The dream of breeding and raising your own foal can very quickly become shattered when you are faced with an orphan foal.
Whether the foal is orphaned through the mare’s death or rejection by the mare, the focus must be on keeping that foal alive for the first week or so, and then giving it every opportunity to thrive.
Many first-time and small breeders are usually unprepared for such an emergency but in reality, it’s an all too common occurrence.
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.
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 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.
We also used the clicker training method to teach the foster mare to accept this foal which she did within four days.
Colostrum is vital
At birth, the most urgent need for a foal is to drink enough colostrum to develop sufficient antibodies in order to fight off any infections from the outside world.
It’s a good idea to have some colostrum on hand in the freezer or have a supply organized from a vet or larger breeder just in case.
If you have a mare that has successfully foaled, then it’s ok to milk some colostrum from her in the first 12 hours after the birth – you only need to store 500ml or so to assist in an emergency.
After 12 hours the foal should have drunk enough to stimulate normal milk production so the colostrum reduces as does their need for it and ability to utilize it.
Some mares that drip or run milk for more than 24 hours prior to foaling may not give their foal enough colostrum so the foal may need blood plasma to boost their immunity.
The vet can test the foal’s blood to determine if it has received enough antibodies, so if you have an orphan whose intake of colostrum is limited or none at all, it would be wise to have this test done.
Regardless of whether the mare dies or rejects the foal, it is vital to try and milk as much colostrum from her as soon as possible.
A live mare may need to be restrained in a crush/stocks or sedated by the vet in order to do this unless you have taught her to accept touching around the teats before foaling (highly recommend!).
How to milk the mare
A large 30 or 50ml syringe with the nozzle cut off and the plunger inserted into that end will make an effective device to ‘suck’ milk from the mare. Make sure the udder has been cleaned with mild soap and water beforehand and is moist to give a good seal.
Always use a clean, sterile container to hold the milk which can then be offered to the foal in a human baby bottle or carefully dripped into their mouth via a syringe.
The foal’s head must be elevated to simulate the suckling position under the mare so the milk goes down the throat rather than the windpipe. Forcing the foal to take colostrum or milk can result in it entering the lungs and causing pneumonia.
If you don’t have ready access to colostrum for some reason, then give the foal some glucose or honey dissolved in boiled water.
They usually only drink up to 250ml each feed in their first 24 hours so small amounts every 15-20 minutes will simulate a normal drinking pattern.
Housing the foal
Once you have given the foal its first feed of colostrum, you need to ensure it has shelter from either cold or heat, especially at night, when it should be kept warm.
A foal blanket is a good idea, along with deep straw or hay for bedding inside a shed or stable.
If you don’t have shelter available, then a horse float/trailer can make a temporary home or even a tent/marquee that has a roof and sides.
If the mare has died then it’s important to provide equine company over a fence/barrier if you can. If not, then get your sleeping bag out and be prepared to bed down with the foal.
You will need to feed it every 1-2 hours to start with so you might as well stay close.
If the mare is alive but has rejected the foal, keep her close but separate so she can’t injure the foal with aggressive biting or kicking.
Get the vet to sedate the mare initially to assist with keeping her still for the foal to nurse, depending on how aggressive she is.
You may need to distract her with feeding 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.
Set up the fence panel so it swings out and has a rope that can be quickly released behind her. 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.
Finding a foster mare
A mare who will foster a foal is a gem.
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 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.
If your mare has died then it’s time to get on the phone and internet in search of a foster mare. Call all the vets within the area you would be prepared to drive to take your foal or bring a mare home.
Get onto local horse discussion groups and spread the word. if you are lucky enough to live somewhere in the world that has a register of foster mares, contact them as soon as possible after the birth.
Some mare owners prefer to keep a foster mare at their property but others are happy for experienced horse people to take their mare to the foal for the period of fostering (until the foal is weaned).
Next, go to the supermarket and buy a dozen tins of sweetened condensed milk and some ordinary evaporated milk. Foals love a sweet taste so starting them on condensed milk is a good way to get them drinking properly.
Then they can be weaned gradually onto ordinary evaporated milk after a few days, and then if no foster mare has been found, you can gradually change over to goat or special calf milk replacer powder.
However cute your foal is, be warned that it is a very expensive exercise (over $1,500) to raise the foal yourself on the cheaper milk powders.
It is also not the best option for the foal behaviourally because it is very hard for people to be strict enough with discipline while the foal is young and relatively harmless.