When you are faced with an orphan or rejected foal, the best solution for the foal long term is to have it accepted by its dam or a foster mare.
Raising an orphan by bucket feeding is less than ideal as they quickly become over-humanised and often miss out on the socialisation skills they learn from other horses. This is why orphan foals often become pushy, insensitive horses when they grow up, as people usually can’t provide the strict discipline a herd situation provides.
Even if the foal is kept with other horses (preferably young ones it can play with too), it will be returning to the people may times daily for a drink for the first few months of its life, and this can be a problem if the people aren’t strict with balancing love and discipline.
If the mare is alive but has rejected the foal, then there is a window of opportunity in the first few days to train her to accept it before her milk dries up. I’ve heard vets say it won’t work if the mare hasn’t accepted the foal within the first few days, but from experience, I found that it could take up to 3 weeks, providing you are willing to put the time and training in.
We did that while waiting for a foster mare to become available, hoping the real mum would retain her milk but sadly, she was unable to, possibly due to the two hours between drinks and the small amount the foal was getting from her initially.
However, it can be done and here’s how we went about it:
Initially, keep the mare and foal close but seperate so she can’t injure the foal with aggressive biting or kicking. Get the vet to sedate the mare to assist with keeping her still for the foal to nurse, depending on how aggressive she is. You may need to distract her with feed and restrict her vision of the foal to enable it to drink. This will need at least two people so get some experienced help if possible.
The mare will need to be milked every hour to stimulate her supply and possibly even need a hormone injection from the vet to ‘let her milk down’. If you are not able to milk her easily then set up a crush with a portable fence panel against a wall as shown in the photo. This will also be of great assistance in teaching her to accept the foal or to introduce a foster mare if you find one.
The process is pretty much the same when fostering a foal onto a mare except you may not have to initially sedate the mare if she’s gentle natured.
Some suggestions that can help her to accept the foal range from skinning her dead foal and putting the skin over the orphan (pretty horrible and not always practical), to rubbing the orphan all over with her afterbirth (or part of it such as the hippomane – small brown kidney like part).
If you’re going to do either of these things then put a foal rug on the orphan so it is protected a little from any severe reaction from the mare (they will often bite until there is acceptance). You could also put a grazing muzzle (or a home-made version) on the mare if she shows a tendancy to bite rather than kick.
Never assume any potential foster mare will accept another foal. Apart from the fact that she is grieving the loss of her own foal, she will know the orphan is not hers and it will take time and patient training to convince her to take it on.
There are occassional mares who are born ‘mothers’ who will nurse any foal and these are ideal foster mums – I’ve even heard of these mares making milk when they haven’t even been pregnant themselves. In fact there is now a course of hormone injections you can give such a mare to help start lactation in a non-pregnant mare. Visit www.thehorse.com and search on orphan foals and induced lactation for more info on this.
Having a crush set up in the stable or yard is the safest way for all concerned to start the bonding through drinking process. Feed the mare in the crush a few times first so she is not stressed about going in or being contained there. Use a rope looped around the rail behind her that can be released quickly if she isn’t used to being confined like this and gradually get her to accept it rather than forcing her to stay in and possibly hurt herself in a struggle.
Don’t tie her solid, just wrap the rope around a rail in case she gets claustrophobic or caught up in the panel. A feed is always a good distraction and gives her reason to stand in there quietly.
Have someone at her head to block her vision of the foal initially and start by washing her teats and hand milking her – make sure she is ok with touching around the flank and teat area first of course! Then bring the foal in and guide it up to the rails – some padding above where it’s head will be is helpful as you don’t want to put the foal off from going to drink.
Avoid pushing it’s head down – this will cause a reaction against the pressure – get it sucking your fingers which should have milk on them from milking the mare to get the flow going, and guide it’s head towards the udder.
It shouldn’t take long for the foal to figure out how to get to the udder after a few goes – we had to hold this colt back in the beginning as his running towards the mare for his drink would upset her!
Once the mare accepts the foal drinking while her vision is restricted, start to give her view of the foal while it is drinking, and then as you approach with the foal.
When she readily accepts the foal through the panel, you can start opening up the panel and allowing the foal to feed with her tied up. If she’s kicking at the foal, this may not be possible, so be patient and possibly consider teaching her to hobble by the back legs if you are an experienced handler or if not, get someone who is able to help with this.
You could also strap up a front leg with a stirrup leather so she’s standing on one leg, on the same side the foal is feeding.
Be sure to encourage her with kind words and rewards such as food when she does the right thing, and try to make progress with each feeding session (there’s an example of this in the reader’s story below).
W hen it comes time to leaving the mare and foal together, you may want to muzzle the mare if she’s a biter, to ensure the foal is not hurt. This can be done for short periods and should always be under supervision.
We used ‘clicker training’ to teach this very aggressive mare to accept her foal by teaching her to ‘target’ the foal (touch it with her nose) to get a treat. The photo shows us at the stage where she was ready to be turned loose with the foal so the home-made muzzle is on – a plastic flowerpot with a hole in the bottom to allow eating of treats! She has just been ‘clicked’ for accepting him drinking without turning to bite and later we work on rewarding her only when she has her ears forward (positive attitude).
We also used the clicker training method to teach the foster mare to accept this foal which she did within four days. From experiences related to me, it takes up to a week or so to get a foster mare to fully accept a foal that isn’t it’s own, so don’t expect it to happen overnight!
When the mare is reliably accepting the foal and shows no signs of biting or kicking, then its safe to keep them together without supervision. We provided a safety escape for the foal just in case by putting a rope across into his section of the stable so he could run under it to safety if she got mean with him.
Just because the mare tolerates the foal being near her, don’t assume she will feed the foal when you are not there. The mare pictured would only feed her foal when we were visible – we gradually got to the point where we could stand at the gate and tell her to feed him by working on a longer rope then at liberty, all the time using the clicker to reward her.
In the meantime, the foal who was still being bucket fed every 2 hours to supplement his mother’s meagre milk supply, had learned to drink his formula from a dog water dispenser so he could access his milk whenever he wanted it. This was a great benefit to us and freed us up from virtually living in his paddock!
When a foster mare became available he was three weeks old and bonded with his mum, so we had to gradually wean him off her. We put the foster mare in the stable beside the foal where she could see him and his real mum was outside in a yard where he could see her.
Fortunately, we realised the presence of his real mum was distracting the foster mare from wanting to accept the colt so we took her way (with not even a backwards glance from her!) and from that moment on, the foster mare focused on the foal and accepted him easily.
So, using nature’s instincts in a horse to seek and bond with it’s own kind was a real benefit here and had a happy ending with the mare accepting the colt as her own.
Finding a foster mare is not always easy so if you have a mare that loses her foal, please consider offering your mare to foster an orphan foal. Call all the local vets and larger studs to let them know you have a mare available. Get online and spread the word through discussion groups and your email contacts. Until a foal is found, keep miking your mare out to stimulate production, and save the colostrum by freezing it in 200ml quantities.
Both mare and foal owner must be prepared to be flexible about where the foal or mare goes – it will depend on who is more experienced and keen to put in the time initially, or has the right facilities. Whatever the case, it is a short term arrangement that can be formalised in the case of a valuable mare (or foal) with an official lease and insurance if necessary.
Having a mare who has rejected her foal or fostering an orphan onto another mare is a time consuming but very rewarding process, and is far cheaper in the long term than raising a foal on formula. There is a lot of information available online so you’re not alone if this happens to you. Treat each case individually and try different approaches if something doesn’t seem to be working and you will eventually find success in raising a healthy young foal.
If you have an orphan foal experience you would like to share please email Cynthia (link below).