Caring for an orphaned, premature or sick foal

ArticleHow to - CareMonday 14 December 2009
Mare and Foal Care

Caring for a foal and feeding it properly is a very rewarding task that takes a lot of time, care and planning. Looking after a regular foal is hard enough, however, there are a number of complications that can come up along the way, which can make your task that little bit more tricky and arduous. For example, your foal could become orphaned, could be born premature or could even be born ill. So, this guide will hopefully help you take care of an orphaned or sick foal.

Orphaned foals
There are a number of ways that a foal could end up being orphaned. Their dam could reject them after birth, or struggle to produce milk, or it could even die shortly after giving birth. These are the three most common possibilities, but it is always good to know how to deal with this situation to ensure that the foal has the best possible chance.
You can always attempt to lower the chances of your foal becoming orphaned from the start, by avoiding breeding mares that have previously rejected a foal. You should also avoid breeding a mare that is severely lame as she would most probably be unable to care for her foal.  
If you want to watch your mare foal then you should observe from a distance. It is important that you only intervene if something is going wrong. After watching your mare foal you need to give your mare and foal time to bond. You should watch to see how your mare reacts to the foal; if she becomes frightened of the foal or becomes aggressive it is vital you remove the foal from the stall immediately. If you leave the foal with the mare in this situation she could potentially kick, bite and stomp him to death. The foal should nurse within the first couple of hours of life. If the mare does not let him nurse it is possible to place her in a set of stocks to allow the foal horse to feed. 
The process of caring for an orphaned foal is never easy, however, it is vital that you stay calm and follow some of the advice below. 
  • In the event of the mare dying, a foal will need regular access to colostrum, or ‘first milk’ as it is sometimes known. Some specialist vets may have a stockpile of colostrum, but if not, a milk replacement will be adequate. Milking should be carried out a regular basis; usually every two hours during the first couple of weeks of the foal’s life.
  • If you own several horses, there may be merit in seeing whether another mare is prepared to share her milk with the foal – however, this should be observed very carefully, as the mare may reject the foal. If this is the case, bottled milk will suffice.
  • In the first couple of days following the foal’s birth, consult with a vet on a regular basis – they really will be best placed to advise you should you have any questions in relation to foal care. A vet can also offer practical advice on appropriate care away from feeding, such as when to start introducing training techniques and discipline.
  • Finally, if at all possible, try and ensure your foal integrates with other horses at an early stage. Unsurprisingly, if the horse is not socialised from an early age, later training may prove challenging, and problems such as depression or lethargy can occur.
orphaned foalPremature foals
Looking after a premature foal can be just as tricky as caring for an orphaned one. A lot of time and money and effort can be put into breeding a mare, however, unfortunately sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
Though you cannot stop a premature birth, you can reduce the chances of it happening. You should always avoid breeding a mare that has given birth prematurely before. And, you should always make sure that your pregnant mare is as healthy and happy as possible when pregnant and this will improve the chances of your foal being born on time. 
If your mare goes into labour before 300 days of gestation then the chances of the foal surviving are almost non-existent. However, if your foal does give birth prematurely, then you should call the vet immediately for an examination. 
Here are a few other things to bare in mind if you have to care for a premature foal:
  • Whilst waiting for the vet to arrive, you should watch the foal and see if it stands. You should also check to see if it attempts to nurse or defecates. Your vet will most probably ask you about all of these after they turn up so make sure you know the answers.
  • You should always remember that it can sometimes be difficult for premature horses to keep warm. Therefore you should grab some blankets or heat lamp and attempt to keep the foal as comfortable as possible.
  • If your foal isn’t strong enough then you will want to feed it using a bottle or a bucket and you will also want to keep the mare and foal away from any other horses as it may be injured easily. This is also important as the foal’s immune system might also be impaired so keeping it away from horses which might be carrying disease is vital.
  • The vet will also check to see if the foal has sufficient IGs, which are important as they provide the foal with immunity to many diseases until its immune system kicks in.
  • It is always important that you check on your foal frequently and then inform your vet if anything changes. This means that your vet can reassure you if you are worried, or, if there is a problem, then they can advise you on what to do or turn up themselves. Any advice your vet gives you on caring for your little foal take it and carry it through to give him the best possible chance of survival. 
fetlocksFoals that are down on their fetlocks
When a foal is born, it is not uncommon for the foal to appear to have deformities on its legs, or for it to look as though they have weak fetlocks as they start to walk around.
This process is not always easy, but it’s something that several horse owners have to face every year. Our guide below takes a look at the steps you should take should you find yourself entrusted with caring for a foal that is down on its fetlocks.
  • If you think the foal is down on its fetlocks, it is important to notify a vet straight away.  It is very important to stay calm so you don’t unnerve the foal or even worse provoke the mare. Mare’s can be very unpredictable at this time so every effort should be taken to ensure she is kept calm.
  • The vet will be able to guide you through the process of caring for a foal. You should approach the foal before it tires itself out from attempting to stand.  It is best if you have someone to help you at this stage.
  • Begin by laying the foal on its side. It’s likely that the foal will struggle so gently restrain it. Always make sure that the mare has plenty of access to her foal, always move slowly and speak calmly and gently
  • The next step will require leg braces. These can be obtained from your vet. The braces should be fitted to the sides of the legs of a foal, it is important to make sure when caring for a foal in this stage that the hooves are as they would be it the foal was standing up straight on a flat surface
  • The best way to secure the braces is to wrap bandages around them. Make sure they are not wrapped excessively tight, but tightly enough to keep the brace in place. The best method for placing the bandages is to begin at the elbow and work down to the hoof.
  • The foal’s health is vital so when caring for a foal, observe it at regular intervals. With the braces on, it may not be able stand up and lay down on its own. If this is the case, always try to offer assistance. This assistance may have to extend to when the foal is nursing from the mare. Keeping the bandages clean is vital to the foal’s health; this gives you a good chance to check the progress of the straightening at the same time and to notice any irritation to the foal from the braces.
  • When caring for a foal your vet should be constantly updated on the state of the foal’s health. In most cases the leg braces will rectify the problem, however, if it is clear that this isn’t happening then you may have to consider more extreme methods such as corrective surgery or farriery. At this stage it is best to have the vet do an examination to properly decide the course of action.
So, there you have it, if you are ever unfortunate enough to be in one of the above situations, then hopefulyl we have been of some service to you. 
Have your say
What do you think? Do you have any more advice that might be of use? Has anyone been in a situation similar to the above and found that a different approach is better? You can always comment in the section below and share your knowledge so fellow horse lovers can deal with the situation as best they can.  
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