An orphan foal is a young horse that cannot nurse their birth mother. Foals may be orphaned for a number of reasons, including the mare’s death or severe illness, rejection of the foal, or the mare’s failure to produce adequate amounts of milk. [1]

Orphan foals require special care and attention, as they miss out on the essential nutrients usually provided by the mare’s milk. Foals that are orphaned in the first day of life are in a particularly precarious situation because they may not get sufficient colostrum to protect them from common diseases.

All foals require a milk-based diet for the first three to four months of life. [2] There are various ways to supply milk to an orphan foal, including the use of a nurse mare, or milk replacers.

In addition to nutritional challenges, orphan foals often face developmental and behavioral challenges due to the absence of maternal interaction and guidance. Human caregivers must not only provide nutritional substitutes, but also ensure proper socialization to support the foal’s development into adulthood.

Caring for an orphan foal is a significant commitment, requiring time, resources, and knowledge. This article will outline key management practices to ensure a healthy foal despite the circumstances.

Caring for Orphan Foals

Foals are reliant on their mother’s milk to meet their nutritional requirements and support healthy growth.

A mare’s nurturing and other maternal behaviors, such as grooming, physical closeness, and teaching social cues, also play a role in the foal’s overall development and well-being.

But in some cases, foals become separated from their mothers or cannot nurse from them. This separation can occur due to various reasons, including the following:

  • Maternal Death: The most common cause of a foal becoming an orphan is the death of the mare due to complications during birth, health issues, or accidents.
  • Mare Rejects the Foal: Occasionally, mares may reject or display aggressive behavior towards their foals. This rejection can be due to stress, inexperience, illness, or instinctual behaviors.
  • Mare’s Inability to Produce Milk: Some mares are unable to lactate or produce sufficient milk to feed their foal. This can be due to health conditions, nutritional deficiencies, or age-related issues.
  • Mare’s Illness or Injury: A mare might be unable to care for her foal due to illness, injury, or post-birth complications, making the foal effectively orphaned.
  • Human Intervention: In certain circumstances, human intervention can lead to a foal being orphaned.
  • Emergency Situations: Foals can become orphans if they are rescued from situations where the mare is no longer present or able to care for them, including natural disasters.

Feeding an Orphan Foal

Ensuring these young horses develop into healthy adults without their mother’s milk requires a well-considered feeding and management approach. The specific feeding approach depends on the foal’s age at the time of orphaning and the available resources.

For newborn foals, the immediate priority is ensuring they receive colostrum, the mare’s first milk. Colostrum is rich in antibodies, which are essential to protect the foal from infectious diseases.

Foals must get enough high-quality colostrum within the first few hours of life to rapidly establish their immune system. [10] In the absence of the mare, finding a colostrum substitute is imperative.

Foals orphaned later but still before the typical weaning age of five to six months also require special care to meet their nutritional requirements. [2]

The primary aim in feeding orphan foals is to provide them with the same milk volume and caloric intake they would naturally get from nursing. [2] It’s also important to introduce good quality forage and other creep feeds at the right time, simulating the natural progression where a foal learns to eat solid foods.

Throughout this process, closely monitoring the foal’s health and growth is vital. Regular veterinary check-ups help identify and address any nutritional deficiencies or health concern.

Newborn Foals

In their first days of life, foals are particularly vulnerable to diseases because they are born with an immature immune system. Newborn foals require adequate colostrum from their dam to ensure successful passive transfer of immunity.

Immunoglobulins or antibodies in colostrum begin to establish the foal’s immune system and provide initial protection against infectious diseases. [3][4][5][6]

The mare and foal should be monitored closely for signs of insufficient colostrum intake, which can include: [15]

  • The mare is displaying aggression toward the foal.
  • The mare is uninterested in or unable to bond with the foal.
  • The mare’s teats are not noticeably filling (“bagging up”) before and after foaling.
  • The mare experiences premature lactation, resulting in limited colostrum availability for the foal.
  • The foal is suckling constantly but appears dehydrated.

Donor Colostrum

Sourcing an alternate supply of colostrum is of paramount importance for newborn foals orphaned on their first day of life.

Donor colostrum must be provided promptly: both the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum and the foal’s ability to absorb these antibodies diminish rapidly within the first 24 hours of life.

If the mare is unavailable to nurse the foal within 4 hours of birth, the foal must be provided with another source of colostrum. However, it can be challenging to find a suitable substitute for colostrum, which is rich in antibodies and other critical factors. [1][7]

As a result, many breeders collect and store extra colostrum from healthy mares after they give birth for future use. Commercial colostrum banks also provide an alternative for sourcing high-quality colostrum.

