Understand Normal Mare and Foal Behavior

Understanding normal mare and foal behavior will help you identify health and management problems before they become critical.
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Understanding normal mare and foal behavior will help you identify health and management problems before they become critical.

Ever since your mare's pregnancy was confirmed nearly 11 months ago, you've been anticipating her foal's arrival. Now the time is near, and you're a bit anxious, wondering exactly what to expect.

For the most part, nature will simply run its course as the mare delivers her foal and he begins to develop in the days and weeks following his birth. The vital role you can play in the process is to be an astute observer. By understanding the typical course of events as well as the behavior normally exhibited by a mare and her foal, you'll be able to recognize when something is amiss so that you can intervene and summon help before either horse is in serious danger.

Preparing to Foal
As your mare's due date draws near, you'll spend more time checking on her. Look for changes in her behavior. For instance, some mares who normally are unfriendly and aloof may seek attention, while others who usually are sociable can turn standoffish. Some mares may even begin to bite or kick while being handled. Although these types of changes are normal, behavior that is disrespectful and dangerous still calls for discipline.

Although you probably want to be present when your mare gives birth, she may have other ideas. Mares tend to foal late at night or early in the morning--the most tranquil time of day with the least intrusions. In the wild, mares typically give birth when it is dark to hide their vulnerable foals for the few hours it takes them to become physically able to rise and flee from predators. Like their wild counterparts, domestic mares may also delay foaling until they feel safe and comfortable. You may need to leave your mare alone in an appropriate foaling area--a clean, roomy, well-lit stall or a paddock not used for regular turnout--until she enters labor.

The Stages of Labor
A mare goes through three stages of labor, each characterized by related behaviors.

Stage 1: Contractions. Your mare will be restless as she experiences contractions. The tightening of the muscles of the womb puts the foal in the correct position for passage through the birth canal. During this stage--which lasts from 30 minutes to a few hours--your mare is likely to behave as if she has colic. She may pace, paw the ground, lie down and rise frequently, and look at or bite her sides. These signs are normal, but if she begins to roll and thrash, summon your veterinarian immediately.

Stage 2: Delivery of her foal. A mare enters this most active stage of labor when her water breaks. For the 30 to 40 minutes that follow, she is likely to lie down as the foal passes through and emerges from the birth canal. Occasionally, she may stand up and stay up or reposition herself and lie down. She may look at her sides and nudge or bite them. She also may nicker or whinny. If she seems to struggle for more than 30 minutes and is making little progress in delivering her foal, call your veterinarian.

Stage 3: Passage of the placenta. The placenta--the membranous organ that connects the fetus to the uterus during pregnancy--is passed within 30 minutes to two hours after the foal has been born. The mare may lie down again for a final expulsive push. If she retains her placenta for a longer time, alert your veterinarian. Do not attempt to remove the placenta by pulling on it. Your mare can be seriously injured.

Signs of Normal Newborn Development
Foals perform a series of behaviors in the hours after birth. If your newborn fails to accomplish any of these milestones within the timeframe described, have your veterinarian examine him to determine whether a health or developmental problem may be responsible.

Here's a timeline of what to expect in nine areas as your newborn develops:

1. Breathing. Although a mare commonly rests immediately after giving birth, her foal is busy. Seconds after his pelvis clears his dam's body, he lifts his head and neck and then rolls onto his sternum. This motion generally breaks the amnion--the sac that surrounds him--allowing him to begin breathing within about 30 to 45 seconds. If your foal does not break the sac, tear it open and clear his nasal passages of mucus by getting his head upright and shaking it gently to assist natural drainage. If he does not start breathing within 30 to 45 seconds, rub his body vigorously and breathe into one nostril while holding the other closed--a procedure known as mouth-to-nose assisted breathing.

2. Crawling. Once his head and neck clear the sac and he is breathing rhythmically, a newborn will begin to creep forward. He will use his front legs to pull himself along and free his body and hind legs from the amnion. His movements may also break the umbilical cord.

In these first few minutes of life, the newborn will appear unsteady. His ears will flop to the side and his head and neck may wobble. He will remain sternal on the ground for about 15 minutes until his forelegs are strong enough to lift his chest off the ground.

3. Standing. It is likely to take at least 30 minutes before the foal's hind legs are strong enough to lift him. During his first attempts to rise, he will stagger to his feet, lurch from side to side and then crumple to the ground. He may rest for a few moments before again trying to stand. By the time he is an hour old, he will be fairly steady on his feet.

4. Walking. Soon after he is able to stand for more than a few seconds at a time, your foal will begin to take shaky steps. He may stumble or fall, but he will continue to attempt to make progress. Within about two hours of his birth, he will be coordinated enough to walk without faltering. And in about two hours after that, he will be able to trot and gallop.

5. Nursing. A foal is born with the desire and ability to nurse, and once he is able to walk, he will seek out his dam's udder, using his muzzle to explore whatever surfaces he encounters at shoulder height. Generally, a healthy foal discovers his dam's teats and nurses at least once within the first two hours. Expect your newborn to nurse for 45 to 50 seconds about four times an hour.

6. Lying down. In the first few hours of life, foals have difficulty lying down. You are likely to see your newborn bend his front knees, rise back up, bend again and then simply collapse or throw himself onto his side. After several attempts, he will develop sufficient coordination to lower himself to the ground in one graceful movement. No matter how clumsy his attempt to lie down, your foal should be able to jump to his feet when startled.

