Foaling lying in pasture

How to handle your orphan’s diet challenges and behavior issues

When breeding farm owner Nicole Walden lost one of her broodmares to a slow, imperceptible hemorrhage about 10 hours after foaling, she found herself struggling with the best way to handle the orphan filly.

In the past she’d leased nurse mares, but this year Walden wanted to spend less. The $3,500 mare rental plus $1,000 in shipping each way from Pennsylvania to her Total Quarter Horses, in Farmersville, Texas, yielded a disappointing cost-benefit analysis. So, because the foal had nursed for at least eight hours before the mare died, negating the need to find a colostrum (the mare’s antibody- and nutrient-rich first milk) source, Walden called up some experienced colleagues and a reproduction specialist to discuss her options. She then formulated a plan and worked with her veterinarian to ensure a good outcome for the foal.

That filly is now 8 months old and, although slightly less socialized due to being raised outside the group, on par with her peers and doesn’t exhibit negative “orphan foal behaviors.” Read on to find out what worked for Walden, along with two veterinarians’ recommendations for managing orphans.

Feeding & Health Issues

Your first concern with an orphan foal is getting colostrum into him. And not just at any point in time, but within the first few hours after foaling. “Foals are born naive, meaning they have none of their own antibodies,” says Pam Karner, VMD, of Starland Veterinary Services, in Trumansburg, New York. “So they’ve got to get colostrum within the first 24 hours and preferably within the first 12, because immunoglobulins (IgG, aka antibodies) in the colostrum are very large molecules, and after 24 hours the foal’s gut can no longer absorb them.”

In fact, a foal absorbs 85% of the colostral antibodies in six to eight hours.

Walden says she uses an older-type manual human breast pump to collect colostrum from her heavier-milking mares to freeze for future needs. And if the dam has died within the past few minutes, she milks out the colostrum from the mare’s udder.

Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, who has both raised orphan foals and worked with other owners of orphans, says this technique only works if the mare has just died (so the milk is not tainted).

“For foals that do not suckle well or are reluctant to eat, it’s best not to try to force them to eat, as the milk can easily end up in the trachea and cause pneumonia,” she says. “Instead, refrigerate the colostrum and immediately call your veterinarian to come look at the foal and provide the colostrum by passing a nasogastric tube and delivering it directly into the stomach.”

In the absence of mare colostrum, some horse owners have had success with colostrum from other species—particularly goats or cattle. From a veterinarian’s viewpoint, cow and goat colostrum might work in a pinch, but mare colostrum is ideal. Many large breeding farms bank and freeze mare colostrum in case they need it and could be a source for individual ­owners.

The best colostrum, regardless of species, contains a large amount of immunoglobulins that will protect the foal against common infections as well as local pathogens. Obtaining colostrum from local mares that are well-vaccinated against diseases such as influenza, herpesvirus, strangles, Potomac horse fever, rabies, and tetanus provides the best protection against bugs foals are likely to encounter, says Buechner-Maxwell.

“You want your foal to be protected from the pathogens around them, so you want them to get colostrum from animals in the same environment,” Karner says. “Once those antibodies are used up, the foal is making its own antibodies.”

When evaluating an orphan, ­Buechner-Maxwell right away uses a quick, simple, stall-side blood test to measure IgG transfer (the amount of antibodies received from the colostrum) and, so, check its immunity levels.

“If it’s inadequate, I’ll provide additional protection immediately,” she says.

The substitute might be a commercial colostrum replacement or plasma product. Commercial colostrum replacement products come in powder or paste form. Owners mix the powder with water (following manufacturers’ directions) and feed it in a bottle or pan; they can deliver the paste to the foal’s mouth. 

“Colostrum replacement products raise the concentration of IgG in the foal’s bloodstream,” says Buechner-Maxwell. “However, it is not clear that providing IgG alone provides full protection, as mare’s colostrum contains many other beneficial elements (including some of the mare’s immune cells) besides IgG.

“Another alternative is providing equine plasma,” she adds. “If the foal is less than 6 to 12 hours old and is clinically normal, the plasma can be delivered orally. If the foal is older than 12 hours and/or has already received several feedings of milk or milk replacer or is ill, then the best way to deliver the plasma is through the intravenous route, which should be done by a veterinarian.”

Regardless of the source, always check blood concentrations of IgG after giving the foal a commercial product, she adds.

Foals that don’t receive colostrum within the first day after foaling are highly susceptible to infections from organisms that cause diarrhea (aka scours) and other bacterial and viral infections that can even progress to sepsis, a potentially deadly body-wide state of inflammation. It’s important to check IgG early on because “once an animal starts to get sick, especially an equine neonate, it’s really a downward spiral,” Karner says.

Diarrhea in foals can be life-threatening, so call your veterinarian if it occurs.

