Your Guide to Equine Health Care

Orphan Foal Behavior

An equine behavior expert offers advice on raising and training an orphan foal to reduce future unwanted behaviors.

orphan foal behavior
When a foal plays rough with herdmates, the others will either play rough too or they threaten or strongly rebuff his antics. Both of these scenarios are impossible for a human to replicate. | Photo: iStock

Q.A friend recently lost her mare during foaling, and she’s now hand-raising the foal as she hasn’t been able to find a nurse mare. I’ve heard orphan foals can develop some behavior problems if they’re hand-reared. Is this true, and how can my friend prevent these problems from developing? And, while she doesn’t have another mare on the property, there’s an older gelding and his pony friend. Would these horses be suitable companions for the orphan foal?

—Via e-mail

A.Yes, hand-reared foals can develop behavior problems, but they are not necessarily inevitable or

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

2 Responses

  1. Could you explain more about using both positive and negative reinforcement with the foal and gives some examples of when each would be appropriate?

  2. You didn’t mention that you can create your own nurse mare, as long as you have access to a mare. You don’t need a mare that has recently given birth is still lactating to serve as a nurse mare. Giving a mare domperidone will induce lactation after a period of several days. Won’t produce colostrum, but will give the foal the experience of nursing, may be able to supply complete nutrition and will provide the foal with maternal guidance and horse education. It is best to use a mare that has been a mother before. We have done this in the past, although even a few days of hand-rearing can result in a horse with poor ground manners!

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