When using donor colostrum, it’s typically advised to administer 300 – 500 ml (10 – 17 ounces) 1 – 4 times within the first 6 hours after birth. This should be followed by feedings every two hours for the first 24 hours. [20]

Donor colostrum must be tested to ensure its quality by measuring levels of immunoglobulin G (IgG), the main antibody present. [2]

A Brix refractometer can be used to estimate the IgG content on-farm. For effective passive transfer of immunity, only use colostrum with at least 23% IgG. [21]

Transfer of Passive Immunity

All foals should be assessed by a veterinarian at 1 – 2 days of age. This evaluation typically includes a blood test to measure IgG levels, determining whether the foal has received adequate antibodies from colostrum. [9]

Foals orphaned on the first day of life are at high risk of insufficient antibody intake, especially if donor colostrum isn’t available within the first 12 hours of life.

In cases where providing colostrum is not possible, the next best alternative is the direct transfusion of antibodies into the bloodstream. [11] This procedure involves a veterinarian extracting antibodies from the blood of a healthy, mature horse and administering them intravenously to the newborn foal.

Once the orphaned foal has received adequate antibodies to protect against infectious diseases, the next critical decision is whether to feed the foal with milk from a nurse mare or provide a liquid milk replacer.

Using a Nurse Mare

A nurse mare is a lactating female horse that steps in to foster an orphan foal. These mares may have either recently foaled themselves or been hormonally induced to produce milk.

While finding a good nurse mare can be challenging, particularly in regions with fewer breeding operations, areas with a high concentration of breeders often have professional services offering nurse mares for lease.

Opting for a nurse mare comes with several benefits beyond just providing the foal with nutritional support. These mares also establish a nurturing bond with the foal and offer protection and social interaction, which are critical for the foal’s healthy and holistic development.

However, the process of introducing a nurse mare to an orphan foal can be labor-intensive and costly. Despite this initial investment, using a nurse mare often proves less time-consuming in the long term. This is because the foal is primarily raised by the mare, significantly reducing the need for human intervention. [1]

Choosing a Nurse Mare

Depending on availability in your region, you may have limited options for choosing a nurse mare to foster your foal. However, several key factors should be considered to ensure a successful introduction and positive long-term growth and development outcomes for the foal. [1]

  • Temperament: Choose a mare with a calm and kind temperament. This reduces the risk of injury to both the foal and its handler and results in better bonding.
  • Mare Health: Screen potential nurse mares for diseases to prevent transmission of infections to the foal. Diseases such as Equine Herpesvirus (EHV1), Strangles, and other infections can pose serious health risks to young foals.
  • Stage of Lactation: Choose a mare that is in a stage of lactation similar to that of the foal. If the nurse mare is in a later stage of lactation than what the foal requires, additional measures like creep feeding might be necessary to ensure the foal receives adequate nutrition.
  • Similar Breed: Opt for a nurse mare of a similar breed to the foal can help align the milk’s volume and nutritional content with the foal’s specific requirements. This consideration is especially important to prevent issues like excessively rapid growth, which can occur if the milk composition does not suit the foal’s breed-specific needs.

Introducing the Nurse Mare

Proper introduction of a nurse mare to an orphan foal is essential for successful acclimation and the development of a mare-foal bond. Most nurse mares will accept a foal within 12 hours to 3 days of acclimation, although it can sometimes take up to 10 days. [1][12]

The introduction should be done in a controlled, calm environment to minimize stress for both animals. The process requires several days of close supervision and careful desensitization, which should be conducted by experienced personnel.

Key to the success of this introduction is ensuring the nurse mare’s comfort and happiness. An anxious mare is more likely to reject a foal, so efforts to minimize her stress are crucial. [1][12]

If the nurse mare is being transported to the foal’s location, allow her sufficient rest before being introduced to the foal. This includes offering free choice access to palatable hay and providing plenty of fresh, clean water.[1][7]

Additionally, offering palatable feed during the initial meetings can be beneficial. Associating the presence and suckling of the foal with the enjoyment of feed can help the mare form a positive connection with the foal, further easing the transition. [12]

Using Smell

The sense of smell is the primary way for a mare in identifying her foal at close range.

