Overprotective Mother

Q. I have a mare that is very protective of her foal. How can I check on the foal to make sure he's thriving without putting myself in danger?

Ellen, Bedminster, N.J.

A. Although it's always a good idea to acclimate young foals to handling in the first few days or weeks of life, it certainly is not obligatory for having a very manageable foal. Depending on how aggressively the mare is trying to protect her foal, there are some instances where, for safety and welfare concerns, it might be wiser to just observe the foal rather than try to get a hand on him. You can still get a good idea of whether the foal is thriving by just observing him. Look for signs that he is bright and alert, responding normally to sounds and events, moving comfortably, has no nasal or eye discharge, and has normal feces (see page 26). Play behavior is a sign of good health, so if you see the foal running and frolicking, he is likely -thriving.

To actually handle the foal when the mare's protective behavior is of concern, it might be wise to recruit one or more assistants that have experience handling broodmares and foals. The general plan many professional handlers use for most mares is to first get a lead rope on the mare and calmly reassure her in whatever way works best--grooming, giving her a treat, ignoring the foal, etc. Be as nonconfrontational as possible with the mare. Once she settles, the foal should also settle. This might take a few minutes but it is worth the wait. When the mare seems settled, calmly position her where she can see the foal and where her hind end is placed away from where you will be. One handler can stay with the mare to keep her calm. You might need to provide another minute or two of calm reassurance for the mare and foal to settle with that arrangement.

Foals instinctively position themselves on the opposite side of the dam from any imposing threat (i.e., you). Hence, the foal will likely keep scooting around to the other side of the mare if that option is available. Having someone on either side of the mare will help prevent this back-and-forth. What you don't want to do is to prompt the side-to-side escape behavior.

Depending upon how aggressively your mare protects her foal, you might want to create a barrier of some sort between the mare and the foal. You might be able to simply use straw bales to build a little half wall on one side of the stall, or position the mare along the edge of the stall. The goal is have a sufficient barrier to create a safe environment for yourself, but not to separate the mare so much that she becomes agitated. Any agitation on her part will add to the foal's fear and agitation.

When you actually handle the foal be sure not to chase him, rush toward him, or grab at him aggressively. Rather, calmly cradle him and be prepared to move with him while he settles. Foals tend to scurry toward their dam, and if you position yourself on the foal's off side, the mare will likely be less disturbed as well as less likely to try to bite or kick you "through the foal," so to speak.


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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