Maternal Behavior

"She can go from sweetheart to witch in a split second," is often an apt description for a broodmare with foal at side, or, in some cases, a mare which is approaching parturition. Maternal behavior in mares can range all the way from being a totally lackadaisical new mother to turning savage when she perceives that her foal is threatened. As most owners and mare managers can attest, you never know which way the broodmare will turn. You find out when it happens.

Broodmares, especially those involved in purebred breeding programs, often are a pretty pampered lot, and they learn to love it. The fillies and mares which are racing or in other forms of competition live a pretty disciplined life by comparison. They go to the track or training arena at a certain time each day and have learned to focus on the job at hand, be it running, jumping, cutting, roping, pleasure classes, or dressage.

The pampered broodmare learns to focus on such mundane things as being fed on time, being turned out for exercise at given intervals, and being admitted to a dry, well-bedded box stall if the weather is inclement. As a result, they adopt behavior patterns based on this criteria. If their feed is not presented at the appointed hour, they are not above pawing at the feed tub and becoming generally agitated. If they aren't turned into the paddock when it is time, the "witch" syndrome can set in and a banging on the stall door with a front foot is often the outward manifestation of their irritation.

As pregnancy progresses into its final stages--the 10th and 11th months--there often is a change in personality intensity, one way or the other. Some mares which have a tendency to be irritable will become even more irritable, while others that are placid by nature will become lazy and lethargic.

Some mares will develop an unsteady gait in the three or so weeks prior to foaling. This is the result of hormonal action which brings about a softening effect upon muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone tissue, especially in the pelvic area. The job of these particular hormones is to prepare the entire perineal area for the birthing process--enabling the emerging foal to pass from the uterus, through the cervix, into the bony pelvis and birth canal and, from there, through the vagina and on into a whole new world. To our observation, this sometimes results in a mare which moves slowly and ponderously and might even stagger a bit and become sluggish.

Some mares will become extremely irritable with pasture or paddock companions near the end of gestation. Others will come to the pasture gate and stand there, staring at the barn as though telling us that they want to be allowed inside.

Mother or Monster

While we might have become accustomed to these behavioral tendencies during pregnancy, there is little that can prepare one for what might follow once the foal is delivered. At that point, profound personality and behavioral changes may take place. Because each mare is an individual, it is difficult to get a handle on maternal behavior from a research or scientific point of view. What might be normal and consistent behavior for one mare might be abnormal for another. Each individual reacts to its newborn as an individual, although there are a number of traits that are common to the majority.

The protective tendency generally is the first to kick in once the mare has given birth. This can both surprise and endanger the mare attendant. I well remember an incident involving a young couple who purchased a prize Arabian mare that was in foal to a noted show stallion. She was, indeed, a nice mare with a sweet and gentle temperament.

Month after month they waited for the foal that would be, in their minds, the next national champion. The mare was pampered in every way, from proper diet to an always clean paddock and always clean stall with fresh water constantly available. The mare lapped it up, nickering to them as they approached with her feed at religiously adhered to feeding times. The mare was also groomed regularly, had her hooves picked daily, and, in general, had all the love and attention possible lavished on her.

As parturition approached, the young couple shared foal watch, checking their prize mother-to-be on an hourly basis. It was to be the young woman's fortune--or, as it turned out, almost misfortune--to be the one to check in on the mare in the wee hours of a cool morning. As she approached the stall, she saw that she had missed the event itself. A little colt was making its first stirrings in the straw as the mare nuzzled and licked it.

The young woman, overjoyed that the mare had given birth and that both mother and son were healthy, didn't even open the stall door. In her excitement, she climbed over the partition and dropped into the straw beside the mare and her newborn.

With a suddenness that temporarily paralyzed the young woman, this sweet, docile mare turned into a savage. With teeth bared, she charged, slamming the young woman into the partition she had just negotiated. To this day, she isn't quite sure how she escaped, but she somehow managed to clamber over the stall wall to get out of the way of snapping teeth and flashing front hooves.

Totally shaken, she returned to the house to get her husband's help. The only way the two of them could get iodine on the newborn's navel was to slide in another gate and force the mare into half of the stall and hold her there while they checked out the colt.

