Orphans and Twins in Horses

People new to the breeding and raising of horses probably have never experienced the challenge of raising an orphan foal or feeding a foal whose mother is producing little or no milk. The solutions to both problems can be time consuming and somewhat of an ordeal. A foal can become an orphan after losing its mother to sickness such as colic or uterine hemorrhage. Also, the mother might reject her foal. Other problems can occur that result in the mare's inability to produce adequate milk for the foal, such as mastitis, metritis (infection of the uterus), and other serious illnesses. If the mare eats certain kinds of fescue in late pregnancy, her milk production can be blocked if the grass harbors a fungus called Acremonium coenophialum. Although her foal is not technically an orphan, another source of milk must be found immediately.

This chapter will address raising and feeding orphan foals. It also will discuss the supplemental feeding of foals whose mothers cannot produce enough milk to meet a foal's nutritional needs.

Newborn Orphans

Newborn foals rely entirely on their mothers' milk for nutrition. If a foal is orphaned at birth, it is critical to find another source not only of milk but of colostrum, too. It is imperative that the colostrum be administered as soon as possible because, as stated before, a foal can only absorb the immunoglobulins from the colostrum for approximately 18 hours.

If colostrum is not available, the foal will require intravenous plasma within the first 24 hours of life. Equine plasma contains immunoglobulins to help protect the foal from infection. However, it is expensive, costing about $250 per liter. A 100-pound foal needs between one to two liters of plasma if it has not received any colostrum. If colostrum is available, the newborn foal needs about 250 ml of colostrum every hour for the first six hours, then free choice (but not more than one pint, or 16 ounces) every one to two hours.

Your veterinarian should test the foal at 12 to 24 hours of age to determine if it has absorbed adequate levels of immunoglobulins. If its absorption is low, the foal should be given additional colostrum or intravenous plasma as a booster. Otherwise, it will be susceptible to life-threatening infection. Now comes the next problem-- getting the foal to drink.

Nurse Mares

If a foal has been orphaned, a nurse mare provides the best source of milk. The orphaned foal is placed with another mare that has lost her foal or one whose foal has been weaned. Some farms raise mares specifically for this purpose. Commercial mares can be expensive, costing $2,000 or more to lease a mare until the foal is weaned. Also, many nurse mare suppliers require that you have the mare bred before returning her. Secondly, the fostering process can take a lot of time. However, the successful placement of a foal with a nurse mare guarantees the foal a constant food source and ensures proper socialization.

Do not attempt fostering without an experienced person to supervise the introduction process because the mare often requires sedation and/or restraints to prevent her from injuring the foal. The mare should be placed into stocks or hobbled to prevent her from kicking the foal. Even so, two people are needed at all times while introducing the mare and foal: one to restrain the mare and one to guide and protect the foal. The mare and foal should not be left alone until the mare has fully accepted the foal.

Signs of acceptance include the mare nickering to the foal when the foal is led away and allowing the foal to nurse without resistance. Acceptance of the foal can take several days or as little as a few hours with a good foster mare.

Foster Mares

Another option that has recently become more widely used is a foster mare. This is a mare that has given birth at least once before, has hormonally been brought into lactation, and then been fostered onto the orphan foal. Older unbred or barren mares are perfect candidates for this job. The only disadvantage is that the process takes eight days to bring a mare into lactation. The cost of the drugs necessary to bring a mare into lactation is far less than the cost of a nurse mare, and after 14 days or so the mare will not require any further drugs to keep her producing milk.

For purposes of fostering, it is important to choose a mare that is gentle and that potentially has shown interest in or at least tolerance of other foals. Introducing the foal to the foster mare is very similar to introducing the foal to a nurse mare and should be done with an experienced person available, if not a veterinarian present.

Bottle or Pail Feeding

If a nurse mare is not an option or if the mare rejects the foal, an alternative is bottle or pail feeding the foal. If the foal has never nursed from the mare, it usually will nurse from the bottle willingly. Lamb nipples are excellent as they most resemble a mare's teat. If these are not available, Gerber NUK® nipples, which are designed for human babies, may be used. Calf nipples are usually too big for foals to nurse effectively. Whichever type is used, make sure the hole in the nipple is not too large. When the bottle is turned upside down, milk should not flow out of the nipple; otherwise, it flows too fast and the foal could aspirate milk (inhaling the milk into the windpipe).

A foal should be placed  in an upright position to nurse from a bottle. This lessens the chance of milk traveling down the foal's windpipe instead of the esophagus, which can lead to pneumonia. To simulate a natural position for nursing, stand with your back to the foal and hold the foal's nose underneath your arm; then gently insert the nipple into the foal's mouth (make sure the nipple is  over the tongue). The foal may bump your arm with its head. That is how the foal would stimulate the mare to "let down" her milk. Do not hold the bottle above the foal's head as this position can make it very easy for foals to aspirate milk. Healthy foals usually drink only until they are full, so the foal should be allowed to drink free choice to consume enough colostrum in the first 24 hours.

