Orphans and Families

I wanted to share with you a horse behavior experience that I had after I lost my best broodmare. "Janet" died overnight on May 30, 2006, at age 22. She looked remarkably great for her age, so we were breeding her back to our stallion. She was living at the farm where the stallion stands.

The farm owner said when he took Janet's body out of the pasture to bury her, Janet's 4-month-old filly called to her mama. The filly then ran back to Janet's best friend in the pasture, "Rachel." That mare is now suckling her own filly and Janet's filly. Both foals are by the same stallion and were born very close together. Rachel is about seven and this is her second foal.

The farm owner also reported the filly was being tended by two other of Janet's "best friends." They all sniffed the filly and Rachel, then one let the baby nurse at will. The third mare consoles the foal with gentle nudges and physically protects it, but hasn't allowed much nursing.

I have observed babies trying to nurse other mares; I think a lot of them try. There are probably 30 mares in a 30-acre pasture.

The filly has tried to nurse the other mares before being chased off, only to be accepted by these old girlfriends of Janet.

I don't know if this is normal mare behavior, but the filly looks great. She does not have a mark or bite on her and is very happy with the mare group she knows.

I would be very interested in your comments.                Diane Chilton, Pilot Point, Texas


I have heard many times about similar behavior of a foal and herdmates when a mare dies. And on a few occasions, I have seen this sort of acceptance of an "orphaned" foal when a mare was removed and her foal left behind in the pasture with other foals and their dams.

In our semi-feral herd here at New Bolton Center, we have had occasion when we are removing families for population control. We take an entire harem family away, leaving a foal behind with the herd.

The foals that we leave are usually much older than your foal was, as old as six to eight months. In each of those three or four instances that I saw, an entire harem, including mares, the harem stallion, and even some of the mature offspring of the harem, appeared to respond to the "orphan's" frantic behavior by herding it, playing with it, and consoling it.

Some mares conspicuously offered their udders. One interesting observation in that scenario is that these almost-yearling foals were nursing very little at the time their dam was removed from the herd, and the foster mares' foals were also almost weaned, but they immediately offered their udder to the orphan, and the orphan foal dove right in.

Also like you, we have seen foals sent off from some harems, then accepted by others. We really don't know why, nor can we predict beforehand which family might adopt the orphan.

So, adoption of an orphan herd member sure seems to be a fairly common phenomenon under these circumstances. What triggers the change in behavior of some of the herdmates to accept and look after the foal is an intriguing question.

My thoughts have been that perhaps the foal's frantic running and calling in all directions with the loss of its dam is the trigger for acceptance behavior of the herdmates who would otherwise not be inclined to care for the foal or to allow nursing when the foal's dam is present.

If the dam is sill in the herd and a foal gets separated, what we usually see is that all the other herd members tend to threaten the foal back in the direction of its own family.

It would make sense for survival for a herd to send the foal back to its family when the family is present, and also, it's logical to have an emergency mechanism for orphaned or stranded foals. The fact that Rachel's foal was related to the deceased mare's foal is also intriguing.

Update from Diane

After about a week, the foal seemed to settle with and spend most of her time and nursing with another of the three mares left from the original group of four buddies. Then, within a month or so, the other two mares turned the filly over to that mare, who has continued caring for the foal as well as her own. The farm owner says he has not seen this activity last so long.

They were weaned this week. They are still at the same farm. The owner weans by putting the babies in a corral next to the mare pasture.

They can still nurse through the fence for a few days, then he moves the mamas. The babies form friendships to help with the weaning.

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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