 30 percent of his body weight per day. For the 100 pound foal this works out to 25 to 30 pounds or 12.5 to 15 quarts of milk replacer. The total amount is divided by the number of feedings to determine the amount of milk that should be offered at feeding. This gives you a ball park amount that the foal should be eating but feeding the foal free choice is probably the best. The foal can eat as much as he needs.

    Hay and grain should be available for the foal from an early age. Normal foals pick at the dam's food as early as the first week of life. Solid food does not provide adequate nutrition to the foal until he is about 2 to 3 months of age. Milk pellets can be added to the grain to ensure adequate nutrition. Foals can be weaned off the milk replacer around 3 to 4 months of age.

    Monitor your foal's weight and growth on a weekly basis. If you have a scale, your foal should gain 2 pounds a day. If you don't have a scale then you can use a weight tape. A weight tape will not give you an accurate weight on your foal but it will allow you to monitor an increase in size and weight. Foals should have a flat back. Their ribs should be easily felt but not visible. The withers should be rounded and the neck and shoulders should blend well into the body. If the foal's backbone, ribs or pelvis are visible, the foal is too thin. You should check with your veterinarian to determine if there is a medical or nutritional problem.

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