The orphan foal and those requiring additional support

Dr Mina C.G. Davies Morel, University of Wales, Aberystwyth Ceredigion, SY23 3AL
Author of Davies Morel, M.C.G. 2003 Equine Reproductive Physiology, Breeding and Stud Management, CABI, Wallingford, Oxon, OX10 8DE. UK. ISBN 0 85199 643 4

For more information about the University of Wales, Aberystwyth click here

If you are in the very unfortunate position of loosing a mare at or soon after foaling you will find yourself with an orphan foal. Bringing up an orphan foal can be successful but is certainly challenging.

The inability of a dam to bring up her foal due to her death, illness or injury can be a serious setback for the foal. The newborn foal depends on its mother for a variety of things including colostrum, nourishment via milk, maternal affection and pyschological development. Any replacement dam has to satisfy all these needs. Survival rates in orphan foals were at one stage very low. However, research and development have now allowed the needs of the foal when changing from newborn to weanling to be better understood and the management of the orphan foal geared to suit these needs.

The treatment required by the foal depends upon when the problem occurred, under what conditions and the reason for additional support. For example, foals that have received no colostrum or a very limited amount need to be identified and fed colostrum immediately. If your mare died during parturition colostrum may be milked from her and fed to the foal. Foals that have been orphaned after 48 hours or so may have been able to suckle and should have received enough colostrum for adequate protection, this should be checked by a blood sample. Colostrum may be collected and frozen for up to five years, though it is suggested that some degeneration starts to occur after 12 months. Some studs routinely collect and freeze extra colostrum from mares that produce excess, or from those that lose their foals. Colostrum substitutes are available; colostrum from other animals was traditionally used but is now frowned upon due to digestive upsets arising from differences in composition. Alternatively, serum transfusions may be given to provide the foal with immediate protection.
In addition to classifying a foal according to its colostrum intake, its state of health and strength should also be assessed. Thus any assessment should compare the parameters of the orphan foal against those expected of a normal foal. A difficult birth, in addition to the death of the dam, will result in an orphaned foal requiring immediate intensive care, such as stomach tubing with colostrum; antibiotic treatment, precautionary against infection; multivitamin injection; oxygen replenishment or even blood transfusion. On the other hand, a strong orphan may readily suck from a bottle and not require additional treatment.

Apart from death, a dam may for some other reason be unable to raise her foal. The reasons for such failure are important when deciding upon the appropriate management. A mare may be unable to feed her foal through inadequate milk production, due to mastitis or a physical abnormality. In the case of mastitis the inability to produce milk may be permanent or temporary. If temporary the foal may only need supplementary feed to keep it going until the problem has cleared. If a mare seems physically unable to produce enough milk, her foal may be supplemented to a certain extent but left hungry enough to encourage it to suckle its mother. This suckling may then stimulate her mammary glands to increase their milk production. Occasionally, foals may need supplementing just for the first few days of life, especially if they are premature, so giving the mammary gland time to catch up and secrete adequate milk. In such cases the foal need not be removed from its mother, allowing the mother-foal bonding to continue: psychological damage to the foal is, therefore, limited.

Occasionally, if the birth has been particularly stressful, or in the case of some maiden mares, the foal may be rejected by its mother. This rejection may vary from disinterest to physical attack. Such mares may be sedated temporarily or the their foals fostered. Rejection is often only temporary, the mare subsequently accepting the foal. During such incidences of weak mare-foal bonding human interference must be minimised, as any external stimulus will only serve to worsen the situation. Intervention must be used only if the foal's well-being is at risk.
The vast majority of orphan, or bottle fed, foals are at a disadvantage as far as health status is concerned. Health care for such foals is, therefore, very important. All the routine parameters for the newborn foal should be checked at birth. It is also advisable to check temperature and heart rate twice daily for the first few weeks to allow rapid identification of problems, so that immediate treatment or further investigation can be undertaken. The foal may be helped by multivitamin and antibiotic injections.
Orphan foals and those requiring additional support, are more susceptible to the ordinary infections that normal foals take in their stride. They should be watched carefully and kept in a scrupulously clean environment. Diarrhoea is a common complaint of bottle fed foals, especially if fed artificial diets. The diarrhoea may be a direct result of the diet but may also be a sign of infection. Persistence after 24 hours should be considered as serious, as dehydration can bring a foal down very quickly. Respiratory diseases can also be a problem in orphan foals, so their housing should be draught and damp free while providing good ventilation. Meconium retention may also be a problem, especially in foals that have not received adequate colostrum, as colostrum acts as a laxative. An enema may be required and the foal watched for subsequent constipation.
As discussed, the loss of a mare deprives the foal of nutritional and psychological security. A foal can survive without the psychological stimulus of a mother though this may affect his long-term behaviour. It is not, however, able to survive without nutrition. There are several ways of providing that nutrition.

