Hand Rearing a Foal
By Nadia Aslam
There are a number of reasons why you may be forced to hand rear a foal, from illness or death of the mare, a lack of mothering instinct, or a sickly foal. Either way, this is a very big challenge to deal with. Trust me, I’ve been there.
The first foal that I ever had the pleasure of breeding was out of my amazing QH mare, Rosa. This was the mare that taught me everything from my first lope, to my first national championship title.
From early on in her pregnancy it was quite clear that this was going to be a BIG foal. And a big foal he was. So big in fact, that he hadn’t had enough room to develop properly in the womb, and was born with a severe case of contracted tendons. Luckily for us, we managed to save this little guy, after a lot of hours and a lot of vet’s bills!
This is the kind of unexpected thing that really can happen to anyone, so let’s run through a few of the most important considerations when preparing to hand rear a foal.
Colostrum / First feed –
The first milk that your mare produces has extra antibodies to help develop the foal’s immune system. This is more important than you’d think, as unlike humans, foals are not born with bacteria in their gut to help protect them from infection. The foal’s own immune system is able to protect itself from around eight – ten weeks old.
The best time to feed your foal colostrum is within the first 12 hours, but anytime up to 36 hours is also acceptable.
Here are a few ways that you can make sure your foal receives this imperative feed:
- Milk your mare if she is still producing colostrum.
- Contact neighboring barns and ask if they have any. Many larger barns will freeze colostrum for use in emergencies just like this.
- Your veterinarian may have some on hand; alternatively they can give the foal a plasma transfusion or a colostrum replacer to help get antibodies into their system.
Remember, if you get frozen colostrum, avoid the temptation of microwaving or heating as this could kill much-needed bacteria.
Teaching the Foal to Suckle
If at all possible, teach your foal to nurse from a bucket. This will save you many hours of sitting in a stable. To teach your foal to feed from a bucket, wet your fingers with milk from the bucket and let the foal suckle your fingers. Over a few minutes, you can gradually decrease the distance between your fingers and the milk in the bucket. Don’t worry if it takes a little bit of time, once he’s good and hungry, he’ll be glad to drink straight from the bucket.
Because our foal was unable to stand, we were forced to go the bottle feeding route. Make sure to hold the bottle in a natural position, at the same approximate height and angle as the mare’s teat, if possible.
You can pick up bottles from your local agricultural store; we bought bottles and teats designed for calves and they worked a treat.
When to Feed
The first week is the most tiring, your new foal will need to be fed every one to two hours during this week. If you have friends and family that can take shifts it is very manageable.
What to Feed
We were incredibly lucky that Rosa was producing a good amount of milk. I was able to take my kitchen stool out to the stable every two hours, set my bucket down, and milk my horse – a very strange sight for anyone visiting, I’m sure!
If this isn’t an option, there are a number of alternatives.
Cow’s and Goat’s Milk
These have been used as horse milk replacer with success. However, cow’s milk isn’t the ideal option as it is known to cause upset foal tummies. If this is your only option, then it’s OK, just don’t forget the colostrum first! If goat’s milk is available, then that would be my first choice.
Mare Milk Replacer
A healthier and often more cost effective long term solution is a mare milk replacement powder. Much like baby formula, this comes in powder form. But, be wary when it comes to the powder versus water ratio. Studies have shown that a lot of the time, directions on these packages exceed the nutrition that you would expect to find in normal mare milk. The general rule is somewhere between 110 – 190 grams per liter of water. If you’re unsure, consult your veterinarian.
After the first few days, you can offer your foal hay, grain, and milk replacer pellets. He’s not necessarily going to eat very much of it in his first month, but it should be available to him. In fact, experts agree that the sooner you can have a foal eating some solid feed, the better.
Once he’s eating a couple of pounds of milk replacer pellets each day, you can start supplementing with small amounts of creep. Remember to take things slowly when changing his diet to avoid any colic episodes.
Orphan or hand-reared foals are often weaned off of milk earlier than their “on the mare” counterparts; you can expect a hand reared foal to be weaned off milk by four months old. Sometimes people mistake this for the foal being neglected or underfed. This is in fact not detrimental to their nutrition. If they are still receiving milk replacer pellets, this provides them with the same nutrition in pellet form.
It’s important to keep your foal warm and dry. Young orphaned or sickly foals may require extra warmth such as a fleece blanket or heat lamp. If you don’t have access to stabling at your current facility, consider leasing a stall in a barn close to your home, or ask a friend if they have space in their barn in the beginning at least.
As soon as possible, your foal should be around other horses. Whether they are in adjoining stalls or turned out nearby. This interaction is important for the foal to see normal horse behavior.
When your foal is healthy enough, you should always use the buddy system. This involves turning your horse out into a pen with another horse for them to learn the social etiquette that is expected in their “horsey culture.”
Hand reared horses can have some severe behavioral problems due to being hand-reared. This can be due to them being handled by humans more than they interact with other equines.
Ways to counteract this include allowing your foal to grow up with horses as soon as possible, not directly feeding, and being prepared to discipline your foal immediately when bad behavior occurs.
After all, wouldn’t you rather be strict now and have a lovely horse for the next thirty or so years?
As soon as the foal is born, you want to check that they are breathing and check for any limb deformities.
Dab iodine onto the umbilical cord area to prevent infection.
Ensure that your foal is fed a generous amount of colostrum as soon as possible after birth.
When your foal is born it is important that he passes his first stool. This is made up of amniotic fluids and material ingested while within the uterus. He should pass this within a few hours, but if your foal reaches 24 hours without doing so, an enema may need to be performed.
Consult Your Veterinarian
If your foal seems especially healthy and is nursing well, it is not always necessary to call out your veterinarian. However, with foals that require hand-rearing, there are usually complications that will require veterinary attention.
For first time breeders, hand rearing a foal can seem like a daunting challenge. Once you’re in this kind of situation, however, instinct just takes over. After going through the initial checklist, the general day to day becomes routine and easy to manage.
When we had our foal, the first few days were the most challenging; he was given a 25% chance of survival, and we spent most of our time trying to make sure he would survive. As time went on, we set shifts for “foal duty” which made everything much easier.
The first time he trotted along at three weeks old, it made the sleepless nights and long days worth it.