Handling a Hostile Broodmare

My mare just had a colt today and I have a concern about it because she is 13 years old and not broken. She had been broken three times prior to me getting her, and she won't come near anyone. My question is: How will I be able to mess with the colt without the mare coming after me? She is very protective of the colt, and I am very concerned about separating them when the time comes.

I want very badly to get the mare broken again where she can be ridden, but I have my doubts about that ever happening since I am sure she is very set in her ways and has in the past hurt the few riders she has had after being broken. I hope you can give me some suggestions as to what I should do under these circumstances. I am totally new at breeding and separating mares from their colts.             Marlene

For a situation such as yours, with a dam that is presently unable to be handled, I would recommend one of two strategies. The first could be to just not worry too much about the foal until you are ready to wean, in which case I would recommend weaning earlier rather than later--say three to five months. In that case, you'll have your hands full starting the larger and stronger foal that has never been touched--acclimating it to domestic life and people. But it can be done, with great results. It is probably not a good beginner project. You might pay attention to the editor's (Kimberly Herbert) experience diary with her previously unhandled PMU draft cross foals at www.TheHorse.com/policehorses.

If you take this strategy of postponing foal handling until after weaning, in the meantime you want to maximize the positive and minimize the negative experiences of this mare and foal associated with people. So avoid herding or driving the mare or other activities that would teach the foal, either directly or via its dam's reaction, that people are to be avoided.

To increase the positive, it would likely help to hang out with the mare and foal as much as possible, maybe quietly sitting in the field as if you are paying no attention to the horses, with some apples or grain nearby to attract the mare to approach the area where you are. This may renew the mare's interest in people and build up some positive rapport, which will be automatically conveyed to the foal.

When you wean, it might help to minimize stress of the pair by separating the two in stages, rather than cold turkey. This can be done by first having them in adjacent pastures with a safe fence line, so that they can stand near one another without the foal nursing. If it's possible, a companion for the foal, such as a pony or another weanling in its pasture, can work wonders at breaking the tight dam-foal dependency. Once the dam and foal start spending considerable time away from one another along the fence line, you can start working with the foal alone, even away from the dam.

The second strategy for working with a foal whose dam is not tractable is to work out a system for peaceful intermittent separation from the dam and human interaction with the youngster before it is weaned. I've seen many systems, but basically what works well is a "creep" set up. "Creep" is used in the same sense as the "creep" feeder, where barriers are set up that only allow youngsters access to special feed. The foal can fit through the opening that the adults are too large to enter. In this case, you could arrange a fence or stall wall with a small opening or a short door that allows the foal to pass back and forth, but not the mare. You can either just wait for the foal to explore or actively entice the foal to come to the creep side. Then you quietly close the creep door and immediately give the dam some grain or other treat to simultaneously distract and reward her while the foal is on the creep side. If the foal is interested in grain, you can also reward the foal.

The first few times, you should just do brief separations, then quietly open the gate or door and let them rejoin. The goal is to gradually lengthen the separation from the dam and to quietly and calmly introduce people and touch and handling of the foal while keeping the dam calm and distracted. The dam should actually associate separation and handling of the foal with her reward. It usually works well, at least initially, if the dam can see the foal in the "creep" area.

For beginners who wish to gentle unhandled foals or horses, it's probably worth finding someone who does this type of work regularly. Even a brief "apprenticeship" can go a long way in safely and effectively acclimating a horse to people and handling. They will have tips for making it a safe and positive experience for everyone.

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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