7. Resting. After standing and nursing for the first time, most foals nap for approximately 30 minutes.

8. Bonding. A foal bonds with his dam within the first few hours of life and then will hide behind her when he is anxious. Horsemen are divided over their role during this time. Many believe it is best to leave the mare and foal alone because human interference can disrupt the bonding process. Others take advantage of the foal's lack of fear to begin to handle and train him.

9. Eliminating. The first time a foal defecates--usually within his first four hours--he passes the meconium, the dark, sticky waste matter that accumulated in his colon, cecum and rectum prior to birth. Then he will defecate approximately every 10 hours and urinate about once an hour.

The New Mother's Reactions
As her foal learns to breathe and tests out his legs, a mare often rests-normally for about 30 minutes. If she isn't standing within about 45 minutes of giving birth, call your veterinarian to examine her. Even while she is on the ground, a mare will watch her foal and may nicker to him. Once she rises, she will sniff him and breathe on him. She may lick him to remove any remnants of membrane that remain and to help dry his coat.

New mothers tend to be protective of their foals and they may be very aggressive toward other horses. Your mare may pin her ears and charge nearby horses to drive them away from her newborn. Be careful not to get between her and another horse or you may get hurt. In some instances, a mare may also become dangerous toward people, especially if she believes that her foal is threatened. To protect yourself, keep the foal between you and his dam.

A mare who is apathetic or lethargic, who refuses to rise or who slowly struggles to her feet only to hang her head without noticing her foal or her surroundings requires immediate veterinary attention. Her behavior may be a sign of a ruptured artery or torn uterus, risking peritonitis or herniation.

When Lack of Interest Becomes Rejection
A mare's indifference or aggression toward her foal can be the first sign that she is rejecting him. Fortunately, foal rejection is rare. But when it occurs, the newborn may need to be separated because of the way his dam is treating him. Foal rejection takes one of three forms:

1. A mare discourages her foal from nursing. In this instance, the mare licks and nuzzles her foal, nickers to him when he strays from her, but refuses to allow him to nurse. She may move away when he attempts to suckle or she may push him away with her head. This type of behavior most often occurs when:

  • a new mother is nervous about her foal being near her teats
  • a mare's udder is so full that it is causing her discomfort
  • infection or injury has made a mare's teats or the area around them painful.

You may be able to intervene and resolve this situation by hobbling the mare and positioning her foal so he can nurse. Once he has, his dam is likely to feel more comfortable and no longer put up such a fuss. Ask your veterinarian about collecting milk from the mare and giving it to the baby via bottle or by stomach tube.

2. A mare ignores her foal altogether. This mare refuses to acknowledge her foal. She will not touch or smell him. She may kick or bite him when he approaches. A mare who displays this type of behavior may be a new mother who is afraid of her foal or she may be ill or injured. Have your veterinarian examine her to rule out or remedy a physical problem before restraining her to allow her foal to nurse.

3. A mare attacks her foal. This mare will not touch her foal except to bite or kick him. She may grab him, lift him off the ground and shake him, or she may knock him over and try to trample him. Unless she is stopped, she can seriously injure or kill him within a few minutes. A mare behaving in this manner may have been traumatized while giving birth or she may be extremely frightened of her foal. Restraining her is unlikely to have any beneficial effect. In all probability, she will not become accustomed to her foal. She will attack him again. Separate the mare and foal and call your veterinarian immediately.

The incidence of foal rejection is highest among mares who are first-time mothers, those who have a long, difficult delivery and those who are stressed--perhaps by being in a new location, cared for by unfamiliar people or intimidated by other horses. Handling that interferes with the bonding process also may cause a mare to ignore her foal.

Research indicates that a genetic predisposition may determine whether a mare rejects her foal. One study found that Arabian mares reject their foals more often than mares of other breeds. Hormones, too, appear to play a part. In another study, estrogen and progesterone levels were lower in mares who rejected their foals.

When the Bond is Strong
In the days after her foal is born, a mare may remain aggressive toward other horses and people. Although this is not unusual, it is not behavior to be taken lightly. Discipline your mare if she kicks, bites or strikes at you. As her aggression lessens, try turning her and her baby out with other mares and foals. Avoid putting them in a herd of mares and geldings or with a group of mares without foals. Some mares try to steal foals, and geldings can be aggressive toward them.

For his first few months, your foal will continue to take 30-minute naps many times throughout the day. After he is about four months old, he will nap less and for gradually shorter periods. He will nurse three to four times each hour for the first week of life. That frequency, too, will decrease as he ages.

For the first month, he will tend to play alone by running around his dam, jumping into the air, kicking out his feet and wheeling to run in another direction. As he gets older, he will spend more time playing with other youngsters, which he needs to become properly socialized to other horses. They will run, buck, kick and engage in mock battles, rearing, striking and running away. Such skirmishes are normal, and foals are almost never hurt while roughhousing. Studies have shown that during play, young animals take turns being the winner and loser. They also train their movements and actions to keep from harming one another. Both colts and fillies may mount each other during play. A foal who has no companions his age normally will attempt to play with his dam.

Understanding the normal behaviors of mares and foals will help you to appreciate the events both monumental and minor that surround and accompany a horse's birth. As a knowledgeable observer, you'll be able to identify which actions and reactions are typical. You'll also be better prepared to recognize those that signal something is wrong. Your prompt intervention when you detect trouble could prevent an emerging problem from escalating into a crisis, and your powers of observation will be rewarded as your mare and her new foal are able to lead healthy lives.

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of EQUUS magazine.