Mare Instinct After Loss

Q:After several years of pasture breeding, we are having our first experience with a stillbirth. The dam is a 5-year-old mare with her first pregnancy. The foal was right on time, as we estimated it from the last observed breeding after which we removed the stallion. Luckily, we saw her from the start of labor, and everything happened pretty fast. The stillborn filly looks to be of a good size and maturity. So we don't know yet what went wrong. Our veterinarian is coming late today to check on the mare and to look at the foal and the afterbirth.

Anyway, we have some behavior and welfare questions that we never had to think about before. How long we should leave the foal with the mare? We bagged up and took away the afterbirth as soon as it passed. Our first instinct was to just bring the foal in out of the sun. But, when we go into the field, she moves into position to guard it, and she nickers at it. If we try to get close, she nuzzles it pretty rough as if to try to wake it up. She pawed at it as if she was trying to get it to move. The mare has been trying to take care of the foal just like it was alive. It's been over an hour. She's licked it clean all over. Even though the foal isn't responding, the mare keeps standing over it and nudging it. It looks really sad to us, so we're wondering what is better for the mare--to take it away or leave it until the vet gets here.

What do most breeders do when a foal is born dead? Do mares in this situation experience grief? If they do, what do you think is best care to provide for the mare? What would a mare do in the wild? Is it something we should worry about? What would you do? And do you have any experience to know how this situation with her first foal might affect her future maternal behavior? --Via e-mail

A: These are great questions. I'll do my best at addressing them.

My impression is that most breeders either take a stillborn foal away almost immediately or leave it with the dam for a short time, maybe a few minutes or up to a half-hour or so. The practical consideration in a stall situation is that you want to get the membranes out so that they can be examined before they are damaged and heavily soiled with bedding or manure. While I don't think anybody can know what is best for the mare on a psychological level, I personally would not be concerned that removal at any time would be harmful to the mare. Under natural conditions within a harem, a tendency of the harem stallion is to urge the mare to move away from the birth site. That seems to be the way horses deal with the birth fluids and membranes that are very attractive to scavengers and predators.

Some species tend to clean up the birth site, eating the membranes, then staying nearby. Other species, such as equids, just move on. And it seems like one of the duties of the harem stallion is to get the family moving on as soon as possible after a birth. I have seen a stallion move a mare and foal to a new site within minutes after the foal was out, then the mare lay down and expelled the fetal membranes. Then the stallion moved them on again from that site.

So for wild herds, if a mare tries to linger near a dead foal, the stallion will often try to move them on. I have seen a stallion join in the pawing and nudging, even picking up the dead foal by the crest of the neck, as if to try to get it up and away from the site.

In pastured herds without stallions, I have seen mares stay near their stillborn foals for up to a few hours before they move away to graze or rejoin the herd on their own. Sometimes the herdmates approach to investigate the dead foal.

Your question about grief, like all those questions about animal emotion and cognition, is tough to answer. It's really not known scientifically how complexly a horse conceptualizes a situation such as this. Similarly, it is not known whether behavior such as what you've seen in this mare reflects underlying emotions such as grief, or if it more simply represents innate adaptive stimulus- response behavior.

As far as the future maternal behavior of a mare whose first foal was a stillbirth, I would expect it to be excellent. Your mare's current behavior is the normal healthy response, and, if anything, is it likely better that she respond to the dead foal than not. In the case that a mare is not attending the foal, there are many factors to think about. Is it because the foal is dead, and so the mare's apparent lack of interest is because the foal is not doing its part of the maternal-neonatal interaction? Is it because the dam is in a compromised physical condition herself from, perhaps, a difficult birth or illness? Is it because she is one of those mares that would have poor maternal behavior even if the parturition were normal and the foal were alive and well? If she is just one of those first-time moms with poor maternal behavior, will it be better with subsequent foals?

Since your mare is showing great first-time maternal behavior, even with a noninteractive foal, to my mind none of those potential factors matter much. I can't remember knowing of a mare that had this normally good behavior with a stillbirth to have poor maternal behavior with subsequent foals, unless, of course, the mare herself was not well.

Finally, there are some other practical considerations to this situation I have wondered about, but I don't know of any research-based answers. Interaction of a dam with a neonate stimulates the release of oxytocin and the hormonal events that naturally support the next important events in the life of the dam, which are bonding with the foal, lactation and milk letdown, and uterine contractions to return the uterus to readiness for breeding again. Normally the stimulation from the neonate includes udder-seeking nudging behaviors and nursing. But it is also known that just the visual, olfactory, and auditory interactions of the live neonate stimulate the hormonal events that support milk production and release in the dam.

So if the goal is to have the mare dry up as soon as possible, it might be better to remove the foal sooner rather than later. The same might be true if you want to reduce bonding with this dead foal. On the other hand, if there are retained membranes or the concern is to have good uterine clearance and rapid return of the uterus to breeding condition, then some exposure to the neonate to stimulate natural oxytocin release might be a good choice.

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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