Foal Rearing Guide

Feeding and care of the orphan foalBack to top
While seeing a healthy foal raised successfully by its dam is every breeder's goal, unfortunately situations do arise where foals are unable to be suckled by their mothers and alternatives must be found. Whether the foal was orphaned due to complications during delivery, the mare is unable or unwilling to raise the foal or the foal needs to be weaned early to reduce the stress placed on its dam or to allow its dam to travel long distances to be bred, an alternative source of milk and maternal care must be found. Orphaned foals can be raised by a nurse mare or they can be hand reared using a commercial milk replacer like the Veanavite® Farmyard Milk Replacer. The method chosen to rear the foal will depend on the availability of a nurse mare, the age and value of the foal, the expense associated with these options, as well as the time available to and the skills of the foal's carers.

Rearing methodsBack to top
Nurse mares
If a nurse mare is, or can be made available for your foal it will allow your foal to be raised in the most natural way possible. Once the mare has 'adopted' her new foal this method is also less time consuming for the foal's carers. The expense of a nurse mare should also be considered.

Hand rearing If a nurse mare is not an option the foal will need to be hand reared using a milk replacer. While hand rearing requires patience and time, when done properly with a good quality milk replacer that mimics the composition of mare's milk it can achieve excellent results. Important points to consider when hand rearing foals include:
  • The milk replacer you use must resemble mare's milk. Calf and lamb milk replacers are not suitable as they are too high in protein and fat and too low in lactose. Unsuitable milk replacers will cause problems like scouring and stunted growth.
  • Foals will suckle from their dams many times a day, drinking their milk in frequent small meals. When hand rearing foals, this feeding behaviour needs to be mimicked by feeding many small feeds a day. This can be time consuming.
  • A buddy needs to be available to keep the foal company, provide some body warmth and teach the foal how to graze and 'be a horse'. Buddies are also important as a source of manure foals can eat to populate their gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria. Ideally the foals buddy should be a healthy and calm horse or pony.
Hand rearing an orphan foal requires patience and a commitment to the health and nutrition of the foal, however it can be a very rewarding experience.

ShelterBack to top
An orphan foal requires special care and it is important to keep the foal warm and dry as it will be deprived of the warmth of its dam. Provide a clean, dry, well ventilated but draught-free environment that is sheltered from the wind and rain. Foals should be stabled at night when the weather is wet and cold and covered with a lightweight rug for additional warmth. If the weather is warm and dry there is no need to stable the foal, but a companion should be available to the foal if it is left in a paddock or yard overnight.

Provide clean and soft bedding that is low in dust. Clean shavings are most desirable as they are lowest in respiratory irritants and toxins.

Allow foals daily access to outside paddocks for exercise and sunlight. An ideal paddock size is half a hectare per foal. Paddocks should be well drained, sheltered and rotated if possible or kept clean with droppings collected daily. Fences must be safe, secure and highly visible.

CompanionshipBack to top
Providing the orphan foal with a companion animal is a good idea for socialisation and to prevent the foal from fretting. A gentle and calm pony or horse is the best companion as they will help the foal learn how to graze, eat various feeds and will also teach them the ground rules of being a horse. Using another horse or pony also ensures manure is available for the foal to eat in order to establish healthy populations of beneficial bacteria in the hindgut.

If a suitable horse or pony is not available, a poddy lamb or calf or a mule, donkey or goat may be used as a companion for the foal.

Feeding frequencyBack to top
Foals drink milk frequently in many small meals from their mother. Feeding milk to orphan foals in large meals causes the milk to rush through their stomach and small intestine undigested. This will result in the foal getting very little nutritive value from the milk and also means the sugary milk will be fermented in the foal's sensitive hindgut. This will lead to scours and may also cause the 'pot-bellied' appearance so common in poddy fed animals.
To avoid these problems, orphan foals must be fed milk replacer in as many small meals as possible. The following table should be used as a guide to the number of times a foal should be fed each day. The foal's daily milk intake should be divided equally into the number of meals it will receive per day.

