Grafting a Foal onto a Nurse Mare
Grafting a Foal onto a Nurse Mare

Grafting a Foal onto a Nurse Mare

by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID

Techniques used for raising orphan calves often work for raising orphan foals. A nursing mare can often be persuaded to raise another foal not her own, or in addition to her own.

The easiest time to persuade the mare to adopt the orphan is very soon after she herself has given birth. If her own foal dies at birth or soon after, she is more inclined to accept a substitute baby than she would a few days or weeks later; her maternal instincts are strongest right after birth. A mare that has lost her own foal generally makes the best nurse mare, for you can usually convince her to accept and raise the orphan as her own. Failing that, you can sometimes convince a mare to raise an orphan along with her own baby, but this takes more work, and some diligent monitoring for awhile.

Introduce the orphan to the mare as soon as possible after she loses her own baby, after liberally rubbing the mare’s nose with Vicks Vapo-Rub (to cover other smells, so the mare can’t tell the orphan isn’t hers) and thoroughly rubbing the mare’s fresh afterbirth over the orphan – especially over his rump and tail area, where the mare will be nuzzling as the youngster nurses. Some mares are so motherly they will accept a newcomer willingly, and this smell disguise is all that is needed.

If you aren’t sure about your mare’s attitude, or know her to be the type that has little tolerance for foals not her own, you can increase your chance of success by skinning her dead foal (basically just the back, rump and tail area) and placing the skin on the orphan (well secured with twine) for several hours or until bonding is complete. And before putting the imposter with the mare, cover her nose with Vicks, and hobble her hind legs so she can’t kick the foal. Also put Vicks on the foal, especially on his hind end.

Hobbles with sheepskin lining or some other soft material that won’t chaff should be used, in case you have to leave them on several days or longer. She can still move around, but can’t kick the foal. For the first nursing, tie her or have an experienced person hold her, so she can still reach around and smell the foal, but can’t move around enough to hurt it or knock it down.

If the orphan is desperately in need of milk, you can accomplish the first nursing quickly, with the mare tied, hobbled and twitched if necessary, then allow the bonding process to take place afterward. Actually, after the foal has nursed a few times, the mare may mellow in attitude. Nursing stimulates production of a hormone that makes the mare more motherly. Many mares are more apt to accept a foal after it has nursed.

To make sure the mare doesn’t hurt the foal, she should be restrained for a day or two, tied in a box stall and hind feet hobbled, and watched closely until you are sure bonding is complete and she will accept it. This may take 1 to 3 days or longer. Usually by the third day the foal’s manure and hind end smell “proper” to her, from her own milk coming through.

If a nurse mare can’t be located and you have a gentle mare who gives a lot of milk, you can use her to raise the orphan along with her own foal. Again, complete success is most likely if you give her the extra baby soon after she gives birth to her own. If you can be present at the birth and present her with both foals at once (again, use Vicks on her nose and rub birth fluids and membranes on the orphans), she may think they are both hers. To make sure the adoption works, hobble and tie the mare, and monitor the nursings. Once in awhile you’ll find a mare that will accept both from the beginning, but more often you have to supervise that process for awhile.

For this purpose you need a pen arrangement in which you can keep the babies separate from the mare (but within her sight) between nursings. Adjacent pens with a safe fence works best. The bonding process takes longer with a two-baby situation, but in time most mares will accept both foals.

At nursing time restrain the mare before bringing in the foals. Then let them nurse at the same time, one on each side. When finished, remove them to their pen. Don’t leave them with the mare or she will mother her own and reject the other. After she comes to accept the procedure, she can be left free in her stall during the nursing sessions, with just the hind leg hobbles on (so she won’t try to kick the extra foal). The hobbles can be removed later after she comes to accept her role as mother of “twins.”

From the beginning the foals should have access to water and feed in their pen (such as Foal-Lac pellets). Some foals may need encouragement to learn to eat the pellets. If you don’t have someone to help you with the foal-shuttling, leave soft, close-fitting halters on for easy handling when taking them back to their pen. You’ll also need a safe and easy-to-manage gate for putting them in and out.

In the beginning the nursings should be every two hours. This may mean extra help during the night shift. Or if you become exhausted and desperate, the mare can be left tied awhile at night, with the hind leg hobbles on, and the foals left with her at night to nurse at will, while you get some much-needed sleep.

Due to the increased demand on her milk supply, the mare will produce more milk, so you will need to increase her feed (and water) so she can keep up with the demand. Most mares can easily raise two foals, if fed well and the foals are given a little supplemental feed. After the foals are a little older and the mare well bonded to them, they can be with her full time, as at pasture. But keep close watch on the little family to make sure all goes well, and keep the mare and her babies separate from other horses.