Orphans Don't Have to Be Oddballs, Part 2

More tips on caring for your motherless foal.

Missed Part 1? Read about how Kari Frolander of Enterprise, Oregon, began raising her orphan colt, “Peppy.”

Bottle Baby?

An orphaned foal can be fed by a bottle or bucket. A foal will usually nurse willingly from a bottle since its initial instinct is to suckle. Calf nipples are too large, but lamb nipples work. Some baby bottles may also be used. Whichever type you select, make sure the hole in the nipple is not too big. When the bottle is inverted, the contents should not run freely from the nipple, which could cause the foal to inhale the milk into its lungs.

For nursing, the foal should be placed in an upright position, decreasing the likelihood of the milk traveling into the windpipe instead of the esophagus. Place the foal’s nose under your arm and place the nipple over the tongue. A healthy foal will only nurse until it is full, so allow it to drink freely. Bottle feeding has its challenges: A foal must be bottle-fed every two hours, and the close contact with the foal could encourage it to become socialized to humans by associating you as its parents. That’s what concerned Kari. “I had raised a lot of orphan calves, lambs and goats,” Kari says. “I didn’t want to raise Peppy on a bottle because I didn’t want him to think of me as his mother, and I didn’t want him to think he could butt me or anyone else with his head like a lot of orphans do.”

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So, she immediately started feeding him milk replacer out of a bucket. “I just put him in a headlock and stuck his nose down in the milk,” Kari says with a nervous laugh. “I was determined that he was going to learn to drink the milk.” If you choose to use a bucket, begin by letting your foal suckle a milk-wet finger, then gradually direct it to the milk until it begins to drink from the bucket. If the foal does not grasp the idea at first, move your finger against its upper palate to stimulate the nursing response. This process can take a bit for the foal to get the idea, but most will catch on quickly. “Once he figured it out, it was smooth sailing,” Kari says. “I’d take the bucket of milk out every two hours, and he would drink his milk.” Since Peppy (registered as Zans Pitchin Peppy) had the run of the yard in Kari’s place in far northeast Oregon, Kari was able to sneak the milk into the bucket, then call him to come eat.

Roll It!

Peppy San was a legendary cow horse and American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame inductee. “He never saw me put the milk in the bucket, so he could never associate it coming from me,” she says. “I never petted him while he was eating. I didn’t want him thinking getting milk meant getting attention from me. After he was done eating, I’d halter him, tie him up, groom him and work with him.” Once a method of feeding is selected, owners should monitor the foal’s progress carefully. Dr. Dana Zimmel, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Florida’s department of large animal science, suggests daily weighing. “If an orphan foal seems a bit small compared to its peers, don’t worry,” Dr. Zimmel says. “By the time the foal becomes a yearling, it will catch up. “You can weigh the foal by holding it while standing on a bathroom scale,” says Dr. Zimmel.  “A properly growing foal should gain one to two pounds a day.” When Peppy was 2 months old, Kari had him gelded, and her vet was astonished by how well Peppy had grown. “He said he had clients with normal foals raised on mares that weren’t as big and healthy as Peppy,” Kari says. “He said whatever I was doing, keep it up. Then I knew I was on the right track.” She weaned him from milk at 4 months of age and transitioned him to pellets.

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Starting Solids The sooner an orphan accepts solid feed, the better. Lori Warren, assistant professor of equine nutrition at the University of Florida, says that when an orphan is about 2 weeks old, the owner should start giving him good-quality, leafy hay with no seed heads, and foal pellets. Foals raised on a mare show an interest in solid foods at this age because they mimic their mom’s behavior. The desire to mouth solid feed exists with orphans, but they have no one to show them the ropes. Therefore, they may sample the hay and ingest it over time. Lori advises against feeding cereal grains until a foal is at least a month old. “Sweet feeds or pellets or pellets with oats, corn, etc. should never be offered until the foal is a month old,” Lori says. “Young foals do not yet have the enzymes needed to digest the types of carbohydrates in these grains.” Ann Secrest Hanson of Bowman, North Dakota, weaned her month-old filly, James Belles Last, after the filly’s momma, James Belle 921, suffered from mastitis. “The mare’s bag shriveled up, so I put the filly on good alfalfa hay,” Ann says. “She didn’t eat much, but I tied up her mother to give her a chance. I didn’t want to separate them because I wanted her mother to teach her how to be a horse.” Another option is foal pellets. They are formulated from milk carbohydrates and milk proteins that are easily digestible. Many times, foal pellets are not only similar in composition to milk replacer, but are often the exact same product, only in a different form. The challenge is encouraging the foal to eat them. If the orphan is bucket-fed, sprinkle a handful of pellets in the empty bucket. Coat the pellets with dry milk replacer so they smell familiar. The foal might not each much of the pellets when they initially presented, so each time pellets are offered, make sure they are fresh.