The fostering of a foal on to a mare that has lost her own foal is the best solution. This provides the foal with a source of nutrients and psychological security, and provides the mare with a substitute for her lost foal. The mare used should be as close in her stage of lactation as possible to the foal's natural mother. This is ideal as the nutritional components of the mare's milk, vary with time of lactation and are coordinated with the foal's developing requirements.

If no such foster mother is available, but there is a mare that has lost her foal in the last few weeks, then she can be used as a companion to the foal and will be an invaluable support to its psychological development. In such a case, the foal may be supplied with artificial foal milk, designed for the very young foal, in addition to being allowed to suckle its foster mother. If the foal shows signs of poor health, it can be prevented from suckling its foster mother and fed specially formulated foal diet for its age, but it will still have her psychological support.

Within the United Kingdom and in other countries “foaling banks” exist which arrange the teaming up of orphan foals and mares. Multiple suckling, the introduction of an orphan foal to a mare that has plenty of milk but with her own foal still at foot, is not very successful in horses. This technique is successfully practised with cattle, where milk yields are artificially high. In horses multiple suckling tends to lead to two poor foals and may lead to resentment between them. In North America nurse mares are available as foster mothers. These mares are exceptionally good milkers and are kept primarily for leasing out as foster mothers, after their own foals have been weaned early.
Once a foster mother has been found it can be quite tricky persuading her to accept the orphan foal. She is much more likely to accept a foreigner if it smells of her or her own foal. Tricks such as rubbing the placenta of the foster mother over the foal or skinning the dead foal and placing the skin over the orphan work quite well, but depend upon you, the mare and foal being all together at the right time. Later on, the orphan foal can be rubbed with the mare's urine, faeces or milk, especially in the head, neck, back and navel region again to mask its own foreign smell. Other tricks are used, such as rubbing strong smelling substances on the mare's nose and over the foal in an attempt to disguise its smell.

Once prepared the foal should be introduced to the mare with great care. One person must hold the mare and at least one hold the foal. They should be introduced to each other at the mare's head end and her reaction noted very carefully. If all goes well and she shows no objection, the foal can be allowed to slowly explore around the mare, making sure that plenty of assistance is available if the mare should object. The foal can then be introduced to the mare's udder and allowed to suckle, providing again the mare shows no signs of objection. Rarely will things go according to plan and the mare will often initially show signs of annoyance or objection to the orphan, in which case it should be removed and reintroduced to her head end again. Eventually, most mares will let the foal suckle and once this has occurred it can be left in a stable with her unrestrained for a period of time. The area should be relatively confined so that they remain in close contact with each other and the foal does not become isolated. Throughout this period observation at all time is very important and immediate action taken to remove the foal if the mare starts to object. Slow, patient progress will pay off and once the foal has suckled several times the mare will rarely object to it. After a couple of days they can be turned out into a small paddock alone to help develop the bond between them over a distance before introducing them to the melee of other mares and foals.
Problems with fostering do occur. Some mares, regardless of all persuasion, will not accept a foal and it should be given up as a bad job before humans and horses lose patience and the foal experiences yet another rejection. There are, however, various techniques to help persuade reluctant foster mothers, including the use of a crate in which the mare is held such that she is unable to turn around. The sides of the crate should be solid with a hole at the end nearest the udder through which the foal, which is outside the crate, can suckle. This can work quite well and after the foal has suckled several times the mare can be removed from the crate and she will often accept the foal. Other tricks are used to elicit the mare's protective response: the introduction of a dog or another mare within sight can induce a protective response in the mare towards the foal that often leads to acceptance, but the applicability of such means depends on the individuals concerned.

If all else fails a nanny goat may be used as a foster mother. It can be placed on an elevated platform for suckling, and its continual presence provides company for the foal. However, care must be taken, as goat's milk is not of the same composition as horse's milk, though it is nearer than cows. It has two-thirds the sugar content and three times the fat content of mare's milk and tends to cause gastrointestinal upsets especially associated with gas retention (bloating in the foal).

Artificial Diets
If it is not possible to find a foster mother or a foal requires supplementary feeding, there are specifically formulated equine milk substitutes available on the market (Table 1.). These are formulated to mimic the natural components of mare’s milk. All these dry powders must be mixed under sterile conditions with water and fed at 37.5 ?C. Other formulas are used based on cow's milk or dried cow's milk with added components to make up the shortfalls in cow's milk compared to mare's milk. These are not very successful, though still popular, and often result in gastrointestinal upsets, causing diarrhoea, dehydration and if not rectified a rapid decline in foal development and growth. If diarrhoea does occur, then milk substitutes should be replaced by a 50 % glucose-electrolyte solution made up in sterile water for one to two days, with the slow re-introduction of the milk substitute. Ensuring regular small feeds are fed rather than fewer large ones can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea. A young foal will naturally suckle seven times per hour. It is, therefore, necessary that frequent feeding is gradually reduced from once every one to two hours during the first few days to every two hours after two weeks of age. Specially designed mare's milk substitutes are widely available nowadays and there is no excuse for feeding other formulas except in real emergencies.