These feeding frequencies should be used as a guide only. Feeding this frequently is time consuming and difficult if only one person is involved. If feeding this frequently is not possible, feed as often as you are able, with a minimum of four feeds per day being acceptable after the first week. The more frequently you can feed, the better results you will get.

Getting your foal to drink from a bucket will allow your foal to feed frequently without you needing to be there. See below for more information on bucket feeding.
Age Number of feeds
1-3 days 12-16 times/day
3-7 days 8-12 times/day
1-2 weeks 6-8 times/day
2-4 weeks 4-6 times/day
1-2 months 3-4 times/day
2-4 months 2-3 times/day

Creep FeedingBack to top
Providing foals with a creep feed has been shown to improve the growth and development of young foals.

A foal creep feed should contain 16 to 20% high quality protein with good levels of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine from milk and plant sources like soybean. It should also be fortified with minerals to support sound bone development and vitamins to support muscle growth and a strong immune system.

WeaningBack to top
An orphan foal can be weaned once it is confidently grazing pasture and growing well at around 4 months of age. If the foal is doing very well and time to care for the foal is limited it may be weaned at 3 months. If the foal is doing poorly and time is available to care for the foal you should continue to supplement it with milk until 5 months of age.

To wean the foal, gradually reduce the amount of milk it is receiving by 0.5 to 1 litre per day, depending on how quickly you want to wean the foal. At the same time, gradually increase the amount of creep feed and lucerne chaff to 120g/10kg of bodyweight. If the foal is to be weaned into a group of weanlings that are eating a different diet, introduce the new feed slowly as you decrease the amount of milk and creep.

Ideally, an orphan foal should be weaned into a group of other weanlings to encourage normal psychological development. However, if the foal is behind other weanlings in stage of development it may be best to keep it separate and continue supplementing it with creep feed until 6 months of age. Once the foal is allowed to run with other weanlings or horses, continue to carefully monitor the foal for any nutritional, health or growth setbacks.

Rearing healthy orphan foalsBack to top
Keeping a close eye on your orphan foal and getting to know its personality and normal levels of activity will allow you to quickly notice when the foal isn't as alert, active or hungry. Changes in a foal's behaviour may signal a problem and you should be on the lookout for signs of scouring, colic, poor appetite and fever. If you are concerned about your foal's state of health you should always contact your veterinarian.

ColostrumBack to top
Colostrum is the first milk available to the foal from its dam and contains high concentrations of antibodies (immunoglobins), protein, energy, minerals and other essential nutrients necessary for foal survival, well-being and resistance to diseases in early life.

The newborn foal has little active immunity against disease and must absorb antibodies from the colostrum through the wall of the intestine to gain protection. Antibodies are complex proteins designed to combat infection. If a foal does not receive enough antibodies from colostrum in the very early stages after birth its risk of infection will be high and chance of survival low. A foal's ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum is highest immediately after birth and declines in the following 24 hours.

Regardless of which rearing method is chosen, it is important for foals orphaned at birth to receive an adequate intake of colostrum prior to being placed on a foster mare or given a milk replacer.

It is important to provide the foal with at least 750-1000 ml/10kg of bodyweight of colostrum within 12 hours of birth. The total volume of colostrum a foal needs can be divided into equal quantities and fed to the foal by bottle every hour for the first 12 hours of life. If you can't obtain colostrum from the foal's dam, high quality frozen colostrum is available. Contact your veterinarian if you require colostrum. Frozen colostrum should never be heated to thaw it as this will destroy the antibodies.

Ideally a foal's level of immunity and resistance to infectious disease should be assessed at 6 to 10 hours of age by testing for serum IgG antibody levels. If IgG levels are low, the foal should be given additional colostrum with high IgG levels if this is available. If high quality colostrum is not available, the foal will need intravenous administration of IgG antibodies. Failure to achieve adequate IgG levels will leave the foal exposed to disease and infection, making it difficult for the foal to thrive, and ultimately reducing its chance of survival.

