Shaping Orphan Behavior

Q. On a recent ranch tour, we saw some horses the owners called nurse mares. They said these mares are kept on standby for taking care of any orphaned foals, so they grow up normally without behavior problems. Is the nurse mare just a babysitter/­companion or does it also feed the foal? If that is the case, why would a mare randomly have milk when you need it to feed a foal? What sort of behavior problems would an orphan foal develop?

via e-mail

A. While very few foals become orphans (I would estimate less than one percent of all foals born), it can occur when the dam is incapacitated or unavailable. In addition to death or illness, a mare might not produce sufficient milk, although this is rare. Also rare is inadequate maternal behavior that might result in an orphan.

For example, a mare can fail to bond with and care for her foal or she might be uncomfortable nursing due to an udder problem (see page 39 in the December 2012 issue). Sometimes a first-time mother is actually afraid of the foal, as if he were a strange species she has never seen before, much like a horse might react to seeing a pig or a llama for the first time. In some cases the mare can overcome these issues and remain with her foal. In extremely rare cases, a mare might attack or "savage" her foal as if he were a small predator. In this circumstance veterinarians recommend splitting the pair immediately for the foal's survival.

Yes, a nurse mare is intended to actually feed the foal and, no, mares do not produce milk at random. There are two methods used to prepare a mare for lactating when needed to nurse an orphan. The traditional preparation has been to breed the nurse mare, and after she foals and starts caring for her own foal she would be available should a neonate orphan need a foster mom. At that time the nurse mare's somewhat older foal would be transferred to a "kindergarten" where he would be fed milk replacer and kept with other foals in a "play group," sometimes with one or more guardian mares or ¬geldings. A more recently developed strategy for preparing a mare for producing milk is to treat a nonpregnant mare with hormones and udder stimulation to induce lactation. This treatment takes two to three weeks to take effect.

Not every mare will accept an orphan foal, but for those that do the process varies. Some take to the orphan immediately, while others require some patience and reassurance on the part of the handler. This is probably one of the top reasons why a breeding farm might keep potential nurse mares. They can select mares known to be good milk producers as well as good foster moms.

And finally, why go to all this effort to keep and prepare nurse mares? As was indicated on your ranch tour, foals fare much better not only physically but especially behaviorally when reared by a mare and with other horses than when cared for and bottle-fed by people. The main behavior problem hand-reared foals exhibit is that they perceive humans the same as they do horses. They might behave as if they are more interested in interacting with people than with other horses. These foals can be pushy, rough, and dull to taking ordinary direction, and they tend to bite, kick, rear, and even mount people. Some owners have described hand-reared or overhandled foals as ADD-like, in that they are unfocused and difficult to train. Much of hand-reared foals' abnormal behavior has been attributed to associating feeding with humans. If you have no alternative but to hand-feed a young foal, teach him to drink from a bucket so you can dissociate the feeding from humans as much as possible. Another important factor in avoiding behavior problems is to allow the orphan as much contact with horses as possible.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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