How Do You Feed An Orphaned Foal?

There are many reasons why a foal may become orphaned. A mare may have problems during pregnancy or during the delivery and be unable to care for her foal. Of course, sometimes a mare may die while foaling, she may survive just fine but reject the foal. For whatever reason, from time-to-time a horse breeder can expect to have an orphaned foal to raise.

In this article, we review some of the options available and provide sound advice on successfully raising an orphaned foal. Read on to learn more on how to feed an orphaned foal.

What’s The Best Way To Provide An Orphaned Foal With Good Nutrition?

Best Way To Provide An Orphaned Foal With Good Nutrition

There are a number of options available for raising foals without mothers. When a foal is orphaned very young, it’s best to find a nurse mare or foster mother right away.

This is the most natural choice, and provides the foal with the socialization and emotional support that is just as necessary as physical nourishment.

It’s important to understand that unless the mare has just given birth and lost her own foal, she will not have the necessary colostrum which is essential for a newborn foals.

Colostrum is extremely important because it helps your foal develop its own immune system for against illnesses that could kill it within the first few days.

An orphaned foal is far more likely to be stressed than one who has its natural mother to care for and guide it.

So it’s very important that your foal receive essential antibodies for protection during the first few days of life.

You must be sure that the youngster receives colostrum within the first day after birth. If more than thirty-six hours have passed, the foal will not be able to absorb the benefits of the colostrum.

If you do not have a mare who is producing colostrum of her own, you may be able to purchase frozen colostrum through your local veterinarian.

How Can You Tell If Your Foal Is Getting Enough Colostrum?

Your veterinarian may want to do a blood draw within the first twenty-four hours after the foal is born to determine if it has received enough colostrum to have good immunity.

The vet will perform a test looking for immunogammaglobulin (IgG). If your foal has received proper immunity from the colostrum it has been given, it’s IgG count will be between one thousand and thirteen hundred.

If the IgG test results are very low, your vet may recommend providing a blood transfusion from a horse that has a strong immune system.

Can Any Nursing Mare Be A Good Foster Mare?

Nursing Mare Be A Good Foster Mare

Most often, draft horses or draft horse crosses are chosen as nurse mares because they are very tolerant and kind and more likely to accept and adopted foal.

One problem that may arise in this situation is that the foal may be receiving too much nutrition for its own good.

It’s important to understand that draft mares produce a great deal more milk than smaller mares.

For example, a Thoroughbred mare produces around 39 pounds of milk daily. This is the right amount for thoroughbred foal.

A Belgian mare produces about 54 pounds of milk daily. This overabundance of nourishment might cause the orphaned foal to experience rapid growth rates.

This can result in skeletal problems. For this reason, you may want to limit the amount of time your foal spends nursing if his foster mother is of a much larger breed.

Another consideration when choosing a nurse mare is the stage of lactation she is experiencing.

As we’ve mentioned, ideally a mare who has just lost a foal is the perfect choice for a foal who cannot be with its natural mother immediately following birth.

The longer a mare has been lactating, the fewer nutrients will be found in her milk. If you must give a newborn foal to a mare who has been lactating for several weeks, you must also monitor the foal’s growth and nutrition levels very carefully.

Work closely with your veterinarian to be sure that your foal is receiving enough nourishment.

Caring For Orphaned Foals

How Do You Provide Extra Nourishment For An Orphaned Foal?

A quality milk replacer can be an excellent alternative for filling in the gaps when a mare’s milk is not rich enough. It can also be used exclusively to feed an orphaned foal if no nurse mare is available.

There are quite a few good brands of milk replacer available today. Decades of careful formulation have resulted in some fine choices that are very much like mares’ milk and provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals.

When bottle and bucket feeding an orphaned foal, you must be very careful to maintain a regular schedule and feed your foal frequently enough.

Remember that a foal’s digestive tract is very small, undeveloped and simple.

As a foal matures, it’s digestive tract also matures and it’s nutrient requirements change.

