Foal Rejection in Mares

With the foaling season underway, its time to discuss all things breeding! We often talk about nutrition and how to give your foal the best start to life, but we also need to consider what to do when things do not go to plan. Today we discuss foal rejection in mares.

Rejection behaviour is most common in:

  1. Maiden Mares
  2. Mares that have been separated from their newborn offspring for several days because of illness or injury.
  3. Mares that have rejected their foals in previous years.

Mares that ultimately reject their foals are not as likely to express normal maternal behaviours in the early post-partum period, such as licking their foals, nickering to their foals, and standing guard over or next to their foals.

Foal rejection can usually be divided into three categories:

  1. avoidance of the foal.
  2. Rejection of nursing.
  3. Actual aggression toward the foal.

The first type of abnormal behaviour is foal avoidance. The mare usually will not intentionally hurt the foal; however, if the mare and foal are confined to a small area, such as a small box stall, the mare might accidentally run over or step on the foal.

Cases of mares not allowing foals to nurse is the most common maternal behaviour problem, which typically occurs with mares that are first-time mothers. Mastitis or a swollen, painful udder can also lead to this type of behaviour.

Management of these two forms of foal rejection may initially include restraint of the mare by hand, use of a twitch, hobbles or crossties, or by placing the mare behind a bar to allow the foal to have the opportunity to suckle. In mild cases, distraction of the mare with food may be sufficient to allow the foal time to nurse without the mare becoming nervous and moving away. If the foal does not or cannot nurse, colostrum from the mare should be milked out and fed to the foal by bottle or by nasogastric tube.

Aggression by the mare toward the foal is the least common, but the most serious abnormal behaviour. This behaviour is characterised by the mare attacking the foal, kicking, or biting the foal over the neck and back.

For a mare which is aggressive toward her foal, she will need to be restrained to prevent injury to her foal. Some methods used are cross ties, hobbles, or a bar creating a straight stall to prevent the mare from being able to kick the foal or turn sideways. The mare often is sedated by a veterinarian under these circumstances.

It may take several days of patient, diligent work to assist the mare to accept her foal. However, if the process is unsuccessful the foal may be fostered onto a foster mare.

Written by Michael-j Goddard

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