The challenges of hand-rearing foals *H&H VIP*

  • Ideally, a foal will spend his early weeks by his mother’s side, feeding on the mare’s milk as and when he chooses.

    Sometimes, however, the mare does not survive the foaling or dies soon after. Alternatively, a foal may be too sick to nurse, or his dam may reject him — most commonly seen with maiden (first-time) mares. A maiden mare may also fail to produce sufficient milk, although veterinary treatment might resolve this.

    The decision to hand-rear a foal must not be taken lightly and should only be considered by experienced breeders. It may be necessary, however, if a foster mare cannot be found.

    A foal’s immune system is considered “naïve” for the first seven to eight weeks of life. Within 24 hours of birth, a foal will drink two to five litres of creamy colostrum — the first milk — which contains antibodies such as the immunoglobulin IgG to help his immune system fight infection. A blood test after 24 hours will reveal the foal’s IgG level.

    If colostrum cannot be collected from the mare, it may be sourced, frozen, from a stud or veterinary clinic. Commercially produced colostrum is available, but is less beneficial.

    Bucket is best

    During his first week of life, the foal must be fed every one to two hours. Mare milk replacer is the best substitute for the dam’s milk. It is slightly higher in energy and a little less digestible, however, and can predispose foals to mild diarrhoea. Composition will vary with brand, so ask your vet for advice on the most suitable product. They may recommend diluting the milk at first.

    Bottle feeding is not recommended, as there is a risk of the foal developing aspiration pneumonia if he breathes milk into his lungs. He may also become over-humanised if fed this way. Instead, a foal can be readily trained to drink from a bucket containing a small amount of milk replacer — contact between his muzzle and the base of the bucket will elicit a suckle response.

    Bucket feeding encourages the foal to drink regular, small quantities, mimicking normal nursing behaviour, which reduces gastrointestinal disturbances and the development of a “pot belly” sometimes seen with bottle feeding. All equipment should be kept clean and treated frequently with a cold sterilising solution.

    To begin with, very small quantities of milk replacer are offered. A healthy foal will weigh around 10% of his mature bodyweight at birth and around 50% by weaning — which equates to daily weight gain of 1.5-2kg for a thoroughbred foal. Typically, he will consume a volume of 10-15% of his bodyweight within the first 24 hours of his life, which increases to 20-28% per day over the following week.

    After seven days, feeds can be given at four-hourly intervals. Creep feed — highly digestible feed given to nursing foals — can be introduced from two weeks of age, and gradually increased until three months when the amount of milk replacer can be reduced.

    Although the first week of life is the most critical for the foal, growth monitoring must be ongoing and regular weight checks should be performed. This is to avoid long-term issues, such as obesity and orthopaedic conditions, which can otherwise develop. Careful monitoring of volumes and timings is required, with provision of a balanced diet when the foal is weaned from the milk replacer.

    Some hand-reared foals can fail to develop the ability to interact with other horses and lack respect for humans, becoming difficult and sometimes dangerous to handle. Providing a companion horse (a gelding or another mare and foal) or even a goat or sheep can help in the early months, while turning them away with similar-aged foals from six months will improve their social skills.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 9 August 2018