Navel disinfectionBack to top
The navel of a newborn foal is the simplest and most likely site for direct infection to enter the foal. To prevent navel infections, the umbilical cord stump should be soaked for several seconds in a 1% povidone-iodine solution twice daily for 3 days. The foal's environment should also be kept clean to reduce the chance of naval infection (more on hygiene below).

The naval should be regularly checked for signs of infection including, heat, reddening, moistness, swelling or discharge. If the naval does become inflamed you should seek immediate veterinary advice.

Observe bowel actionBack to top
Meconium (first faeces) should be passed by the foal within one-half to 6 hours after birth. If you notice a foal repeatedly getting up and down, straining with its tail up and an arched back, switching its tail and making repeated attempts to urinate or defecate without passing meconium, seek veterinary advice.

Internal parasite controlBack to top
Internal parasite control is an important component of foal husbandry. Failure to control intestinal parasites will result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in slow growth rates, a rough coat, general unthriftiness and stunted development. A cough may also be evident.

Foals can be drenched with a foal safe deworming medication at 6 to 8 weeks of age. Seek veterinary advice if you feel a foal needs drenching earlier than 6 weeks. Care should also be taken to deworm nanny mares or the foal's buddy at the same time. Paddocks should be rotated to reduce pasture worm contamination levels, with foals, nannys and/or buddies placed onto a fresh pasture paddock following drenching. Drenches should be rotated to avoid worm resistance.

VaccinationBack to top
Foals should be vaccinated for tetanus. If the colostrum the foal received was from a mare that was not vaccinated for tetanus in the last trimester of pregnancy or from a mare whose vaccination history was unknown, the foal should also be given the tetanus antitoxin at 1 to 2 days of age. Foals may also be vaccinated for strangles. Discuss your foal's vaccination requirements with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate schedule.

Prevention of Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD)Back to top
Developmental orthopaedic disease (DOD) is a term used to describe a group of diseases that affect the structural soundness of a growing horse. DOD includes osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), angular limb deformities, physitis, contracted tendons and wobbler syndrome. DOD can be caused by a number of factors including nutrition, genetics, exercise, environmental and management factors and trauma or injury.

The most critical time in a young horse's growth and development is from 3 to 9 months of age, during which any deficiencies in minerals or an oversupply of energy or restriction in exercise may predispose the foal to DOD.

The following preventative measures can be implemented to help minimise the incidence of DOD from developing:
  • Provide a balanced diet with particular attention given to the amounts of energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, copper, zinc and manganese in the feed. It may be necessary to have rations and pastures analysed for nutrient content. When fed as directed, the Veanavite® FoalTorque Milk Replacer and FoalTorque Milk Pellet will meet a growing foals requirements for these nutrients.
  • Avoid rapid growth rates and growth spurts by regularly monitoring weight gain and condition score of foals and weanlings. Foals fostered onto Clydesdale or Clydesdale cross mares should be carefully monitored as these mares produce more milk than average Thoroughbred mares.
  • Adjust milk and creep feed intake according to the foal's growth rate and development to maintain a steady and adequate rate of growth. If foals are gaining too much weight reduce the amount of milk or creep feed these foals are receiving until a more desirable rate of growth is achieved.
  • Provide adequate exercise for normal bone and joint development. Twelve hours or more of daily paddock exercise should be made available to foals and weanlings.
  • Avoid excessive stress and trauma to young, growing bones and joints by not allowing foals and weanlings to exercise to fatigue or exhaustion.

HygieneBack to top
Keeping a foals feeding equipment, as well as its environment clean will reduce the likelihood of infection and diseases occurring. Good hygiene practices include:
  • Regularly change the foals bedding to keep it clean and dry.
  • Soak the foal's umbilical cord in a 1% povidone-iodine solution twice daily for 3 days.
  • Keep all milk replacer mixing and feeding equipment clean. Wash buckets and teats in hot water after every use and clean with soapy hot water at least once a day.
  • When bucket feeding, provide the foal with fresh milk at least twice a day in winter and 4 times per day in summer and thoroughly clean the bucket each time you change the milk.