Fat filled powder(20% fat)
Spray dried skimmed Milk powder
Spray dried whey powder
*High grade fat
Dicalcium phosphate
Sodium chloride
**Vitamins/trace elements

Disperse in clean water at a rate of 175gl-1
May also be pelleted and mixed with a stud mix as a weaning feed for orphan foals
*High quality tallow and lard, including dispersing agent. Stabilised vegetable oil could be alternatively added at the time of mixing
**To provide vitamin A, D3, E, K3, riboflavin, thiamine, nicotinic acid, pantothenic acid, folic acid, cyanocobalamin, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, iodine and selenium.

Table 1. An example composition of a foal milk replacer for use with
orphan foals or those that require additional nutritional support.

During the first few days of life the orphan foal should also be given a broad spectrum antibiotic plus multi-vitamin injection to give it an extra boost over, what is to it, a very stressful time. The foal should be watched carefully and help called at any signs of trouble. Orphan foals tend to go down hill much quicker than those with their mothers. For the first few weeks the orphan foal will need to receive its milk via a bottle, and a large plastic squash bottle with a lamb teat works quite well. It is very difficult to prescribe how much and how often it should be fed, as there is no hard and fast rule. However, as a rough guide 110-220 g of milk should be fed every hour in the first week to ensure a daily intake of 9-10 MJ DE. Over the first few weeks daily intake should increase to 9-18 l, and with time the frequency of feeding can decrease (week two every two hours, week three every three hours, week four every four hours). After four weeks it may be fed just four times day-1. The exact timing and amount depends on the introduction and acceptance of milk in a bucket and/or concentrate feed. After about day three to five made-up milk powder can be placed in a bucket and hung at a level giving easy access for the foal. This will allow it to wean itself slowly off the bottle and on to the bucket. Some foals feed from the bucket very quickly, others need more encouragement. It must be ensured that the milk is always clean and fresh, otherwise the foal will be discouraged from taking it. Warm milk and encouragement by licking off human fingers can help a reluctant foal accept bucket milk. Some foals, instead of moving over to bucket feeding, are kept on bottle feeds by use of an automatic feeder. The more sophisticated automatic feeders mix and regulate the amount and temperature of the milk delivered, and the foal sucks through a conveniently placed teat in its pen wall. Less sophisticated machines require manual refilling with pre mixed milk. Either, if accepted, reduces the labour, especially at night if there are several orphan foals to be fed. It is very important that such feeders are regularly stripped down and sterilised as bacteria build up rapidly in such an ideal environment and can cause the foal immense problems.

Introduction of Solids
Many people recommend the introduction of solids as early as one week of age, though the foal's intake at this time will be very limited. Introduction at an early age gives the foal time to become accustomed to solid feed and gradually wean itself off milk. This progression from milk to solids can be helped by introducing foal milk pellets as a half way house. As soon as the foal is eating a regular amount of concentrates then the milk pellets fed can be reduced. Ad-lib access to fresh green grass, or alfalfa as a substitute, will also encourage a foal to eat. By two weeks of age, the foal should be turned out, at least for part of the day, with a companion, weather permitting, into a small safe paddock. This will introduce it to fresh grass and allow it room to stretch its legs and experiment with movement and investigate its new environment.
By two months of age most orphan foals are consuming enough concentrates to allow them to be weaned off milk. The exact time will depend on the foal's well-being, and final weaning should not be attempted unless the foal is fit and healthy, as it will always result in a slight setback. Orphan foals can be fed normal proprietary foal creep feeds.

By three months the foal should be completely weaned off milk and fed on a ration of concentrate to supplement fresh grass and forage. With orphan foals in particular a close watch should be placed on the foal's body weight and its diet should be changed to accommodate any significant rise or fall in condition. As with normal foals under- or over- condition can be detrimental to growth and development.

Discipline and the Orphan Foal
One of the problems encountered more often with orphan foals than those brought up by their dams, is bad behaviour. The presence of the mare acts to discipline the foal, teaching it respect for others, both horses and humans, and passing on, it is hoped, good behavioural characteristics. Hand-reared foals can become over friendly with, and lack respect for, human beings, treating them much as they would other foals and horses with nipping, kicking, chasing etc. If this is allowed to get out of hand, such animals can be extremely hard to handle in later life.

To avoid this, orphan foals should be allowed sight of other horses as soon as possible. Direct contact may be dangerous at such a young age unless a foster mother has been arranged, but sight and smell will help. By the time they are one to two months old they should have an established gentle companion, one that is placid and does not bully the foal, Shetland ponies and/or donkeys are often used. By four to five months of age they should be able to cope with other weanlings and can be run out together, allowing play and social interaction with other compatriots. Discipline, while in the company of humans, should continue to be strict and consistent.

It is evident that bringing up an orphan foal can be very challenging but also very rewarding, especially in knowing that without your intervention the foal most certainly would have died.

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