Student Research: Weaning, Foal Response to Mare Breeding

Q: I am writing from a stud farm where I am doing a practicum in horse management. For one of our exercises, I am required to keep track of questions I have about different breeding and foaling practices I see, ask someone here for their answer or opinion, then look for articles in a popular horse magazine or online. I also must contact a recognized expert working in that field for answers and opinions. Then I must compare the answers and information to make up my own mind for a presentation to the class with the supervisor. The veterinarian told me she thought you would be a good contact for this.

My questions are about things that I've heard the staff argue about here. Would you let me know if you are qualified in my topic and willing/have time to answer some of them, or if you know someone else who is better?

  1. What is the best age to wean a foal?
  2. Is it a good or bad practice to take the afterbirth away from the mare right away so the veterinarian can check it?
  3. In the covering barn, why does the foal always get upset just when the stallion jumps on the mare? Is it because the person holding the foal squeezed too tight? It is because the foal is afraid of the stallion hurting the mom?

via e-mail

A: Great project! Let your supervisor know what a good job she is doing. And I would love to know the opinion you reach and why when you are finished.

Your questions are within my active field of work. Please understand that for these questions, like most management questions, there is no one simple answer that fits all situations, and that's probably one of many reasons they come up so often in discussion on farms.

  1. I think most foals and mares do well if the foal is weaned once it is 5 months old or older. Many foals are weaned earlier and do fine. If there is no good pressing reason to have to separate the foal and mare, then older is almost always better.
  2. My opinion is that if it is important for the veterinarian to check the afterbirth to be sure that it is healthy and completely passed, then that probably is a good thing. Most people who want it to stay in the stall with the mare are likely worried about it playing a role in bonding of the mare to her foal. In nature the strategy of dealing with the afterbirth differs among species. There are those species that typically clean up the birth fluids and membranes by eating them so predators are not attracted to the vicinity of the neonate. And there are those that just move away from the birth site and let the small mammals eat/clean it up. For horses, the strategy is to move away quickly. Mares normally don't mess with the afterbirth too much. They might sniff it, then just move on. So it's not clear how much it plays a role in bonding, but probably not too much.
  3. A foal's natural response to breeding is to position itself in front of the mom's chest. This is a really safe place for a little one to be for this event. It is one of those beautiful reflex responses of horses. Dad mounts, baby scrambles to the chest. In domestic breeding, if a foal is held within sight of the breeding, it is often quite relaxed with the restraint until just that moment, then it is driven to get to mom's chest. It scrambles, then the holder squeezes even harder, which might make it even worse. Or sometimes the holder anticipates the scurry and starts to squeeze in advance, and this restraint gets the foal scrambling.

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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