Orphans Don't Have to Be Oddballs, Part 1

Tips on caring for your motherless foal.

Kari Frolander of Enterprise, Oregon, owned her first horse before she could walk. At 14, she trained and cared for horses to save up enough money to buy a horse. She won the county all-around horseman title every year of her eight-year 4-H career. So it’s not a stretch to say that Kari lives and breathes horses. That connection with horses carried through to her relationship with BKT Pitchin Penny, a mare she bought as a 3-year-old in 1992. “Penny” had been a reliable broodmare for years, but one year, it was different. In 2007, Kari told America’s Horse about her experiences.

“I had Penny for 14 years and never missed one of her 11 foalings,” Kari says. “She wouldn’t ever wax up; she’d start dripping milk a little before she foaled. When it was time, she would nicker at me to get off my butt and come out to watch. She’d have three contractions, and then the foal would pop right out.” That consistency is what made Kari notice that Penny’s 11th pregnancy seemed different. “I told my husband that she was carrying a foal a lot lower than any of the others,” Kari says. “That whole pregnancy was different. She just didn’t look right.” On cue, though, Penny notified Kari when it was time for baby to come.

No one wishes for it, but many have to deal with it unexpectedly: the orphaned foal. AQHA's FREE Orphan Foal Care Report gives you the knowledge to handle an orphaned foal situation. Download your copy today, and add it to your library of helpful horse tips.

“He was huge; the biggest colt she’d ever had,” Kari says. “She always let me come in and clean off the babies and play with them. I did the same with the newest foal.” But the next day, something wasn’t right. “I went out to check on them, and Penny was standing there with her head hanging low,” Kari says. Kari immediately called her vet. “Within a couple of hours, her belly was really swollen,” Kari says. Kari’s veterinarian determined that Penny had ruptured a uterine artery and probably would not survive the five-hour trip to the equine hospital for surgery. Kari elected to put her down. “The foal never crossed my mind during the whole time we were concentrating on Penny,” Kari says. “Honestly, I was kind of mad at him for hurting her – even though it really wasn’t his fault. My main concern at the time was making her comfortable.” Then Penny was gone. “I turned around and saw this palomino foal and thought, ‘Oh, crap!’” Kari says.

Roll It!

Colorado State University's Dr. Pat McCue gives tips on caring for the newborn foal. She decided right off the bat that the orphaned foal was not going to be a typical orphan with puppy-like mannerisms. Kari’s first job was to match up “Peppy” with a nurse mare from a nearby breeder.

Need a Wet Nurse?

“A nurse mare is the best option for caring for your foal because she can provide milk and will teach the foal how to be a horse,” says Dr. Dana Zimmel, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Florida’s department of large animal science. This approach sounds simple in theory. However, a nurse mare can be costly (sometimes up to $3,000). And besides availability and cost effectiveness, there are other variables. Will the mare reject the foal; will she have enough milk to sustain it? Sherry Faulkner of Greenwood, South Carolina, endured two weeks of sleepless nights before Solanos Dun Jokin accepted her orphan foal Haidas Wild Bill. After their introduction, ‘Solano’ let ‘Bill’ nurse and seemed fine with him throughout the day, but the next morning, Sherry found him cornered in the stall with bite marks all over him and Solano lunging to inflict more damage. Sherry attempted to short-circuit the mare’s olfactory response by rubbing Vicks Vaporub, as well as Solano’s milk, on the mare’s nostrils and on Bill’s rump. “I don’t know if I would say she finally accepted him or tolerated him, but whatever it was, she did it,” Sherry says. Jennifer Holzum of Oakland, California, had no problem finding a nurse mare for her orphan foal. Her mare, Dee Easy Becky, died from a uterine infection five hours after birth.

The mare was down in the pasture but the foal, The Last Easy Frost, was nowhere to be found. Jennifer found him with the rest of the herd, suckling a buckskin mare as the mare’s foal calmly stood by. Jennifer brought the mare and foals into the barn. “I guess he was just an aggressive colt,” Jennifer says. “He said ‘I need to drink some milk.’ He actually kicked her when she tried to bite him. He wasn’t going anywhere.” Creating a nurse mare is another choice. This technique has only been available in the last several years and costs from $400 to $800. The mare must have produced at least one foal but currently be open. Hormones are administered to the mare orally and through intramuscular injections to get the mare to produce milk. After seven days of treatment, a veterinarian massages the mare’s cervico vaginal region to imitate foaling. The orphan foal is then introduced.

In most cases, the birth of a foal is uneventful and happy, but it doesn’t hurt to do your homework. AQHA’s FREE Orphan foal Care Report guides you through the crucial steps to take within the first hours of an orphan foal’s life.

This procedure runs the same risk of the mare not accepting the foal. Also, the mare can become sore from the continued injections. Even if she does not accept the foal, and is not nursing, the mare must continue to receive hormones for two weeks. In Kari’s case, she was unable to match Peppy with a nurse mare, so she decided to hand-raise the foal, using a substitute for mare’s milk. Cow’s milk is readily available but does not contain enough sugar or protein. Goat’s milk, the prime choice before the development of mare milk replacer, can be used without alteration but it is greasy, slippery and requires a large freezer to maintain if you do not raise goats. Also, it is rather expensive. “I think the milk replacers on the market are just as good as goat’s milk. They have come a long way,” Dr. Zimmel says. Commercial milk replacers are convenient, closely resemble mare’s milk and are palatable to foals. Most are produced as a powder and are rehydrated with water. Foals generally do well on milk replacers, with growth rates similar to foals raised on their dams. If you use a milk replacer, it is common for your foal to develop mild diarrhea. This should not be a cause for alarm but if it persists, contact your veterinarian. “The crucial thing is that people mix the milk as required on the package. Do not try to make it more concentrated to give your foal more calories. The electrolytes in the formula are designed for the way it is supposed to be prepared. I have had people make their foals sick from this. Do not substitute anything like Gatorade either. It will not balance the electrolytes,” Dr. Zimmel says. Continue on to Part 2 for more tips from Orphans Don’t Have to Be Oddballs.

Understand of the unique needs of orphans and ways to care for the foal without breaking the bank and losing too much sleep. AQHA’s FREE Orphan foal Care Report details a real-life example of an orphan foal and the steps his owners took to raise him to grow big and strong. Download and print your copy today!