Smell is a mare’s primary sense for identifying foals in close-range. To minimize the risk of rejection, it’s beneficial to make the orphan foal smell like the nurse mare. [12]

Techniques for this include rubbing the foal with the nurse mare’s feces, sweat, or milk. [1][12]

This olfactory mimicry should be maintained until a clear bond is formed between the mare and foal. Afterward, the mare can be gradually exposed to the foal’s natural scent. [1]

Using Restraint

Physical and chemical restraint are sometimes advisable to prevent injury to the foal. These restraints can come in the form of:

  • Sedation: During initial introductions, the mare may be lightly sedated to reduce the risk of injury to both the foal and handler. [1] It’s essential to have sedation administered by a veterinarian to prevent the foal from ingesting sedatives through the mare’s milk. [12]
  • Restriction of Movement in Stall: To facilitate nursing without interference, the mare may be tied along the side of a stall. [12] Hobbles may be employed for mares that are already trained to wear them.
  • Use of a Nurse Mare Chute: An alternative to tying in a stall is using a nurse mare chute. This setup includes a side panel with a nursing window and a front panel that prevents the mare from exiting. [12]

As the nurse mare becomes accustomed to her new foal, you can gradually remove the mare’s restraints. The mare and foal should be observed together in a stall for 24 hours without restraints, followed by supervised turnout time in a paddock. [12]

After careful introduction, the new mare and foal pair can be turned out in a field with other mares and foals. This is an ideal solution for the orphan foal, because it allows socialization with both their new mother and the rest of the herd.

Feeding a Milk Replacer

Although a nurse mare is ideal to support the foal’s social development, this may not always be a viable option. In such cases, hand rearing the foal with an milk replacer is the best option.

Equine milk replacers are typically composed of a balanced blend of fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, designed to mimic the nutritional profile of mare’s milk. [11] Various types of milk replacers have been studied for feeding orphaned foals, but those specifically designed for foals are recommended. [7]

When selecting a milk replacer, it’s important to read the feed tag carefully and choose a product with approximately: [7][13]

  • 15% fat
  • 22% crude protein
  • Less than 0.5% fiber

Alternatives

If equine milk replacers are not available, you may need to consider alternatives such as goat’s or cow’s milk.

When using cow’s milk, choose semi-skimmed (2% fat) and add 20 grams of dextrose per litre of milk to better approximate the composition of horse’s milk. [2] Calf milk replacer is another option, provided it has a suitable composition and is free of antibiotics.

For foals that experience diarrhea or gastrointestinal issues with cow’s milk, goat’s milk can be a more digestible alternative. It can be fed as-is but is generally less available and more costly than cow’s milk. [8]

How to Feed Milk Replacer

Equine milk replacers are typically sold as a powder that needs to be mixed with water prior to feeding.

Most manufacturer’s suggest a 10 – 15% solution, which can be achieved by mixing 100 – 150 grams of milk replacer powder into each litre of water. [7][13]

How Much to Feed

The volume of milk replacer offered should mimic the volume of milk that a foal would garner from nursing. This amount increases as the foal ages.

The correct amount of milk replacer for a foal is determined as a percentage of the foal’s body weight, requiring frequent assessment of the foal’s current weight.

Daily milk replacer volume for a 50 kg (110 lb) foal during the first seven days of life [1]

Age
(days)
Recommendation
% Body Weight
Milk Volume
Litres
Milk Volume
Gallons
First
24 hours
15% 7.5 2
2 days
old
22 – 23% 11 – 11.5 2.9 – 3.04
7 days
old
25% 12.5 3.3

 

Continue to feed the foal milk replacer at 25% of the foal’s body weight until 8 – 12 weeks of age, depending on their growth rate and intake to other feed. [2]

Meal Frequency

Adopting a feeding strategy of more frequent, smaller meals is advised for consistent growth of orphan foals. [7] Additionally, this feeding pattern can help avoid diarrhea and other digestive problems that orphan foals are prone to.

This approach is particularly important as milk replacers usually have a higher energy density compared to mare’s milk. [1] Smaller, more regular feedings help to prevent excessive calorie intake in a single feeding.

The following feeding schedule enables you to mimic natural nursing patterns: [1][8][17]

  • First two days of life: Offer milk replacer (or colostrum) every 1 – 2 hours.
  • Three days to two weeks of age: Offer milk replacer every two hours.
  • Three weeks to eight weeks of age: Gradually increase milk replacer volume per feeding and decrease frequency of feeding.
  • Eight weeks of age: At this stage, the foal should be receiving four feedings per day.