Momma vs. Milk Replacer

Obviously, the closer to nature you can get, the better for the foal, so finding a nurse mare is your best-case scenario. Googling “nurse mare” will bring up some options, including networks for individuals who are searching for or offering nurse mares. There are also commercial providers—farms that breed mares for the express purpose of providing nurse mares and then find “foster parents” for their now-orphaned foals.

Another alternative for obtaining a nurse mare is to work with your veterinarian to chemically induce lactation and/or motherly behavior in a surrogate dam by administering hormones to a mare that hasn’t foaled. Know that it does, however, take about 10 to 12 days for the hormone therapy to take effect.

Buechner-Maxwell says foals generally suckle twice an hour, drinking 25% of their body weight daily by 1½ to 2 weeks of age. “So a 50-kg (110-lb) foal will drink 12 liters or more of milk a day,” she says. “That’s a lot. In our clinic we’ve got a technician on duty to feed the sick foals every two hours, but that’s hard for most people so I suggest a milk replacer.”

Last year’s orphan is the first Walden has raised on milk replacer, to which she added probiotics for gut flora. She placed the filly with an older mare as a companion and teacher.

“The mare didn’t have any milk, but the baby would drink the milk replacer until her belly was full, then she’d go over and suckle on that mare for a couple of minutes, then lie down and go to sleep,” says Walden.

Bottle or Bucket?

Even among vets, opinions vary as to which is better for feeding—a bottle or a bucket. The key is to make sure the foal doesn’t associate the human with his feed.

Walden used a bucket. Getting the filly on the bucket “wasn’t as hard as I thought,” she says. “It took three or four days, feeding her every three hours. I found that if the filly was on the hungry side, she’d put her head wherever she needed to to drink.”

After the filly was drinking well out of the bucket, Walden started mixing enough to last four hours. Then she stretched it to every six hours. “I eventually had to make a little creep feeder (designed to accommodate a foal’s muzzle and prevent a larger horse from accessing feed) because the mare decided she liked the milk replacer, too!” she says.

Walden recommends asking other breeders for milk replacer brand recommendations. Where one was good for 12 hours but didn’t smell as naturally milklike, another smelled like fresh, whole milk but didn’t last as long once mixed due to its higher fat content. Still another brand caused the filly to scour. Walden settled on mixing her two preferred brands together, and the filly thrived. If you do switch between milk replacer brands, however, do so gradually to prevent gastrointestinal upset.

Lastly, Walden stresses the importance of keeping flies out of the mixed milk replacer when leaving it out. “I kept livestock fans on a timer, to go off at midnight and on again at 6 a.m.,” she says.

Creep Feeding & Weaning

Walden says when her filly began eating the companion mare’s food, she started her on a free-choice milk-based creep pellet in addition to the milk replacer. Then it was a natural step for the filly to switch to regular feed.

Foals’ gastrointestinal tracts aren’t prepared to transition to solid food until they’re at least a couple of months old, says Buechner-Maxwell, and even then they’re going to struggle because they depend on a microbial population to help them digest material such as hay. “Their colon doesn’t develop that capacity fully until they’re 6 to 10 months old,” she added, “and in the wild that works because they’re usually not weaned until the next foal comes along. But we wean them earlier, so I recommend starting with a creep-fed complete, pelleted junior feed that’s easily chewed and digested.”

At weaning Walden put her filly with six weanlings, adjacent to her companion mare. “They can touch noses, and the filly still hangs out with the mare,” she says.

Behavior Issues

Attachment to humans presents the biggest behavior issue with orphans: their tendency to lack normal human-horse boundaries. “They become too bonded to a human,” Buechner-Maxwell says. “I know of at least two orphans that have had to be put down because their behavior was just so (dangerously) abnormal.

“Even the (now 11-year-old) orphan foal we have is far too aggressive—not in a mean way, but just wanting to be playful and near us,” she adds. “I’m always on guard with him. The key is to minimize human interaction with the foal until it’s bonded appropriately to an adult horse.”

For these reasons Walden says she tried to have as little contact with the filly as possible. “I’d scratch her a bit, but only as much as I would the other foals,” she says. “I get them people-friendly, but I don’t halter-break them until I wean them.

“The only difference I see in her is not even a negative,” Walden adds. “Like any mare and foal that have been kept separate from others, she doesn’t interact and play as much as the other youngsters do. And even though the mare did her part to correct her when she needed it, she just doesn’t seem to get that whole social status thing with other youngsters.”

Mares serve as ideal companions because they’ll typically provide the bonding and socialization that occurs between dams and foals, but geldings can typically do the job, too, Buechner-Maxwell says.

Take-Away Message

Walden admits that overall, her experience might have been easier than most because her farm is her business, so she or her staff are present 24/7. But by consulting experienced owners, your vet, and/or a specialist, you can formulate a plan that will fit your particular needs and head off many orphan foal issues.