Q:We have a 20-year-old Paint mare due to foal soon. Her pasturemate is a 15-year-old open mare who has had previous foals herself. Do we need to build a pen to put momma and baby in, or is it okay to leave her in the pasture with her pasture buddy? Do you think her buddy will be all right with the new baby?

Kelly Kilgore


A:I am almost certain that everything will be all right. My experience has been that it is very rare for any problems to arise when a new foal is born within an established pasture group, especially small groups. So I would not worry about it. The buddy mare is likely to either ignore the parturition and the neonate altogether, or she might help the dam with parenting as a harem stallion and other mature band mares might do under natural social conditions.

Some pasture companions, whether mares or geldings, are interested in the foaling itself and gather around and sniff and lick birth fluids and the foal. They might appear to be standing watch or even nervously guarding the mare while she is laboring, tending or actively guarding the foal while the dam is down passing the placenta and recovering her strength, and/or retrieving the foal if it strays.

Once the mare gets her strength and is up and about, she might show some signs of trying to protect the foal from the herdmates. It is often quite subtle, perhaps just positioning herself between any other horses and the neonate, just as mares tend to do with humans. Not all mares show the full-blown aggressive protection of their foals, and the maternal protectiveness of the dam emerges and lasts for different intervals and intensities in different mares. Don't be surprised or worried if the mare's protectiveness in general and her concern in particular over the foal interacting with herdmates intensifies somewhat over the first 24 hours and remains higher for a day or so. It should then relax so that by three days after foaling she allows the herdmates to interact with the foal, and she even will appear to rely on their assistance in looking after the foal as it starts to run circles and scoot off and back in typical foal games.

Sometimes people ask if they should remove the herdmates for the parturition, wondering how soon before--and when after--foaling should they return the buddies. I prefer to leave everyone together. The herdmates likely do convey some social security to the dam during parturition, and I think it is less likely there will be problems if everyone just stays put.

For this and other pasture circumstances in which we want to minimize the chance of injury due to social skirmishes, the general principles apply:

  • More space is better than less, so that animals can show submission by retreating a distance; and
  • Avoid pasture "furniture" and areas with corners or narrow paths where animals can run into man-made objects, including fences, or where they can get trapped and panic.

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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