Separating Mare and Foal for Work

A young breeder asked me if she could take a mare from her foal for one hour every day. That young breeder would like to ride the mare; therefore she'll leave the foal in the box. I am not a fan of that. I told her that it would be a significant daily stress for the mare and her foal. Am I right?      Kate

This is a great question that we haven't addressed before in the column. I am happy to see that you are writing from the beautiful Prudnik National Stud in Poland. Our group here at the University of Pennsylvania has collaborated on horse behavior and reproduction projects with veterinary scientists in Krakow for many years. Whenever we visit Poland, our friends take us to see the beautiful horse studs. They are truly a world treasure.

Now, on your question about daily removal of a dam from her foal for an hour or so for riding: In general, many breeders and behavior experts would agree that daily separation of a mare and foal could result in significant stress for the foal and even for the mare. Many would judge the separation for the purpose of riding an unnecessary risk. So on the one hand, you're right. But in actual practice, there are many instances when mares and foals are separated for more practical reasons, and the truth is that most typically do just fine with frequent separation with no serious separation anxiety at the time, and no apparent long-term adverse effects.

To get a sampling of professional opinions, I shared your question with a colleague here at the University of Pennsylvania--Patricia Sertich, MS, VMD, Dipl. ACT, who specializes in mare reproduction. In her work she often sees mares and foals separated for medical and breeding procedures; she has seen a broad cross section of on-farm practices in this regard. Her experience has been that most foals and mares do very well with repeated, brief separations. For example, she knows of farms that prefer to routinely leave the foal behind when the mare goes to the stallion for teasing or breeding. This can be at what we call the "foal heat," which is the first postpartum estrus that occurs after delivery; the foal is sometimes as young as eight to 10 days.

I also spoke to two other board-certified veterinarians with years of professional experience working with mares and foals, as well as specific training and research experience with equine behavior. These veterinarians are Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS, who teaches and does research on mare and foal behavior at Pennsylvania State University; and Malgorzata Pozor, MedVet, PhD, Dipl. ACT, who has an equine breeding practice and teaches mare and foal research at the agricultural university in Krakow, Poland. Together, the four of us came up with the following comments and tips about periodic separation of mares and foals.

  • It's worth spending time initially to be sure the foal is safely, securely restrained (in a stall or paddock) the first time it's separated from its dam. It has been our experience that if the foal breaks out and gets to its mom during that first separation, then there seems to be a tendency to struggle even more frantically and persistently on subsequent separations.
  • It might help if the foal is kept in the company of other mares and foals during the separation from its dam.
  • The mare's behavior certainly seems to contribute to the foal's stress or comfort as they separate. Mares vary considerably in how upset they become with separation. If she is stressed and calling back to the foal, it seems to further upset it. If, on the other hand, the mare separates calmly and willingly, the foal will usually settle down sooner and seem less stressed. So you might want to consider the particular mare's mothering style when deciding if you want to try daily separation for pleasure riding or work.
  • Proceed with caution, knowing that the mare might become aggressive to the handler, and could even bite or barge over the handler to get back to a calling foal. If she does, remember it's because she's just doing a good job as a mother.
  • The old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind," seems to apply in most instances. Once the mare is beyond sight and sound of the foal, the foal typically settles down quickly. So, we usually try to proceed efficiently and separate them as far as possible without delay or long "good-byes," especially the first few times.
  • Some foals do seem to have prolonged frantic reactions. It would be a judgment call whether or not to persist for a "non-essential" purpose. We agreed that we couldn't say you shouldn't separate mares and foals for pleasure riding or other work. If your friend were to try this, she might start by observing the mare and foal beforehand in the pasture to get an idea of their relationship. If the dam is relaxed and the foal is fairly independent in the pasture, they might be good candidates for making an attempt. If your friend proceeds, and the mare and foal aren't too upset the first few times, we would expect it to get better each time, to the point where the separation becomes routine and stress would seem minimal.

We also know people who ride or work their mare with the foal at her side. Your friend might want to try that as an alternative to separation, perhaps in an enclosed area. This practice of taking a youngster out with the mare under saddle can be a nice early education for it. They can acclimate early to interacting with people and all the equestrian paraphernalia and procedures. If the mare is calm and compliant, the foal typically seems to follow her example.

Dr. Diehl reminded me that as with separation, "personalities" vary in regard to this practice. Some mares (and riders as well) seem more stressed and distracted with the foal at foot during work than if the foal was just left behind. Dr. Diehl's experience includes practice in central Pennsylvania with draft mares used to work the fields. She commented that most of the farmers in her practice just left the foals of draft mares behind during work, with not much apparent stress to either mare or foal. She added that she thought draft mare breeds in general were fairly calm and "sensible" in these situations, which likely contributed to the success of the practice. Dr. Sertich commented that she had seen areas in the world (Eastern Europe) where farmers often did just the opposite--they took the foals right along to work with their dams.

One last interesting thought, hopefully for the near future. There is a product now under development in France called Equine Appeasing Pheromone (Pherosynthese, Inc., pherosynthese@wanadoo.fr). It is a synthetic compound based on a pheromone secreted near the mammary gland of mammals. It purportedly has calming effects on horses of all ages, and its application will be as an aid to behavior modification for calming horses in all sorts of stressful situations. If this product does work and become widely available, facilitation of mare and foal separation would probably be a good use for it.

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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