Merck Manual

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Feeding the Aged Horse and the Orphan Foal


Sarah L. Ralston

, VMD, PhD, DACVN, Department of Animal Sciences, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University

Last full review/revision Jun 2015 | Content last modified Jun 2015

Aged horses often lose weight because of dental wear. Their teeth lose the grinding surface, which results in poor mastication of food. Aged horses also may have reduced protein, fiber, and phosphorus digestion. Feeding a moistened, complete pelleted ration designed for aged horses may improve the horse’s well-being.

If an orphan foal has not received colostrum from its dam, it must receive either colostrum from another mare or frozen-stored colostrum within 24 hr of birth—preferably within the first 3–12 hr. Antibody-rich plasma-replacement products for IV administration are available but are expensive and provide protection of questionable duration.

A nurse mare, preferably with a good disposition, is best for the overall care of an orphan foal. The amnion and/or placenta of a mare who has lost a newborn foal can be placed over the orphan foal to increase the mare’s acceptance of the foal. The mare and foal should not be left unattended until the mare has accepted the orphan; physical or chemical restraint of the mare may be required initially and repeated on several occasions before she will accept the new foal.

If a nurse mare is not available, a lactating dairy goat (positioned on a stand or bale of hay or straw) may serve as an alternative. Constant monitoring is necessary, because the foal should be fed every 4 hr.

Artificial mare’s milk diets and goat’s milk have also been used successfully to feed orphan foals. Foals should be fed every 1–2 hr for the first 1–2 days of life, then every 2–4 hr for the next 2 wk at the rate of 250–500 mL per feeding, using a warmed milk container and an artificial nipple. Of the various artificial nipples available, those designed for use by lambs are best suited for foals. The feeding intervals may be lengthened gradually after 2 wk; however, the amount per feeding also should be increased so that the foal consumes 10%–15% of its body wt/day.

A foal should be encouraged to drink freshly prepared milk out of a bucket, ad lib, early in life. After 1 mo, the foal can be encouraged to eat grain mixes (with ≥18% crude protein designed for growing foals) and good-quality hay in addition to the milk or milk replacer. The foal can be weaned off the milk replacer at 3 mo of age. Fresh water should be available to the foal at all times from birth. (Also see Perinatal Mare and Foal Care.)

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