Mare Savages Foal

Q. We run a small operation where we foal out about a dozen broodmares each year, mostly Arabians and Quarter Horses. Last spring, one of our maiden mares attacked her foal. It was a filly which was born with no problems. For the first couple of days the mare was great; the foal nursed and seemed perfectly normal. All of a sudden on the third day, the mare charged at the filly, picked it up by the neck, and shook it. We were putting hay out into the field bunks and saw the whole thing. The filly whirled right out of the pen, through two rails of the pipe fence. She died on the way to the clinic.

This mare has been bred back. Our vet advised us that this mare might repeat this behavior with her second foal, so we should plan to take the foal away as soon as it's born. She suggested we try to find a nurse mare. She said bottle feeding a young foal takes a lot of work and that the foal might develop weird behavior. What do you think?

Bobby, Oregon

A. I agree with your veterinarian on all points. Mares which unpredictably savage a foal in this manner typically savage again if given the opportunity, either with a surviving target foal or with subsequent foals. A small percentage have been fine mothers of subsequent foals, but we don't know how to tell which ones are safe. So the best plan is early separation as your vet suggested.

Behaviorists also agree that probably the best solution for normal social and physical development of an orphan foal is a nurse mare. The challenge is to find a lactating mare whose foal can be weaned or who has lost a foal within a day, and which will accept an orphan. First, not all mares will accept an orphan. There are a few farms nationwide that specialize in preparing nurse mares (see listing in the January 2000 issue of The Horse). These are mares with proven generosity as foster mares. They are bred and have a foal of their own each year. When a call comes in, an older foal is weaned and the mare taken to the orphan. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, all through the foaling season you can have a nurse mare delivered to you within hours of a request. A fostering specialist experienced with that particular mare usually comes along to assist with the introduction of your foal. There usually is a flat fee for the service, and you are responsible to return the foster mare in foal for the next year.

Another alternative for raising an orphan is a foal kindergarten. This is a group of orphan foals which are kept together without mares. They are fed together from buckets or from a big communal tub. This enables foals to socialize normally with other horses rather than with people. The older foals readily accept newcomers and actually seem to "mother" the new additions. Kindergartens are hard to find, but in your case you could get one lined up in advance. Orphans can be successfully transported a distance, being bucket or bottle fed en route. The first kindergarten I ever heard of is New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania). Every year the facility raises 20 to 30 orphans, all with apparently normal physical and social development.

We also know of hand-fed single orphan foals which have developed relatively normally. To avoid behavior problems, the concept is to make the foal's feeding as independent of humans as possible and to provide routine physical contact with other horses. For feeding, the foal can be trained to drink from a bucket. The milk is placed in the bucket with as few people present as possible. To get the necessary horse social contact, there are several options to try. Some bucket-fed orphans can safely integrate socially into a pasture group of mares and foals for the majority of their time. They might try to nurse other mares. Very few mares actually tolerate cross-nursing, as it is called; most gently boot the alien foal away from the udder. If that situation doesn't work or is not available, being kept with one or more adult or juvenile horses, a pony, or a donkey companion might provide adequate equine socialization. If no equids are available, a goat companion likely is better than only human interaction.

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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