Feeding Method

Orphan foals are often fed with a bottle during the first 1 – 2 weeks of life, after which the suckling reflex typically subsides. [1] Milk replacer can then be fed from a pail, or with an automated milk feeding device. [7][14]

Once foals are acclimated to drinking milk replacer, their appetite is typically greater than their nutritional needs. As a result, free choice milk replacer feeding is not recommended, because it could lead to excessive weight gain. [1]

Management Considerations

If you are hand rearing an orphan foal, consider the following factors to ensure the foal has the best possible start in life.

Sanitation:

You can reduce the risk of illness in vulnerable young foals by thoroughly cleaning any tools used for hand rearing, such as bottles, nipples, and storage containers.

Additionally, unused milk should be refrigerated to avoid spoilage. [1]

Fluid Intake:

To maintain proper hydration, foals also need to consume a significant volume of water in addition to milk replacers.

Average-sized foals will drink 16.3 – 17.5 liters of liquid (milk and water) per day starting from one week of age. By seven weeks old, the total volume of liquid consumed per day decreases to 12.75 – 13.5 liters. [7]

Provide constant access to fresh, clean water to your foals. Closely monitor their total liquid intake in the early stages of life. Decreased appetite and suckling ability can be a sign of illness, such as sepsis. [16]

Foal Diarrhea:

Monitoring liquid intake is particularly important for foals affected by diarrhea, which is fairly common during acclimation to milk replacer.

Diarrhea in orphan foals can be addressed by feeding smaller meals. Additionally, probiotics may be helpful for foals that are more than 24 hours old and don’t have a compromised gastrointestinal barrier. [1]

To manage diarrhea in orphan foals, provide smaller, more frequent meals. Feeding a probiotic supplement can be beneficial for foals older than 24 hours, provided they don’t have an impaired gastrointestinal barrier. [1]

Behavioral Considerations

When hand-rearing an orphan foal, it’s important to focus on comprehensive care beyond just feeding. This includes creating a safe and comfortable living space, consistent health monitoring, gentle handling, and ensuring proper bonding.

Turnout:

Allowing foals adequate turnout is important to support healthy growth and development. In addition, turnout with appropriate equine companionship helps hand-reared foals develop normal social skills. [1][2]

Orphan Foal Syndrome:

Orphan foals that are not properly socialized with other horses often develop a stronger attachment to humans than to their equine counterparts, a condition referred to as orphan foal syndrome. Foals with this syndrome exhibit the following behaviours: [1]

  • A lack of understanding of a human’s personal space
  • Poor ground manners
  • Underdeveloped flight instincts
  • A higher likelihood of causing injury to handlers

Equine Companions:

To prevent these problems, it’s advisable to introduce a horse companion to hand-reared foals as early as possible. Equine companions can help orphan foals learn important skills such as: [1]

  • Grazing
  • Understanding herd hierarchy
  • Playing

Older equines such as retired ponies are ideal companions for hand reared orphan foals. Alternatively, if weaning on your farm has already begun, weaning-aged foals can be housed with a herd of mares and foals.

Regardless of the chosen companion, ensure your foal can spend time with their companion in a pasture, and stable them in a way that they can continue to see, hear, and smell each other. [1]

Monitoring Growth

Monitoring the growth rate of orphan foals is crucial, as early life disruptions in milk intake or composition can impact their developments. For horse owners hand-rearing foals, tracking growth rate is essential for making informed decisions about adjusting feeding amounts and schedules.

Regular assessments should be made, including measurements of weight, height, and body condition ideally every two to four weeks.

  • Weight: Estimated by measuring heart girth and using the weight foal weight equation.
  • Height: Measured with a height stick or weight tape from the ground to the highest point of the withers.
  • Body Condition: Assessed using the Henneke body condition scoring system, where foals should ideally score between 4 and 6 on the 9-point scale.

Excess Weight Gain

Hand-reared foals should exhibit growth rates comparable to those raised by their mares. However, since milk replacer is typically more calorie-dense than natural milk, there is a risk of overfeeding, leading to excessive weight gain.

This is a concern as high daily weight gain can lead to developmental orthopedic diseases such as physitis and other conditions like osteochondrosis, which can affect the foal’s joints and skeletal development. [1]

For foals gaining too much weight, a reduction in milk replacer or creep feed is advisable. It’s important to consult with an equine nutritionist to ensure that the foal’s vitamin and mineral needs continue to be met despite the dietary adjustments.

Weaning the Orphan Foal

Orphan foals can be weaned slightly earlier than nursing foals to reduce the labour associated with frequent milk feeding.

