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Cathy's story: Life with an orphan foal

Heartbreaking, yes. Demanding, yes. Tiring, yes. But raising an orphan foal is also very rewarding. First-time breeder Cathy De Vries tells of her experiences with an orphan foal.

Well where should I start. Having a foal just was not what I had intended it to be.

After looking at books and talking to people who breed all the time it seemed that it was all going to be perfect -- nothing ever seemed to go wrong for them.

But in my case it was rather different. For starters my mare carried for 12 months not 11 like all the books say. She continually bagged up and then seem to lose it -- people said I was mad and that she was not bagging up at all as boobs do not just come and go, but really she had been -- just not when anyone else was there to see it.

Then one night as I checked her as usual "boob inspection time" as Bonny got to know it. She must have been sick of me looking at her private parts but anyway on the magical night there was milk dripping out. I was rather excited by the whole thing, and I rushed home and said I was staying in the paddock tonight! To which my mother replied "I do not think so". No matter what I pleaded she would not let me go end of story we reached a compromise that we would go and check at 2am as I had read that most foals are born between 11pm and 3am.

Well, 2am rolled around and we rushed to see if there had been any action. I met my other horse in the paddock and asked her if she had seen any babies in the paddock (as you do!) Well, she seemed to think there was, and sure enough when I shone my torch around the paddock I spotted a foal.

I could not believe my luck.
Dannie the orphan foal

At just a few hours old Dannie lost her mother.

It was extremely hard to see anything but I could see that it had a blaze, which was something I had asked for for the past 12 months. I was so exited that I ran back to the car to tell mum the good news. I said that Bonny was lying down and that she was moaning (I have never had kids) mum assured me that she would be cleaning herself out and that we should come back at first light.

Off home we went and I could not sleep. I was running around the house with my Irish Green foal halter that I had bought months before dead keen to try it out. Well, no chance of sleep and at 5:15am when there was just a hint of light I rushed back to the paddock, armed with a cellphone and phonebook.

Well, all I can say is that I must have know something because I saw my mare still lying down and moaning and I could see the bag still inside of her. She had not cleaned and there was blood as well. So I rung the vet and told him my story, his reply was that he would be an hour. I asked him if she would be OK. His reply? "She'll just have to be wont she". I waited an hour and a half before he showed up. All the while the foal had been trying to drink and the mare was trying to let it. As sick as she was she loved it like a mother would, even at one stage having to get up to protect it from the next paddock's gelding (the foal had managed to go and talk to the gelding who did not appreciate it). The gelding was picking on the foal and Bonny was trying to help her, kicking and rearing at the gelding to get it to go away. I rushed over to help, and Bonny just calmed down to let me pass as if she knew I would help.

As soon as the foal was freed Bonny wanted to lie down again. The vet injected her and pulled the bag out said that she had torn the vulva and that she would need stitching, but he had nothing to stitch her with he would go back and get the equipment he needed. Another hour passed and she was still moaning. He came back and caslicked her, gave her strong painkillers and left.

She was up and feeding the foal and I hoped that it would all go normally here on in.

I could not have been more wrong.

I had rung my friend to tell her the news and that she should come and look at my baby! Well she did and when I got to the paddock she was down again and did not want to move. The stitches had come out and she was bleeding again from the back. She was still moaning, and banging her head on the ground and rolling her eyes. I rung the vet immediately and was told "of course she will be sore it is hot out there. Cool her down and if she does not improve come and get some painkillers".

She did not improve and I rung too many vets to remember. None wanted to come out as I "should have stuck with the first one", they said.

Dannie is super-snug in her polar fleece rug.

Dannie is super-snug in her custom-made polar fleece rug.


I managed to get one who was not on duty to come to the rescue. He arrived and said that she was in a bad way that she may not make it.

He gave her shots for colic and when they did not work he examined her internally and found more blood at the top end of the uterus. He told me she had ruptured her uterus and that nothing could be done now as it was left too late. She could not get up again.

Well, the horror that went through my mind is hard to describe. I could not stop crying at the though of losing my mare. What was I going to do? Shoot her or give her the injection which bring the following problems that you don't think about when you have a healthy horse -- what are you going to do with the with the body (it is not my paddock) you can't just bury a horse in someone's paddock, and if you give it the injection the meat man won't take the body away.

Her heart rate was so flat the vet decided that it would be best to shoot her.

It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make, I hope I will never have to do it again.

But I had the foal I had asked for all along "a filly with a white blaze and four white socks" so I have named her on her registration papers Bonny's Gift.

But what do you do when you do not have a mare???? We fed her for the first night at three-hourly intervals with warm milk diluted with water, feeding it from a baby bottle 300ml at a time. The foal was cold and we had no cover small enough. We put our thinking caps on and we managed to strap a saddle blanket on -- not flattering but it did the job for now.

The next morning we had found a surrogate mare in the form of a Clydesdale. We travelled the foal in the float for about 45 minutes to get there to find out that all she wanted to do is kill her, so that was out of the question. We milked the mare and fed that to the foal. At least it was real food.

