Help Your Orphaned Foal


Losing a mare is one of many nightmares a breeder can face. Here’s how to get your orphaned foal off on the right hoof.

Orphaned foals can be a challenge to get started, especially from birth, but careful planning, dedication and hard work can help them grow into normal healthy adult horses. Although it can be very exhaustive at first, intensive management early on will optimize the foal’s chances of survival.

The First 24 Hours

If a foal is orphaned at birth, the first 24 hours are very critical. Normally, newborn foals receive sufficient antibodies through the mother’s milk by nursing colostrum. A mare’s first milk or colostrum contains a high concentration of immunoglobins (antibodies) to protect the foal from disease and infection. Colostrum is only secreted in the mare’s milk during the first 24 to 48 hours following foaling. There is no transfer of antibodies from mare to developing foal through the placenta during pregnancy, which means foals are born without any protection from disease.

Colostrum and Immunity

The ingestion of colostrum by the newborn allows for the passive transfer of immunoglobulins, which provide almost immediate immunity to the foal. Foals that do not receive these antibodies are at high risk and diagnosed as having a condition known as failure of passive transfer (FPT). Foals absorb the maximum amount of colostrum through the gastrointestinal tract in the first six hours after birth. Basically no absorption occurs after 12 to 18 hours, so foals must be supplemented with a plasma transfer or other sources. Ideally, a foal should receive 250 to 300 ml of colostrum every one to two hours for the first six hours after birth, with a total of a least one liter. If the foal cannot nurse directly from the mare, it is a good idea to have a veterinarian administer the colostrum directly with a nasal-gastric tube to ensure nothing is wasted and the foal gets the necessary quantity.

The immunity level of the foal should be tested by an immunoglobulin G (IgG) blood test to determine if the antibody levels are sufficient. This test can be run as early as eight to 12 hours after birth, which would allow for a second feeding of colostrum if the levels are low. The preferred IgG level is 400 to 800 mg/dl. Many broodmare owners having a lot of foals will collect and store colostrum in case of emergencies. Colostrum can be collected from good milking mares once their newborn foals have nursed. It has been shown that 200 to 500 ml can be milked from a mare without affecting the antibody passage to her own newborn. However, this needs to be done within the first 24 hours after she has foaled. The collected colostrum can be frozen for up to three years if stored properly. When it’s needed, this frozen colostrum should be thawed at room temperature in a warm water bath just before use. Do not thaw by microwave, as essential antibodies can be destroyed.

Developing a Care and Feeding Routine

Once you have established sufficient immune protection for your orphaned foal, you now need to work on his daily care and feeding. Normally, foals nurse up to 17 times an hour during the first week of life! This will decrease to three times an hour in the first few weeks of life. As your foal’s caretaker, you have a few basic options: use a nurse mare or goat, or manually feed the foal.

Obtaining a nurse mare would generally be highly desirable, since it would greatly reduce labor. Unfortunately, nurse mares can be difficult to find. An additional potential problem is convincing the nurse mare to accept the foal. Another option is to use goat’s milk by purchasing a milk-producing goat. Some orphan foals have been fostered onto nanny goats with minimal problems. These goats can be placed on hay bales or platforms so the foal can nurse. However, as the foal grows, the goat may not be able to provide enough milk, so supplemental feed may be needed.

Most commonly, caretakers derive some type of manual feeding program. Initially, foals can be bottle fed, preferably with a powdered mare’s milk replacer. When bottle feeding, a lamb’s nipple on some type of bottle works best. Give the foal small, frequent feedings. Very weak foals may need to be initially fed through a nasal gastric tube (stomach tube) by a veterinarian. Many caretakers prefer to train even young foals to drink out of buckets. It’s recommended that caregivers offer very young foals 400 ml of milk replacer every hour. Once the foals are a bit older (two or more weeks), the schedule can change to every four hours, but a consistent feeding schedule is very important. Even very early on, foals should be offered both milk replacer and pellets formulated for young orphaned foals. Many tend to quickly prefer the pellets, and then slowly transition onto creep feed over a few months. Some high quality hay can also be offered after the first few weeks.

Getting orphans off to a good start can take a lot of work, but after the first few weeks, things should become much more routine. This intense early care will help them become just as healthy as any other foal.

Kathy Anderson has been the Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Nebraska since 1991. She oversees the youth and adult extension horse program as well as teaches Undergraduate courses in the Animal Science Department. An avid horse show judge; Kathy is a carded judge with the AQHA, APHA, and National Snaffle Bit Association. She received her BS c in Animal Science and Agricultural Education from the University of Nebraska, Masters of Science in Physiology of Reproduction from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in Animal Science from Kansas State University. Along with her educational background, Kathy stays highly involved in the industry; previously she was an assistant trainer and breeding manager at a large Nebraska Quarter Horse farm. Her family currently raises and shows Western Pleasure Horses. She is a past Board Member for the Quarter Horse Association of Nebraska, is the current Past-President of the American Youth Horse Council, and the Vice Chair of eXtension’s Horse Quest project.

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