By: Marta Powers, DVMOne of the most dangerous times for any animal is birth. Not only are there significant risks to the offspring in this time of transition, but there are also profound dangers to the dam. Unfortunately, one or both may be lost. By the standard definition an orphan is a child whose parents are dead. When dealing with horses, the definition of orphan must be expanded to not only include foals whose dam has died, but those foals whose dam shows maternal rejection (often with significant violence or savaging) or may be medically incapable of providing for her offspring. When contemplating the needs of an orphan foal it is vital to consider not only their nutritional requirements but also their medical needs and social/behavioral development. How do we fulfill those needs?Finding a substitute dam (nurse mare) for an orphan foal will assure that orphan receives the most normal upbringing in a difficult situation. Mare’s milk and a natural feeding pattern will not only provide food but will assist in the development of the foals gastrointestinal tract and overall health. Additionally, a surrogate dam, unlike a human (even the best intentioned human), provides equine maternal protection, equine discipline, and a natural behavioral model for everything from horse to horse interaction to correctly eating solid foods.
Bucket feeding or bottle-feeding an orphan is also a viable option but the limitations of these rearing methods must be appreciated. The human who raises an orphan foal needs to be completely dedicated to the responsibility, even when the foal needs attention every few hours, all day, every day. The care needed is time consuming, can be emotionally draining, expensive and should not be underestimated. Foals raised without a surrogate dam are also predisposed to gastrointestinal issues including constipation, diarrhea, abnormal gut flora, and slower intake of solid foods. Furthermore, these foals show abnormal (often slow) development of social behaviors and although tight bonding with a human is cute when a foal is small, it can become a serious and dangerous situation when the foal turns into a 1200-pound horse.
When contemplating the raising of an orphan foal the ideal is to make the best out of a difficult and often emotional situation. A foal’s medical and emotional health is vital to successfully raise it into a healthy and safe adult. The bottom line is raising an orphan foal is not as simple as giving it food. It takes a village to raise a foal, and that village is even more important with an orphan foal.
When a nurse mare is bounded to an orphaned foal, often her biological foal becomes an orphan. This is not the only way nurse mares are made, however. A mare may be weaning her own foal, or her foal may have dies. Additionally, a mare can be brought into lactation without giving birth. Here is a link to a blog that shows what happens to the nurse mare’s biological foal, please read here.