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    Home arrow Foal Care arrow Raising an Orphan Foal
Raising an Orphan Foal Print E-mail

Raising an orphan foal is one of life's great challenges. To the uninitiated, the thought of caring for an orphaned foal may seem fun and exciting. For the experienced, the idea brings back memories of a major time commitment and an overwhelming responsibility.

Success is not measured solely by the ability to provide nutrients. It is measured daily in the social and emotionally development of the youngster. Stepping into the horseshoes of "dam" in order to provide guidance and the experiences which will allow the foal to mature into a normal horse is a difficult job for any human.


The needs and wants of a hundred-pound newborn initially center on the intake of nourishment. For a foal orphaned at birth, time is the imminent enemy. An alternative source of colostrum must be found and ingested by the foal within the first 6-12 hours of life. Getting colostrum into the foal is relatively easy. A newborn with a well-developed sucking response will usually quickly learn to suck on a lamb nipple. If this is rejected, delivery by a stomach tube is also a viable alternative.

The challenge of a foal orphaned at a week of age that has already learned to suckle on nature's faucets is to get it to look elsewhere for an alternative source of milk. Teaching an orphan to drink from a bottle or bucket can prove to be an exasperating experience. Most hungry foals will eagerly lick milk off of your fingers. Hopefully, It won't take too many tries to get the foal to follow your hand into a bucket of milk. Voila. The quest for food will quickly lead to a long drink of milk replacer.

"Great!" you'll think to yourself. "That was easy! Don't be misled. Keep checking back to be sure that the foal is drinking. Learning to drink from a bucket is a lesson that most foals cannot learn in one lesson. It may take two or three days before the foal will learn drink out of the bucket by itself.

This is especially true for foals that appear to be totaling lack in survival instincts; foals that refuse to drink anything that doesn't come packaged in a mare's udder. It seems like the harder you try to get them to accept sustenance from an unnatural source, the more belligerent and stubborn they become. Patience on the part of the "nanny" is a virtue and so painfully necessary that it may be enough to nominate the human caregiver for sainthood.

Hopefully, hunger, persistence and patience will eventually override their rejection and the foals will learn to adapt to the replacement udder. Ah, but the battle is not yet over and the war is certainly not won.

Social and emotional development

The hardest part of raising a foal without a mother is the psychological aspect. An orphaned foal lacks the constant nurturing, socialization and discipline provided by a dam. These lessons are extremely important to the usefulness of the horse in its future relationships with people and other horses.

Foals that are isolated and managed by humans and those that have only brief exposures to other foals tend to become overly aggressive. Perhaps it is because they crave attention; perhaps it is also related to a lack of socialization skills and discipline. One solution to this part of the problem is to get the foal a stable companion such as another foal, a goat, or a generous old barren broodmare that loves babies. Horses are social animals and the socialization of the young horse is necessary for normal development.

We should never overlook the importance of touching and bonding for the orphaned foal. Under normal circumstances that foal is going to be touched and cared for by its Mom 24/7. This is a difficult job for a human caretaker to assume. While foals can survive with minimal care, there are other herd animals like elephants that will wither and die without the touching or being raised in a group of elephants. Foals may survive but without enough social interaction, they are likely to exhibit some non-adaptive behaviors as they get older.


Discipline must be a part of the human/foal interaction for the safety of the person and mental well-being of the foal. Rude little behaviors must not be ignored. A foal that runs up and demands its bottle may seem cute but this attitude can develop into full-blown aggression towards the human. It is common to see foals kicking their dams, expressing their displeasure about feeding schedules. While this behavior doesn't intimidate a thousand-pound mare, it is frightening and hazardous to most humans. Foals also jump up on their dams - another behavior that is totally unacceptable for its human caretaker.

Our solution to the challenge of an orphaned foal: Run, don't walk, to the nearest phone and find a nurse mare ASAP!!

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