This article was written by Catriona Murphy.
Foaling season brings with it the next generation of equine sports stars, all of them long-legged and inquisitive, following closely behind their dams. However, not every foaling goes well or naturally and there are inevitable losses of both mares and foals. Across the country, dams will lose their foals and foals will lose their dams. Fostering is the best possible way of salvaging either scenario. The Northern Ireland Horse Board runs a website where breeders north and south of the border can find a much-needed dam for their orphan foal or offer their mare as a foster mother. The website www.nihorseboard.org has a foster/orphan alert page where breeders can immediately notify other owners of their individual circumstances. The service is free of charge and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. First set up five years ago, the foster/orphan alert has been running properly for four full foaling seasons. Charlotte Kirkpatrick, from the Northern Ireland Horse Board, says the site has around 100 mares and foals advertised each year. “But we believe the usage is about double that because people browsing the list for a mare or foal do not have to register to use it,” she says. Traditionally, the finding of a foster mare was very much a local, word-of-mouth exercise. This website means that a breeder with an orphan foal in Kerry could find a foster mare in Donegal. However, the urgency of the situation means breeders will try to find a foster mother as geographically close to the foal as possible. In the case of the foal, finding a foster mother could be a case of life or death. However, there are compelling reasons for dams that have lost a foal to rear another. “Primarily, the mare owner is simply being generous and doing a good deed for the foal owner,” says Charlotte. “But there are some benefits for the mare too. If she accepts the orphan, her hormones will go through the natural process as if she were suckling her own foal. “As a result, she should go back into her normal breeding cycle and should go back in foal easier,” she says.
Mares that lose their foals can become irregular in their breeding cycle and often lose out on the entire breeding season. Time is of the essence when it comes to fostering as the mare will only stay in milk for four to five days and foals need colostrum within eight hours of being born. However, not all mares will accept a foal that is not their own and great care must be taken when introducing the pair. The best method of ensuring the mare adopts the orphan foal is to cover it with the skin of her own dead foal. A strategy long employed by sheep farmers, it may surprise some to know it is also a tried and tested method for horses.Allow the mare to see and smell the foal’s quarters when it is covered with the dead foal’s skin over a door. Feeding the mare while the foal begins to suckle for the first time is also recommended. A mare only adopts a foal by smell and the orphan foal will not take up the smell of the mare until the milk has passed right through the foal. This takes around 36-48 hours. Therefore, the skin of the dead foal must be used on the orphan when being fed every two hours for the first 36-48 hours. Only when the foal’s dung changes colour, indicating the milk is passing through it, should you attempt to gradually remove the skin. Begin by pulling the orphan’s tail out from under the skin. You can test the mare’s reaction by allowing her to smell the orphan’s tail. Gradually take the skin off by degrees, turning the skin under itself and exposing only inches of the foal’s quarters at a time. “Some mares will not take an orphan foal and they could lash out or bite the foal, so it is extremely important not to leave the pair alone until you are very sure they have bonded properly,” warns Charlotte.
The Northern Ireland Horse Board website is purely a facilitatory service for breeders to make contact with each other and once mare owners and foal owners have spoken, fostering arrangements are up to them. One woman alone who has more knowledge of fostering than hundreds of breeders put together is Johanna Vardon, founder of the National Foaling Bank in Britain. She established the organisation in 1965 and has united thousands of orphan foals with foster mares who have lost their own foal.Every year, hundreds of owners call the National Foaling Bank for help and advice on difficult foaling cases, 24-hour nursing and information about colostrum, milk replacements, and special dietary requirements. Not only does she dispense valuable advice, she also offers a hands-on fostering service for owners at her base in Meretown Stud, Shropshire. “I once had seven adoptions in 20 hours — that’s 14 animals, 32 breeders and 64 cups of coffee,” she laughs. “But we did it.” She claims to have 98pc success rate for adoptions when using the skin from the dead foal. “Unless you have an exceptional mare, skinning the dead foal is the best option,” she says. Stand “The loss of a foal is a tremendous psychological process for the mare.”Never part a mare from her dead foal,” she outlines. “Out on a hill, a pony who loses her foal will stand over it for 48 hours as part of the natural grieving process. “For the next 36 hours she will move away from the body to graze but hurry back to nudge it and lick it. Eventually she will leave it — that’s the acceptance point,” she says. “If you whip away the dead foal immediately, you will have a frantic mare on your hands who cannot understand where her foal is gone,” she warns. If you want to carry out a post mortem on the dead foal, she advises skinning it and wrapping the skin around a bran sack stuffed with straw. “Let her grieve what she thinks is her foal for a few days until she accepts that it is dead,” she advises. She warns that a foal rug should be worn underneath the skin, as hot weather could change the foal’s coat colour permanently. Johanna is recognised across the world as an expert in foaling, adoptions and breeding. “The first thing breeders do when a foal dies is panic, the second is to ring me.” Membership of the National Foaling Bank costs just £20 (€22) and for that, Johanna does everything from giving foaling advice, helping with emergency cases and providing colostrum to adoptees. The service costs £20,000 (€22,500) to run each year and funding is always needed. Lectures She also lectures at courses run in Britain and has visited Ireland on several occasions to give advice and lectures. Going back to the 14.1hh mare pony that started it all, it turns out Johanna was just as successful in her private breeding enterprise as she is at adoptions.From that mare, she has bred seven generations of horses, ranging in size from 12.2hh to 18hh. The mare was the foundation mare for a 500-foal family that has produced four horses good enough to be placed on the Olympic shortlist for the British equestrian team. For advice on adoptions, consult your vet and equestrian experts. The Northern Ireland foster/orphan alert can be found at www.nihorseboard.org and you can contact Johanna Vardon at the National Foaling Bank via www.nationalfoalingbank.com