Foaling challenges: When Mother Nature isn’t enough |

Foaling challenges: When Mother Nature isn’t enough

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News
Photo by Ruth Wiechmann

Foaling season is full of the joys and excitement of welcoming new life into the world. After a long eleven month gestation, anticipation runs high as mares’ due dates approach. Is the foal a colt or filly? What color will he be? Will he have a star, a blaze, high socks, or some unique markings? Will he have his granddam’s sweet personality? His sire’s speed? His dam’s cow sense? His granddady’s pretty head?

When everything goes smoothly according to nature’s design, foaling season is full of happy moments. When things go wrong, however, not only is there sadness over a loss but added stress over how to deal with an orphaned, weak, premature, or rejected foal.

Ron Ford, DVM, Lemmon South Dakota, has been raising quarter horses since 1970. As both veterinarian and breeder, he has raised several orphans over the years, and also cared for foals that were weak, premature, or needed extra tender loving care for some reason.

“The first thing is to make sure you have colostrum on hand just in case. You can milk a mare and freeze some, or you can even get colostrum out of a deceased mare to feed her foal. It’s good to have a mare milker on hand. They are commercially available,” Ford said. “If you can’t get mare’s colostrum for your foal, commercial serum is available.”

Ford also said that giving an orphaned newborn foal antibiotics is a good idea. A foal’s immune system is not yet fully developed at birth and is highly dependent on the transfer of maternal antibodies through colostrum. Due to the naive state of his immune system an orphan is especially vulnerable to infections and antibiotics will give him a better chance of survival.

Getting milk into an orphan foal frequently can be a challenge. It is estimated that foals nurse once or twice per hour, so it takes a lot of manpower to get milk to an orphan foal often enough. A foal needs one to two cups of milk per hour in the early days of his life. This is a challenging time commitment for anyone!

“A lamb nipple works best,” Ford said, “But you’ll probably want to cut the hole a little larger so the milk comes out easily. You might need to take three or four nipples and experiment with them till you figure out what works best. You don’t want to tip his head too far or milk can get in the foal’s lungs and cause pneumonia. It’s also best not to feed them lying down. Get him on his feet if possible before you feed him.”

Ford also suggested keeping an enema on hand to help get all systems moving in the right direction. A human saline enema will work.

Ford has never grafted a foal onto a nurse mare, although he has raised three or four orphans over the years. He advised a dose of acepromazine and hobbling the nurse mare’s hind legs or putting her in stocks if that is an option.

“I have hobbled a mare that wouldn’t let her own colt suck, and it works. Sometimes I’ve left them on for two or three days. I’ve never had a mare that really rejected her own foal, just had some that didn’t want the foal to suck for whatever reason. One mare I had to hobble two years in a row, but after that she was all right,” Ford remembered. “Sometimes their bag gets sore. It’s good to keep butte or banamine on hand just in case. Sometimes I give them a dose when they foal just to be on the safe side.”

For the mare that lacks milk, Ford’s best advice is to increase her feed intake.

“Roll the grain to ‘em,” Ford said. “Twice a day and plenty of it. Find a high calorie ration of a high quality feed and give them quite a bit. Something like Woody’s ‘Summer Heat’ works well. We’ve had mares that we started graining and even after we turned them out on pasture they would come back in wanting it. If you have a maiden mare that doesn’t seem to have quite enough milk she will probably get better over a couple of years.”

For the foal that is weak, feeding frequently is key.

“Give them a dose of vitamin B-12 and a bottle every hour. If you neglect them they’re not going to make it. I have tubed foals but that’s tricky. You’ll probably need a veterinarian to get a stomach tube down a foal’s nose,” he warned. “If they haven’t sucked in the first two or three hours you will need to milk the mare and get some milk into the foal. A blanket doesn’t hurt anything either to keep a weak foal warm.”

Foaling addition

Kelly Goetz Froning, Java, SD, recently lost two mares. She was able to graft both foals onto nurse mares successfully but using two very different methods.

The first foal she tried grafting onto a mare that had lost her own foal about a week and a half earlier. Initially she just sedated the mare with Acepromazine, but the mare still was not interested in mothering the foal or letting him nurse. Kelly’s veterinarian, Lindsey Horner, Horner Equine, Dawson, ND, suggested a ‘Love Drug’ combination of sedation and hormone shots. Dr. Horner had successfully used this with a few other orphan foals previously.

Kelly gave the nurse mare a dose of Rompun and waited about ten minutes for the mare to get woozy. She followed that up with a dose of Lutalyse, which stimulates contractions and sweating in the mare, similar to the birthing process. She rubbed the mare down with a towel and then rubbed the sweaty towel over the foal, eventually just draping the towel over his back. After about thirty minutes she gave the mare oxytocin, to stimulate the milk let down reflex. They moved the foal near the mare and she nickered at him, so they put him up to suck.

“She sniffed the towel and that was it,” Kelly said.

Kelly also gave the mare domperidone orally for five days to help stimulate her milk production.

The second foal lost his mother when he was two days old. Sadly, that same day Kelly had to put down a foal that had a ruptured bladder. This time she simply skinned the dead foal, being careful to include the tail, anal area, and the skin above the hocks and on the chest. She also rubbed some of the dead foal’s manure on the live foal’s back legs above his hocks.

“As soon as the mare saw us bringing the foal she was going nuts,” Kelly said. “We put him with her and she circled him and he went right to sucking.”

With nearly fifty years of breeding horses to draw on, Ford, too, has plenty of experience dealing with difficult situations, but a couple stand out in his memory.

“The most vivid one was a filly that was born at about 320 days, so she was borderline premature,” Ford shared. “She was small. I was the only one available at the time and was feeding her myself every hour or two. She was born about six o’clock in the morning and by four o’clock the next morning I was ready to give out. When I fed her at four she only took half the bottle, and I thought she was taking a turn for the worse and I was going to lose her. I went back out to feed her about six and she was sucking. I was so happy. From then on she was just fine. I was fortunate with that mare – I didn’t have a mare milker then but she had such a good milk let-down that I could just touch her bag and the milk would run out. I just put a funnel into my bottle and held it there to catch the stream.”

Another colt Ford remembered was an orphan.

“We lost the mare,” he said. “My son, Nathan was feeding him during the day, and I did the 2 am feeding. One night when I went out to feed him he was asleep. I woke him up and he gave me the dirtiest look I ever saw and didn’t get up. He made it pretty clear that he didn’t need to be fed at two in the morning anymore! We showed him in the Five State Colt Futurity, and he placed fourth or something like that. We fed him his last bottle that day after we showed him. But he sure got sick of being woke up at 2 am!”