The mare retained this attitude for about a week, then relaxed, letting them get next to the foal without attacking.

Some might believe that this type of attitude is breed-oriented, with "hot-blooded" horses tending to be more protective than their docile counterparts. In my experience through the years, I have come to the conclusion that breed has nothing to do with it. It is inexplicable and an individual trait.

For example, I have a docile little Quarter Horse cutting mare. Although a fierce competitor when we are in the cutting pen, she is a sweet animal to handle outside the ring. If you are to be successful at cutting, rider and horse must be a synchronized team. This means you work with the animal on a regular basis until actions and reactions become second nature. The end result is a close bond between rider and horse.

At one point, I decided this well-bred little mare ought to have a foal--her replacement down the road. She was bred to a top stallion and the long pregnancy wait began. Like the Arabian mare described above, she was pampered and well cared for all through her pregnancy.

I checked her early one morning and there was the "perfect" little cutting horse lying in the straw. Aware that serious personality changes can occur in mares, I eased quietly through the stall gate, leaving it unlatched behind me.

Good thing.

My little sweetheart of a partner flattened her ears and bared her teeth as she placed herself between the newborn and me. Despite knowing that this could happen, I was taken aback. My little mare facing off against me? Never. I spoke sharply and raised a hand as though to push her back. She didn't budge.

Our great partnership relationship had been put on hold. All that mattered to her at the moment was her foal and, in her mind, I was nothing more than a threat to its safety. Eventually I was able to get a halter on the mare and tie her off to one side so that I could examine the foal and treat its navel.

She maintained this protective behavior for several days. It wasn't long, though, before she was the same sweet mare that I had known before she gave birth. Though she'd stand close watch, she'd let us come into the stall to pet and fondle the colt.

This type of behavior would not be considered normal in a broodmare. For the most part, they readily accept the presence of humans they have come to know and trust. However, there are always exceptions to the rule and not being aware of this potential can result in serious injury to the mare handler when a mare deviates from the norm.

In addition to being protective, many mares also have an innate ability to help their foals learn to nurse.

Again, I use a personal anecdote. We owned a nice mare which was preparing to present her first foal, so we kept her under almost around-the-clock foal watch. Sure enough at about midnight she gave birth. Because she was my wife's favorite mare, I woke her so that she could see the little guy immediately.

As we watched through the stall door, the colt staggered to his feet and went in search of the elusive nipple. Keeping her eyes on us, the mare kept circling away from the colt.

Uh, oh, we thought, she's rejecting the colt. Time to act.

We slipped a halter on the mare and, as my wife held her, I attempted to move the foal into position for those first sips of colostrum. Try as we might, with first one and then the other of us working with the foal, we couldn't get the job done.

Exhausted, we finally gave up and, though worried about the fact that the foal had not yet ingested colostrum, decided to leave mother and son to their own devices for a couple of hours. We shut off the lights in the barn and returned to the house for some rest. A couple of hours later, we returned to the barn. Before we even turned the lights on, we heard the colt nursing noisily. As we approached the stall, I swear the mare turned contemptuous and baleful eyes on us as though to say that had we morons left her alone in the first place, the colt would have nursed much earlier.

We learned our lesson. The mare went on to deliver a number of foals. In each case, we would merely enter the stall, remove the afterbirth, and go back to bed. Each of her foals learned to nurse with no one but the mare doing the teaching.

On the other hand, there are mares which simply reject their foals and refuse to let them nurse. They are the toughest kind to deal with because you are, in essence, attempting to instill an all-important instinct, that for some reason is lacking.

Still another anecdote.

A young lady brought her mare to our stable for foaling because she didn't think either her experience or facility were adequate. The mare was there a couple of weeks--a friendly, docile animal that made few demands on anyone or anything. She gave birth without problem, but that was where the good fortune ended.

I stood back and watched as the foal lurched to its feet and went in search of the milk supply. The mare pinned her ears and kicked at it. The foal tried again and this time she also snapped at it. The poor youngster kept coming back for more and the mare's response kept intensifying.

I slipped a halter on the mare and held her. That stopped her from being able to bite the little one, but she still kicked at it. We progressed to other measures that ranged all the way to tranquilizer administered by a veterinarian. Nothing worked. There was simply no way that mare was going to accept her foal.