It is a good idea to record the amount of milk the foal consumes at every feeding, especially in the first few weeks of its life because this can help alert you to a decreasing appetite or developing illness. Remember to clean the bottles and nipples after each use.

If the foal has been nursing a mare, getting it to nurse from a bottle can be quite difficult. These foals might be more likely to drink from a pail or bucket. Pail feeding is definitely less time consuming and has an advantage as the foal can drink free choice.

Foals usually can be taught fairly easily to drink from a pail. Place milk on your fingers and insert them into the foal's mouth to stimulate the suckle reflex. With your fingers still in the foal's mouth, lower your fingers into a pail of warm milk. Eventually, the foal will get the idea. With this method of feeding, a bucket of mare's milk or milk replacer can be left in the foal's stall or paddock. To avoid the problem of the milk curdling, the milk in the pail should be dumped and replaced with fresh milk every six to 12 hours. The bucket or pail should be hung at chest level for the foal to drink and cleaned every time the milk is changed. Remember, the foal must have access to fresh water at all times.

What To Feed

The next question is what type of milk should be fed to the foal. Mare's milk is the perfect solution because it alone matches the nutritional needs of the foal exactly. However, few breeding farms or even equine hospitals have enough milk stored to feed a foal for more than a few weeks. If mare's milk is available, it is the first choice. Otherwise, milk from other animals can be used. Cow or goat milk is usually readily available, although neither is the perfect substitute. Cow and goat milk both contain more fat, and cow's milk does not contain enough dextrose (sugar). Therefore, if cow's milk is used, one teaspoon of honey should be added per pint of milk. Goat's milk can be fed without alteration, but it is more expensive than cow's milk. Some foals prefer the taste of goat's milk.

Commercial milk replacers also are available. They are convenient and very acceptable alternatives. Several brands specifically formulated to supply the complete nutritional needs of a foal are now available. Whichever brand is used, the replacer should contain approximately 15 percent fat and 22 percent crude protein, so check the label before purchasing. Some commonly used milk replacers for foals are Mare's Match®, Foal-Lac®, Foal Life, and NutriFoal. These by no means represent a complete list, and other foal milk replacers are perfectly acceptable.

Calf milk replacers also have been used to raise foals successfully. However, many calf milk replacers contain antibiotics, which should never be used in foals. Furthermore, calf milk replacers historically have not contained enough protein for normal growth of the foal. Though newer brands of milk replacers are more acceptable, read the product label carefully or talk to your veterinarian before purchasing. Goat or lamb replacers are also alternatives. But the nutritional requirements for foals are quite different than those supplied by these replacers, especially the ratio of calcium to phosphorus.

Milk replacers also can cause gastrointestinal upset. Some foals will develop loose stools when the replacers are first used. This is normal, but if the foal develops diarrhea, then the milk replacer should be diluted with water or changed to another brand or type. If the diarrhea persists for more than one day, your veterinarian should evaluate the foal and institute proper treatment. Sometimes, foals can develop mild bloat (gas) from the milk replacer. If this occurs, discontinue feeding for a few hours then try a more diluted formulation. While using these kinds of replacers, make sure your veterinarian monitors the foal's growth rate and finds it acceptable.

Once foals reach one month of age, most are ready for solid feed. A foal will mimic the mare's eating habits and begin to eat grass, hay, or grain with the mare as early as two to three weeks of age. These foals usually are introduced to a creep feed by one month of age. Orphaned foals also should be introduced to grain at this time as well. Feeding milk replacer pellets also can be tried at an earlier age. The pellets usually have to be placed gently into the foal's mouth. Often, the foal will spit them out until it gets the idea.

Starting at one month of age, the foal may be fed small amounts of grain. Newer recommendations for feeding foals include not feeding a high percent protein feed as a creep feed, but instead use the same feed that a weanling would receive (12 percent or 14 percent). A good rule of thumb for feeding young horses is one pound of grain per day, per month of age, not giving more than six pounds per day, so a three-month-old foal would receive three pounds of grain per day. Splitting the total amount of grain into two to three feedings also is recommended. This is a guideline only; have your veterinarian check your foal for proper growth and size as some foals will need more grain and others less. Remember, more is not better. Excessive amounts of grain can result in any number of developmental orthopedic diseases in foals such as physitis (abnormal activity in the growth plates), osteochondrosis (including OCD lesions), and flexural deformities.

