Mare and foal bond and behaviour
July 17, 2019
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The bond of the mare and the foal is very important for both physical and mental health of the foal. While the bond of the mare to the foal occurs during the first few hours post-partum, that of the foal to the mare takes place over a period of days. It is very important that we don’t hamper the establishment of their relationship with our activities or are bonding problems can occur. This can become an issue, especially if the foal gets sick and mare and foal are separated to enable treatment.
Normal mare-foal behaviour
Immediately after parturition the normal mare’s behaviour include attention to fetal fluids and placenta (sniffing, licking, nuzzling and flehmen response) and attention and protection of the foal (nuzzling, licking, scraping with teeth, avoid walking on the neonate and protecting him from intruders). If the mare is not displaying these behaviors we should be worried and check for possible reasons, such as colic, retained membranes or any other disease.
Normal foal-mare behaviour
Even before standing the foal may squirm toward the mare’s head and appear to seek nose-to-nose contact. After standing, the foal actively seeks the udder. After nursing and rest, foals typically have periods of locomotor activity around the mare. It appears to be a compulsive exercise with bursts of energy. Within few hours after standing, most foals show the tendency to linger near and return to the mare if separated. Most of their time they spend within 1 meter distance from the mare, and they rarely get further than 5m away from the mare. Some neonates may follow any moving animals or human for the first 24-48 hours, after which they normally follow only the dam. Again, if we notice altered foal’s behavior, we should suspect the presence of an ongoing problem.
Inadequate maternal behaviour
In absence of disease there have been identify at least 6 forms of inadequate maternal behaviour, all of them being more common in primiparous mares.
This is probably the most common form of inadequate bond that consists of a lack of attention and protective behavior towards the foal. It’s most commonly seen with sick dams and/or foals, or in dams and foals that have been separated or over-manipulated during the neonatal period. In this case, it is recommended to keep the pair together with minimal disturbance to recuperate the normal maternal behavior. A momentary separation of the foal and dam or threatening the dam with other horses or a leashed dog can be used to stimulate maternal behavior.
- Fear of the foal
A fearful dam typically moves away from the foal whenever it approached and may show explosive fear behaviour. Moving them to a larger area allows the mare to avoid the foal without injuring herself or the foal. The same techniques recommended for the ambivalence behaviour may be applied in this case. Gradual desensitisation to the foal may also be applied by rewarding the mare for calm behaviour when the foal is brought closer.
- Nursing-only avoidance
For some mares, avoidance and aggression of the foal are limited to nursing. Positive bonding behaviour and protectiveness may remain normal. A common cause is udder discomfort, which may include the foal biting the teat, a very distended udder, udder edema or mastitis. In this case nursing supervision with physical restrain of the mare seems to work better than sedation. The mare can also receive positive reinforcement (food or scratching) for allowing the foal to nurse. If the identified cause of this problem is distended udder, letting the foal nurse frequently during a day is usually enough to completely resolve the problem.
- Extreme protectiveness
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between extreme protectiveness and savage attack behaviour. In this case the aggression is directed toward humans or other animals but can also lead to the foal being injured, as the mare may trample or push the foal into obstacles. Management includes avoiding evoking protectiveness coupled with training of the mare to accept necessary and harmful intruders.
- Savage attack
This form of behaviour is relatively rare and is usually life-threatening to the foal. The mare attacks the foal offensively, seeming unprovoked, with a lowered head and opened mouth. It has been suggested that there is a potential genetic and/or hormonal basis to this behavior. Sedation and restraint can be attempted, but relapses are typical. It is the only case in which separation of the mare and rearing an orphan foal is advised.
- Stealing of another dam’s foal
Although rare in horses compared with other species, stealing of a neonate from its dam by another dam does occur.