We got home and stressed -- what can you feed them safely? We asked local radio stations for help and broadcasted the need for another mare. We were lucky to find another. But she was a miniature -- and how would she feed an Irish hunter foal? We then found a standardbred who'd just lost her foal. We travelled 30 miles to go and get her -- anything was be worth a try.

We tried her for a week and she just did not want to know about it, so we gave up, as it was too stressful.

We had found out that you can feed a foal goats milk and that they do rather well on it -- and it is cheaper than the milk powder for lambs. We found a lady with 40 goats who was willing to sell the milk to me at a cheaper rate due to the fact it was for a foal. It cost 80cents a litre. I know it does not sound much but when you add it up you nearly pass out, as a foal will drink about 50 litres a week!

We started feeding her every three hours day and night for the first two weeks. It is hard going when you have to go to work as well. Thankfully, I had people helping me during the day and their support was badly needed, as I found myself going for a nap at lunchtime in the ladies' room at work -- much to everyone's amusement.

We decided that Dannie the foal would have to learn to eat hard feed, too.

Well, that was a large task on its own. We purchased NRM Affinity, which she would not eat by itself, so we had to trick her by pouring her milk over it so it would go soggy, and then she would drink it. At least this way she was getting more nutrition and could build her strength up.

Later we poured less and less milk on and she started eating at about 4 weeks old. Before you knew it she was eating 4kg of hard feed and 8 litres of milk a day. Boy does that add up! To overcome the cover problem we had two polar fleece covers made and they where superb. A lady up the road made them for only $30 to help out, and Dannie still wears them today at four months old.

We have extended the cover by 12 inches so far but they keep on going and she is nice and warm at night.

Three and a-half months old and looking a picture.

Three and a-half months old and looking a picture.


I weaned her at three and a half months of age, and she is now on hard feed twice a day of chaff and NRM Progress and wheat germ. She has a rock salt block to lick which she loves.

She has grown to 12 hands so far and is looking very leggy. I think she has changed into a dark liver chestnut but time will tell.

She has given me lots of joy -- and grief by eating everything in sight. She is a laugh a minute and has loads of personality to keep my mind of losing my mare.

I wish to thank Mr and Mrs Jordan and their family for all their hard work in feeding her while I was at work and I would like to thank my parents for their support by coming to the paddock at 3am without fail to help me and for looking after her when needed in the weekends. Also many thanks to everyone else involved in rearing this baby with me, for their time and unlimited support. I could not have done it without you ...



Feeding an orphan foal

Week 1 to 2

Feed the foal about 300ml of goats milk (undiluted) per time every three hours day and night this will be the hardest thing, as it wears you out. You will be too tired to do anything else! Slowly increase this to 600ml per feed over the two week period.

Week 3 and 4

Now that the foal is a bit stronger it can drink more milk. About a litre every 4 hours will keep it happy.

You can also cut out the night feeding. The last feed should be about11pm We found that having a one litre milk bottle worked well, as it was less messy to fed them with. That is, providing that you have secured the baby's teat to the lid of the milk bottle. Just cut a hole in the lid.

Do not put your milk bottle in the microwave to heat it as it shrinks the bottle and the lid won't fit properly.

Buy some quality foal pellets and put them in a container, then pour milk over them until the pellets dissolve. It will then be easier for the foal to drink and she will get all the extra vitamins and feed she needs.

Week 5 to 6

Things are now getting more and more flexible and you will find that the hard part is over.

We started feeding her every five hours. This really made life so much easier -- and more expensive -- than we thought. She was eating up to 4kg of hard feed a day, plus about 8 litres of goat's milk in four feeds (2 litres each time). The 2 litre milk bottles are great for this.

We kept this up until she was three and a half months old, and then weaned her without any problems. We slowly reduced the amount of milk over 14 days, until she was down to 1 litre a day.

We now feed her twice a day on chaff and wheat germ and a good quality weaning mix.

Things to remember when hand rearing a foal:

1) Always show her who is boss. Do not let the sweetness soften you up It. them know what is acceptable and what was not. My filly started kicking me with both hind legs at the same time if I did not bring out the milk quick enough. I would just hold those legs up and smack her on her behind she soon learned that this was not OK.

2) Do not leave things in reach of them as they chew and suck everything to death.

3) Play with them as they do need friendship and company. Another horse would be ideal.

4) Keep in mind that rearing an orphan is expensive and time-consuming but worth every bit of energy spent on it.

5) Keep the little ones warm -- even a polar fleece cover will do the trick.

6) They will wait for you to feed them as this is much easier than eating grass like they are meant to do, so sometimes leave it longer until you feed, as it will encourage them to eat grass

7) To get them to drink water fill up the odd milk bottle with water and let them drink that. They do not seem to notice the difference in taste but it is so important to keep their fluid levels up in hot weather. If they start to dehydrate little hollows will appear above the eye. Keep an eye on this!!!

8) Have them immunized at 6 weeks for tetanus and strangles.



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