Hand-reared foals can be weaned around 3.5 to 4 months old, compared to the typical weaning age of around 6 months. After weaning, it’s important to transition to a diet that is balanced for the needs of growing horses. [13]

Foals will begin nibbling grain and hay within days of birth by mimicking their dam or companion. [1][7] However, this early foraging behavior does not contribute significantly to their nutritional needs at this stage.

By 3 weeks of age, the foal’s digestive system can digest solid feed and hindgut fermentation is established around 3 to 4 months of age. [1]

Introducing Solid Feeds

The introduction of solid feeds to foals can be done either by allowing them to share their mare’s feed or through creep feeding. Creep feed refers to any feed provided specifically for the foal that is separate from what the mare receives.

Orphan foals given creep feed often experience higher daily weight gains, making it an effective option for foals that are not growing adequately. Additionally, creep feeding can ease the stress of weaning, as both the diet and meal schedules remain relatively consistent before and after the weaning process. [18][19]

The estimated feed intake for orphan foals is: [14]

  • In the first month of life: less than one kg per 100 kg (220 lb) of body weight
  • By seven weeks of age: 1.5 to 2 kg per 100 kg (220 lb) of body weight

Feeds should be introduced gradually and provided in an energy density and amount that supports steady growth. Furthermore, it’s crucial to ensure the diet meets the foal’s protein, vitamin, and mineral needs.

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Summary

  • An orphan foal is a young horse that has been separated from its mother and lacks her care, protection, and, most critically, her milk.
  • Orphan foals, especially those orphaned on the first day, require immediate donor colostrum for immune protection and a milk-based diet for the first 3-4 months.
  • Orphan foals often face difficulties due to the absence of maternal care. A nurse mare is ideal to provide nutritional support and socialization for proper development.
  • Milk replacers are necessary when a nurse mare isn’t available. The feeding amount should mimic natural nursing, and the foal’s growth should be regularly monitored to adjust feeding as needed.
  • Orphan foals can be weaned around 3.5 – 4 months by gradually introducing appropriate creep feeds.
  • Consult with your veterinarian and an equine nutritionist if you have questions about feeding or caring for your orphaned foal.

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References

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  2. Stoneham, S.J., et. al.Nutritional management and practical feeding of the orphan foal. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. 2016.
  3. Ogundele, M.ORole and significance of the complement system in mucosal immunity: Particular reference to the human breast milk complement. Immunology & Cell Biology. 2001.
  4. Yang, B., et. al. <"https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3059212/"_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Characterization of Bioactive Recombinant Human Lysozyme Expressed in Milk of Cloned Transgenic Cattle. PLoS One. 2011.
  5. Superti, F.<"https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551115/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Lactoferrin from Bovine Milk: A Protective Companion for Life. Nutrients. 2020.
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  7. National Research Council Chapter 12: Unique Aspects of Equine Nutrition. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. 2007.
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  9. Perkins, GA. Wagner. B. The development of equine immunity: Current knowledge onimmunology in the young horse. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2014.
  10. Carillo, B. et al. Mare colostrum and milk composition through 36 h post-parturition. JAS. 2019.
  11. Bedford, H. Feeding orphaned foals.University of Minnesota Extension: Horse Health. Accessed November 22, 2023.
  12. Lewis, L.D. Chapter 15: Growing Horse Feeding and Care. Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and care. 1995.
  13. Naylor, J.M. and Bell, R. Raising the Orphan Foal. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. 1985.
  14. Cymbaluk, N.F. et al. Importance of milk replacer intake and composition in rearing orphan foals. The Canadian veterinary journal. 1993.
  15. Grogan, E.H. and McDonnell, S.M. Mare and Foal Bonding and Problems. Clin Techniques Equine Pract. 2005.
  16. Toribo, R.E. and Mudge, M.C. Diseases of the foal. Equine Medicine, Surgery and Reproduction. 2012.
  17. Ousey, J.C. Feeding the newborn foal in health and disease. Equine Veterinary Educ. 2010.
  18. Coleman, R.J., et.al. Growth and condition at weaning of extensively managed creep-fed foals. JEVS. 1999.
  19. McCall, C.A., et.al. Locomotor, vocal and other behavioral responses to varying methods of weaning foals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 1985.
  20. Nait, L.C. et al. Use of stored equine colostrum for the treatment of foals perceived to be at risk for failure of transfer of passive immunity. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2010.
  21. Schneider, F. and Wehrend, A., [Quality Assessment of Bovine and Equine Colostrum – An Overview]. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. 2019.