As a charity dedicated to providing rescue and refuge to donkeys, we do not have a breeding programme in place but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to experience the joy of caring for donkey foals here at the Sanctuary. Over the years, there have been many pregnant mares (known as jennies) that were in foal when they were rescued or relinquished into our care. We are very fortunate to have a team of veterinary experts and experienced grooms who know how to look after mares and handle foals and youngsters.
Mares are pregnant for around 11 to 14 ½ months and for the majority of the pregnancy it’s business as usual at the Sanctuary. It’s important to continue a mare’s normal routine as any change could increase her risk of stress and lead to further health problems. We use a forage balancer to add extra vitamins, minerals and protein to the mare’s diet, and during the last three months of pregnancy, we increase the mare’s hay ration to help boost their energy intake. A slight increase in weight is also encouraged as this compensates for the weight loss expected during lactation.
For when the time comes, our farm manager at Brookfield Farm - one of our outlying farms, which is not open to the public - is always around to monitor the progress of jennies and newborn foals. We are very lucky to have the farm manager on site, because they are able to keep a close eye on the mare's health and wellbeing.
Preparation for foaling
Usually the birth of a baby donkey foal is a relatively quick process, so it is essential to be prepared in advance. All pregnant mares are housed in the purpose-built maternity unit at Brookfield Farm, where they remain until their foals have been weaned.
The mare usually becomes restless, stops eating and may roll frequently to ease her discomfort. As soon as the mare shows these signs, she will be moved into a large and airy foaling box, so they are away from others and in a safe and relaxed environment. We tend to use straw, banked up against the walls, as shavings and some other bedding materials can be inhaled by the foal or cause problems with their delicate eyes.
Having a manager on site proved crucial in spring 2015 when Cameron - a mare who was rescued from appalling conditions almost a year before - was about to give birth and help was needed through the difficult delivery of the gorgeous chocolate-coloured foal, Sooty.
Some of our donkeys prefer to be left in peace during and after birth, and this was the case for Honey, who arrived at the Sanctuary along with two other pregnant mares. After giving birth to her foal Christian on Easter Sunday in 2012, Honey was very protective at first and so for a few days we couldn’t make much fuss of either of them.
Typically, the mare dries and cleans the newborn foal within the first few hours, which helps with the bonding process and then the foal will try to stand and suckle. In many cases, there is no need to interfere during labour and it is best to remain as quiet as possible, only monitoring occasionally, to ensure there are no complications.
Knowing when to intervene
Each pregnancy is different and sometimes it’s essential to give a helping hand; this was the case when Flora’s foal Zena was born three weeks premature in 2009. Shortly after our staff began to realise that something was wrong, Zena was very quiet and unable to stand or walk. It is very important when a foal is born that they receive the mare’s first milk (called colostrum) within two and four hours ideally, as this contains essential antibodies and suckling is another important part of the bonding process. Our team of staff and volunteers, including our dedicated veterinary surgeon Elena Barrio, pulled together and worked around the clock to help Zena stand and reach her mother’s udder. Encouraging Zena to stand was also a good form of physiotherapy and eventually little Zena began to suckle by herself and take her first few steps.
Unfortunately, in some cases, it’s not possible to keep a foal with its mother. When Ashley was born at the Sanctuary, his mother tragically died during the birth. As we were unable to find a suitable foster mare for him, our expert team stepped in to bottle feed him at two-hourly intervals.
Caring for the newborn donkey foal
The day after foals are born at the Sanctuary, we provide them with an anti-tetanus injection and carry out a thorough check. Within 24 hours they will be on their feet and moving around confidently and, weather permitting, they can enjoy a bit of sunshine and exercise in their own private paddock alongside their mother. Other donkeys can be a bit unfriendly to newborns (even other family members) so it is best to introduce them to the rest of the herd gradually.
As foals develop quickly, our grooms ensure they learn how to be handled from an early age. We introduce them to a soft headcollar and try to teach them simple commands such as “walk on”. Most foals will receive all of their nutritional needs from their mother’s milk and we monitor them every couple of weeks to keep an eye on their weight. We also let them pick at their mum’s feed as it is good preparation for weaning.
Weaning usually takes place when our foals are around six months old but every situation can be different so we have to vary our method or approach. Donkeys are grazing animals so weaned foals (or weanlings as we call them) are encouraged to graze, and we top up their diets with some ad-lib straw, hay and a balancer to provide essential vitamins and minerals.
We introduced weanlings Zena, Ashley and Mr Khan together to give their mums and foster mum a well-earned break and they are now the best of friends.
It is lovely to have newborn foals at the Sanctuary and we will always offer a home for life for pregnant mares and their young, but as a charity it is not our policy to breed. We see too many cases of pregnant mares from accidental mating, without a home or the support to care for a foal. As a result, all the males that arrive or are born at the Sanctuary are castrated.
We prefer to do this at an early age; the ideal time is between 10 and 18 months old when the procedure carries less risk. Castrating mature jacks takes longer and carries greater risks, so our message to other donkey owners is to make the right decision and get them castrated young.
Today you can visit Mr Khan, Zena and Ashley at our Sanctuary in Sidmouth. Plus both Zena and Ashley are available to adopt. They have grown up considerably over the years and are both excellent ambassadors to other young donkeys.
Find out how you can be part of our exclusive adoption scheme and help us continue to provide all the love and attention that every new mare and foal deserves.