Mare and Foal Bonding

Raising a child takes a village, notes one African proverb; the collective experiences of a community forming the individual person.

Australia’s new-season foals will begin arriving in a fortnight and, like the village scenario, a growing foal takes its cues from his dam, surrounding herd and handlers.

During and after birth, a mare generally investigates the fetal fluids and membranes she expels, as well as inspecting and interacting with the foal. A foal generally mimics its dam’s behaviour.

In its first co-ordinated movements immediately after birth, even before standing, the foal appears to orient toward the dam, reaching for her head and appearing to seek nose-to-nose contact.

In domestic settings, the mare is generally the only animal that cares for the foal. Conversely, in wild or feral settings the harem stallion, other mares, and even older foals all appear to watch out for the youngest herd members. Mares don’t usually show aggressive or negative behaviour toward other mares and foals in turnout situations, and geldings often become tolerant and protective of foals.

But there are a number of mare and foal bonding problems, the worst of which could result in orphan foals:

SIMPLE AMBIVALENCE – First-time mothers, weak mares, or painful mares commonly display a lack of interest in or response to the foal. This can resolve over time and in some cases it can take as long as 18 to 36 hours for the mare to accept the foal.

It’s recommended to keep the foal close to the ambivalent mare and providing nutritional support or facilitating supervised nursing. Generally, these mares develop excellent maternal behaviour and bond well with their foals in two to five days.

FEAR OF THE FOAL – In some cases – particularly with first-time mothers – mares display fear of their foals similar to a fear of a species they might not have encountered before. When handlers use positive reinforcement to acclimatize mares to having foals by their side, the prognosis for eventual acceptance generally is good.

MISUNDERSTOOD MATERNAL PROTECTIVENESS – In these cases mares act appropriately to protect their foals, but handlers might misconstrue this innate protectiveness as aggressiveness towards the foals. Very often, a good mother is trying to protect the foal, but injures the baby in the process. For these cases, provide mares and foals with enough space to minimize the need for protective behaviour until protectiveness diminishes slightly. This can take three days to two weeks.

NURSING AGGRESSION – Mares might appear aggressive when their foals try to nurse, especially if they are in pain or have udder discomfort. In these cases, treat any underlying causes of pain or discomfort that could prompt aggression. Use positive reinforcement-based training to help mares become accustomed to having their udders or flanks touched. Owners might need to bottle feed foals until mares accept them to nurse.

SAVAGE ATTACK – Some mares, even those who have previously exhibited good mothering instincts, have attacked their foals. The cause of attack is unknown in many cases, but it could be provoked by mares’ food aggression. Mares that attack their foals can return to being good mothers; however, they often will attack again. Thus, if foals survive such attacks, it’s important to remove them from their dams immediately. It can be expected the mare may repeat those attacks with subsequent foals.