We had earlier managed to milk out some colostrum for the foal, but that was to be all of the mare's milk it would ever receive. It became a bottle baby.

The mare was a good pleasure horse and, to the best of my knowledge, continued to be one. I don't think she was ever asked to be a broodmare again.

Again, this is abnormal behavior. Most mares, even those with their first foals, have a very strong maternal instinct. Rarely does a mare totally reject a foal. There are occasions where young mares appear to be confused by this tottering apparition that is bumbling about the stall and are almost frightened of it. Normally, quietly restraining the mare for a few minutes in situations like this allows her to realize that she did truly give birth and that the clumsy little animal in the stall with her is indeed her own.

There is another form of rejection that sometimes occurs, however, that indicates that nature has prepared the mare for survival of the fittest--the birth of twins.

A Morgan-Arabian mare that my daughter and I had successfully competed in endurance racing was bred following her retirement from competition. To everyone's chagrin, she delivered twins. One was strong and robust, the other weak and smaller in stature. We were determined to save both. The mare disagreed.

While we struggled to get the smaller, weaker foal to its feet, she lavished all of her attention on the stronger one. She nuzzled it, nickered to it, and helped push it toward the milk supply.

She completely ignored the weaker foal. We managed to get it to its feet and pointed toward the nipple. She nonchalantly walked away as it attempted to nurse. It was as though the weak foal didn't exist.

Later we watched as the two foals lay resting in the straw in a large, double box stall. The mare nuzzled and licked the strong foal, but ignored the weak one to the point that as she walked around the stall, she stepped on one of its legs. There was no way that she would have allowed herself to do that to the healthy foal.

The mare had written off the weaker foal, and she turned out to be right. Even with milked out colostrum and milk replacer, it died within a few days. It was as though she knew this was going to happen and fostered all of her attention and energies on the foal which would live.

Again, this is not totally normal behavior. A number of mares have raised twins, with as much attention being devoted to one as the other. In those instances, though, it is likely that both foals were of equal stature as far as being robust.

One final personal anecdote that falls into the category of mares being protective of their newborns. We had a mare which would literally teach her foals to stay away from wire fences. Our practice was to turn mare and foal into a board-fence paddock during the first week or so after birth. Once we were sure the foals could navigate well and see with clarity, we turned them out into a pasture that was surrounded by smooth wire fence.

Each time this mare was turned out for the first time with a new foal, she would take it on a tour. With her body between the foal and the fence, she would head off around the pasture, guiding the foal along the entire fenceline as though seeking to imprint upon its young mind that these were boundaries and that the fence was to be avoided.

Maybe we read too much into her actions, but the fact remains that not one of her foals ever became tangled in wire.

The protective instinct in a mare is at its strongest during the first several weeks of the foal's life. As the foal develops more of its own "selfhood," the mare slowly but steadily resigns herself to the fact that the youngster is going to go off cavorting on its own and no longer needs to be kept under close surveillance. She might still assume a protective role if other horses come by to sniff at the foal in her presence, but the intensity of the urge to protect is usually on the wane after a month or so.

Although it wanes, the protective instinct never totally leaves until after weaning. It is not unusual for a mare to stop grazing and stare anxiously after a foal that is cavorting across the pasture, even though the youngster might be four or five months of age.

At about this point, though, the mare's milk supply is diminishing, and with it goes her fierce maternal instincts. She might even raise a leg to move the foal away as it roughly attempts to obtain milk from an udder that is in the process of shutting down.

There are exceptions. Wild horses we have observed are a case in point.

During a study of equines in the wild over a 10-year period, we saw with some frequency mares that were allowing 2-year-old offspring to continue to nurse. These would be mares which did not get pregnant during the spring in which they gave birth, so they allowed the present foal to continue nursing, which the offspring was perfectly willing to do.

The mares which did become pregnant the same spring that they gave birth normally would wean the foal sometime during the following winter so that their bodies could prepare for the delivery of a new offspring.

We, as horse owners, often make the statement that each horse is an individual. Nowhere is that more true than when discussing broodmares and their maternal behavior patterns. The only absolute is the fact that there are no absolutes.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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