Merck Manual

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Professional Version

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

Reviewed/Revised Jan 2021 | Modified Oct 2022

Aged horses often lose weight because of dental wear or metabolic disorders. Aged horses also may have reduced protein, fiber, and phosphorus digestion. Feeding a complete pelleted ration designed for aged horses or easily chewed hay cubes or pellets may improve the horse’s well-being if its teeth are a problem. However, a thorough medical and dental work-up should be done before drastically changing an old horse's ration.

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 hours of birth—preferably within the first 3–12 hours. Antibody-rich plasma-replacement products for IV administration are available but are expensive and provide protection of questionable duration.

A nurse mare is best for the overall care of an orphan 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 she is in a late stage of lactation (>3 months) and the foal is a neonate, supplementation with a foal milk replacer may be necessary, because the nutrient content of the milk is altered over time.

If a nurse mare is not available, a lactating dairy goat (trained to stand on a bale of hay or straw so the foal can nurse) may serve as an alternative.

Mare’s milk replacers and goat’s milk have also been used successfully to feed orphan foals. Foals should be fed every 1–2 hours for the first 1–2 days of life, then every 2–4 hours for the next 2 weeks 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 weeks; however, the amount per feeding also should be increased so that the foal consumes 10%–15% of its body weight/day in properly diluted milk replacer.

A foal should be encouraged to drink freshly prepared milk out of a bucket, ad lib, early in life. After 1 month, 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 months of age. Fresh water should be available to the foal at all times from birth. (Also see Perinatal Mare and Foal Care Perinatal Mare and Foal Care Pregnant mares need adequate daily exercise in a paddock or pasture. Any horses kept together should be compatible, which helps to decrease stress. Vaccinations and deworming should be done... read more and see Overview of Management of the Neonate in Large Animals Overview of Management of the Neonate in Large Animals Appropriate management in the peripartum period can substantially reduce morbidity and mortality for large animal dams and their offspring. As much as 5% of foals, 5%–10% of calves, and 10%–15%... read more .)

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