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Caring for the Orphaned Foal


There's nothing worse than looking forward to the arrival of a well-bred foal, only to lose the mare during the birthing process. While raising a foal orphaned at birth can be extremely challenging, there are ways to up the odds of the foal surviving to become a productive member of equine society.

The Importance of Colostrum

The first task at hand should be ensuring that the foal gets a sufficient amount of colostrum. Colostrum, which is the mare's first milk, is loaded with disease-and infection-fighting antibodies. Because mares don't pass antibodies to their foals during pregnancy, adequate colostrum consumption is necessary for the newborn to be protected against disease.

About 12 hours after birth gastrointestinal absorption of colostrum begins to decrease, and absorption is only minimal after 24 hours. Colostrum can be bottle fed the orphaned foal, or given via stomach tube by a vet. Ideally, two or three liters of colostrum should be divided into three or four doses, which should be given at hourly intervals.

Where do you get colostrum? First of all, if a mare is at risk of dying, colostrum should be harvested. In addtion, breeders should always collect a little extra from foaling mares to have on hand in emergencies, providing the mare has enough colostrum. In most cases, about 200 to 500 ml of colostrum can be milked from a mare without compromising the antibodies she passes on to her foal. The colostrum can then be frozen and used when necessary.


Once enough colostrum has been consumed by the foal, the next order of business is to establish a good nutrition plan. Breeders have two basic options when feeding the orphaned foal. They can (1) use a nurse mare or goat; or (2) bottle feed the foal by hand.

Because it significantly reduces the amount of labor nurse mares are always the first choice. However, nurse mares are hard to find, and even when they are found sometimes refuse to nurse the foal. A milk-producing goat can also be used with some modifications.

In most cases, a manual feeding plan is developed. These can be quite labor-intensive! In the beginning, the foal is usually fed mare's milk, goat's milk, or a powdered substitute. Many breeders also used tried-and-true homemade mare's milk substitutes. Within a few weeks foals should be able to begin eating solid foods such as grain, grass, or hay.

So, how much does a foal eat? Well, you might be surprised to learn that a suckling foal can consume as much as 25 percent of its body weight per day of a milk replacer without stomach distress. These means that a 100-pound foal can consume 25 pounds—or 50 cups—of milk per day. Wow! To this end, it's always a good idea to teach your foal to drink from a bucket. It will cut down on the amount of time you need to spend manually feeding! It's also worth mentioning that smaller, more frequent meals are healthier for the foal than larger, less frequent meals.

General Health

It's important to keep a close eye on the newborn's general health, especially if mare was sick before delivery. A sick mare can sometimes result in an undernourished foal. Check to see that your foal stands, walks, and exhibits the sucking reflex within two or three hours of birth. Watch foals that appear healthy carefully to make sure they don't deteriorate within the first 24 hours, which is not uncommon.

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While many believe an orphaned foal's growth and health will be compromised, this is not always the case. With proper colostrum intake, as well as a good feeding and care regimen, your foal should suffer no long-term effects.
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