Inducing lactation in foster mares

Foto: Danielle Vink

End January, shortly after having given birth to her foal the mare belonging to breeder Gert van Dijkhuizen and his partner Margriet Griffioen from Oosterzee died. Cause of death turned out to be some haemorrhaging in the ligaments of the uterus.

Orphaned foal

Because of the orphaned foal the Van Dijkhuizen family got in touch. At a moment like this when a foal loses its dam so soon after birth it´s important to check the foal for antibodies. Sufficient antibodies in the blood protect the foal against germs. As a result of the composition of the mare’s placenta foals receive zero antibodies while in the womb. The foal needs to absorb all antibodies from the beestings directly after its birth. It’s paramount this takes place within the first 12-24 hours because after that time frame the foal’s guts lose the ability to ingest these antibodies.


If the foal hasn’t drunk anything at all at this stage it can be given artificial beestings by bottle feeding or from a bucket. In case the foal has already suckled from the mare then the amount of antibodies in the blood can be established 24 hours after the birth. If these turn out to be insufficient a hyper immune plasma drip can be administered to help inject the antibodies straight into the bloodstream.

Two options

The Van Dijkhuizen foal had managed to drink from the mare and checks showed up sufficient antibodies. Then the next question popping up is about how to nurture and raise the foal. Basically there are two options. The foal can be hand-reared with artificial milk. A great disadvantage of this option is that these foals are usually spoiled rotten instead of being educated by their own kind and therefore often develop pretty unpleasant personalities. The second option is to have the foal raised by a foster mare. This can be arranged by pairing the foal to a mare that has given birth to a foal herself, or by inducing the lactation process in an empty mare.

Hormone treatment

Van Dijkhuizen owned an older mare who had brought foals in the past so this mare was started on hormone treatment. The great advantage of using your own mare is that both owner and the other horses already know the mare. Unfortunately, Van Dijkhuizen’s older mare didn’t respond quickly to the treatment. She hadn’t really started producing milk whereas normally most mares are ready to accept a foal after one or two weeks. This can frequently occur in very early spring because mares are not yet cycling regularly. Luckily, the foal reacted really well to bottle feeding and grew fast. A week later the message came that somewhere else in the country a mare had given birth to a stillborn foal. So they took their foal to this mare. Under supervision of the on-site veterinarian the foal was introduced to the foster mare. With the help of a hormone injection bonding didn’t take long and the mare even started to protect the foal soon after. All’s well that ends well.



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