Foals generally can be weaned from milk replacers by three or four months of age if adequate grass or grass hay and grain are available.

How Much and How Often To Feed

A healthy newborn foal will nurse from its dam about seven times in one hour. As the foal gets older, this number decreases. As a result, frequent feedings are most compatible with the foal's digestive system. Although calves often are fed only two to three times per day with large volumes at each feeding, this method is not acceptable for foals ingesting only milk. Foals also require anywhere from 21 percent to 25 percent of their body weight in milk per day.

The ideal approach is free-choice feeding of milk to ensure meeting the foal's requirements. This is quite easy with the bucket or pail feeding method. However, with bottle feeding, the newborn foal will need to nurse every hour for the first few days to one week, then can decrease to every two to three. As you can see, the bucket feeding method has its advantages. The problems arise when the foal is ill and does not consume enough milk. If this happens, your veterinarian should be notified and forced feeding (via a naso-gastric tube) must be instituted.

Sometimes the foal will need to be taken to an equine hospital for intensive care to ensure adequate nutritional support as well as treatment for the underlying illness. In severe cases, intravenous fluids must be administered to correct and prevent dehydration.

But how will you know when your foal is consuming enough milk? Newborn foals should drink about five to seven liters per day in colostrum and milk. Remember, healthy foals need to ingest between 21 percent to 25 percent of their body weight in milk per day, so a 75 kilogram foal will need about 19 pints of milk per day. Foals should gain about one to two kilograms of body weight per day. Contact your veterinarian if you are unsure whether your foal is consuming enough milk or not growing properly.

Special Problems of Orphans

Raising a foal is a time-consuming job. One main problem with humans raising foals is that the foal will identify with the human species not the equine species. This might be cute when the foal is a newborn but presents its own set of problems as the foal gets older. Foals raised by people without contact with other horses have been known to show fear of and avoid other horses later in life. One study even showed that foals raised by humans did not learn how to graze properly. Orphaned foals also will try to nurse themselves, other foals, or other horses--male or female. These problems can be eliminated by raising the foal with another horse or pony to use as a role model.

Raising an orphan foal can be challenging, but it also can result in a healthy, well-adjusted foal. The loss of a mare is not a death sentence for the foal. Raising an orphan foal, however, should not be attempted without your veterinarian's guidance.


Twin embryos are an unusual and very undesirable phenomenon. Many other species (cows, sheep, goats) frequently produce healthy twins. But a mare can rarely support twins and carry them to term because of her unique placental attachment to the uterus.

Mares develop twins due to a double ovulation. Both eggs are fertilized and develop into embryos. Twins are a leading cause of abortion in the mare. For those twins born alive, one is usually weaker and dies within a few days. Mares that abort twin pregnancies have a higher incidence of retained placentas and are often difficult to rebreed during that season. For all of these reasons, veterinarians do not recommend allowing mares to carry twin pregnancies. Mares are examined early in pregnancy (usually around day 14 and 29 post-ovulation) to determine if twins are present. If they are, the veterinarian will determine which procedure to use to eliminate one so as to prevent loss of both of the embryos later.

Despite the awareness, sometimes twin pregnancies are missed and the mare miraculously carries both fetuses to term. Twin pregnancies should be detected before the mare foals as the birth can be difficult and require veterinary assistance. Furthermore, mares usually cannot produce enough milk to support both foals, and preparations should be made to help care for them.

Mares carrying twin foals will be much larger than mares carrying one foal and they often will deliver the foals early, so monitoring should begin before the last month of gestation. Monitoring the mare for early udder development and lactation is crucial. If the mare was not evaluated by ultrasound early in the pregnancy, your veterinarian can perform trans-abdominal ultrasound in an attempt to determine if twin fetuses are present.

If both foals are born alive, they will need special attention. Twins are usually born smaller than single foals and often do not survive the first few days. Your veterinarian should be summoned immediately to determine if they are healthy or if either requires treatment to help the chances of both surviving. If the foals are premature or dysmature, they might need intensive care.

Twins foals also will require nutritional support in the form of supplemental feedings. Most mares will not be able to produce enough milk for both foals, so after the colostrum is ingested, institute pail feeding with milk replacer to give the foals adequate nutrition. Twins also should be evaluated for adequate absorption of immunoglobulins, and supplemental colostrum or intravenous plasma administered if needed. Many twin foals will have musculoskeletal problems in the form of angular or flexural deformities.

Twin foals can be raised successfully, but it usually takes cooperation and hard work between the veterinarian and owner or caregiver.

Call to order The Breeder's Guide to Mare, Foal & Stallion Care from Exclusively Equine, 1/800-582-5604 or visit the web site, www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

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