Raising an orphan foal

In some cases, whether due to maternal death or unresolved bonding problems, foals are orphaned early in life and they can develop undesirable behaviour if owners don’t raise them carefully.

There are a number of steps to take to prevent behavioural problems in orphans.

The best option is providing the foal with a foster mare that has recently (ideally within 24 hours) lost its own foal.

If a foster mare isn’t available, owners can hand-rear the foal. Experts recommend providing hand-reared foals with as much social interaction with other horses as possible and minimising human contact, especially at feeding time.

Training the orphan to drink from a bucket without extensive human interaction is far superior to bottle-feeding.

Hand-reared foals often exhibit abnormal human bonds (seeming to prefer humans over horses) such as following, nibbling on, and play mounting.

Additionally, foals raised solely by humans might have trouble co-mingling with other horses; sometimes they act fearful of other horses, and other times they don’t seem to understand typical equine behaviour.

As hand-reared horses grow, some handlers have reported they can be disrespectful or difficult to train. Some have been reported to have “Jekyll and Hyde” characteristics and short attention spans.

But it’s not all bad for hand-reared foals. Research showed they appear less stressed than conventionally raised foals when faced with novel people and environments.

Recommendations to reduce the potential for undesirable behaviour developing in hand-reared foals are as follows:

Provide as much equine companionship as possible, starting from birth, to familiarise foals with normal horse behaviour. Horses of any sex will work, including stallions. Introduce any companions slowly and in a controlled environment to ensure the animals get along before turning them loose.

If possible, provide contact with other foals. In kindergarten situations, foal play-groups can provide social support; older foals—even those as young as two weeks old—have been observed to look after younger foals in herd situations.

If equine companionship isn’t an option, consider introducing another animal, such as a goat, cow, or even chickens.

Disconnect feeding time from human interaction, and associate hand-reared meal times with other horses.

Avoid mothering or playing with the foal. Rather, focus interactions on training activities, such as lifting feet, yielding to pressure, leading, loading, and other tasks that could relate to the foal’s future expected use.