Just as with mature horses, foals cannot process large amounts of food all at once. You should not feed a large quantity of milk all at once and leave lengthy stretches of time in between feedings.

Instead, provide many small feedings throughout the day just as a mother horse would.

Failing to provide frequent, small feedings can cause your orphan to suffer from chronic diarrhea. This can cause dehydration and can be life-threatening.

Another side effect of large, infrequent feedings is a potbellied look that is considered typical for foals raised on milk replacer, but it is really not necessary.

The problem is not the milk replacer, it is an incorrect feeding schedule.

What Is The Best Feeding Schedule For An Orphaned Foal?

Best Feeding Schedule For An Orphaned Foal

To replicate natural height and weight growth, you could feed 16 quarts of milk replacer daily with an eight-times-a-day feeding schedule. Most people are not able to keep up this sort of rigorous schedule, though.

Ideally, you should feed 2 quarts or less at a time. It’s best to go with a more diluted formula than is typically called for on packaging instructions. About a quarter pound of dry formula mixed with a full quart of warm water is a good solution.

Feed this solution six times daily for the good results in weight gain. Maintain this schedule throughout your orphaned foal’s first month.

This feeding schedule should reap height and weight gains that are almost as good as those shown by foals raised by their natural mothers.

Teaching your foal to accept bucket feeding very early on can make feeding time easier.

Bucket Feeding Foals-Milk Recipe

Does Milk Replacer Cause Any Negative Side Effects?

Be advised that your foal may develop diarrhea at about two weeks old even if you are feeding absolutely correctly.

Understand that foals raised by their own mothers often develop scours (diarrhea) at this age. This condition is known as foal heat.

It is speculated that this problem may be caused by an age-related change in the microflora and pH of the foal’s gut and may have nothing to do with the type of nourishment the foal is receiving.

Even so, some people have said that adding probiotics to the foal’s formula can help reduce this condition.

Foal heat should not last longer than two or three days. If a fever develops or the foal loses its appetite or the condition persists longer than three days, be sure to call your vet.

When Should You Wean Your Foal?

When Should You Wean Your Foal

When your orphaned foal reaches two weeks of age, you can begin offering it small amounts of a good quality of creep feed. This is feed that is specially formulated for foals.

Just keep a few bites available during the first week. If your foal is showing interest and is eating the small amounts offered, you can increase the amount gradually by a quarter pound a week.

By the time your foal is about three months old, he should be eating about 3 pounds of creep feed daily.

At three months of age, you can reduce milk replacer at a rate of 1 quart daily. Within a month or so, your foal should be completely weaned and eating only creep feed, grass and hay.

Work closely with your vet to devise just the right feeding plan as your foal matures.

With great care, attention to detail and close coordination with your veterinarian you can raise a healthy orphaned foal.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is better, nurse mare or bucket feeding?

With orphaned foals who are just a few days old, it’s always better to get a nurse mare if you can. Babies of all sorts just do better with a mom to provide sustenance, affection and important information on how to be in the world. If your orphaned foal is a few weeks old, bucket or bottle feeding is more likely to be successful, and it may be more economical.

How can you find a nurse mare?

Of course, the best possible situation would be finding or having a mare of your own or nearby who has her own baby and is willing to take on another one. Failing that, you may be able to find a nurse mare service which leases nursing mares for a period of six months. There are several such services around the United States. Your veterinarian may be able to direct you to a service.

How much colostrum does a newborn foal need?

A newborn foal needs about a quart of colostrum within eighteen hours of being born. Colostrum is first milk, and it conveys some of the mother’s immunity to the baby.

What happens if you are not able to get colostrum for an orphaned foal?

If you aren’t able to locate colostrum, you may be able to get the same or similar benefits by arranging a plasma transfer for the foal.

Where can you get colostrum for newborn foals?

There are colostrum banks that can provide this very important nutrition for newborns. Check with your vet to find out if there is a colostrum bank in your area.


  • Download the American Quarter Horse Racing Journal’s free eBook on Orphan Foal Care here.

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