You waited 11 months for your mare to foal, so once foaling day finally arrives you are full of anticipation. You wonder whether this foal could become one of your breed’s next great stallions or whether he will carry you to championships in the show ring. You envision your new foal and his mother grazing together in your paddock. But you never imagine that your mare might ignore your foal and refuse to let him nurse—or worse, that she could savagely attack and seriously injure him.
Luckily, foal rejection only occurs in about five percent of births. First-time mothers are more likely to reject their foals, probably because they are unsure of what the foal is or how to treat him. Understanding the various forms that foal rejection can take enables you to prevent some cases and better cope with the others.
Reasons for Rejection
With the most common type of foal rejection, the mare refuses to allow the foal to nurse. She licks and nuzzles him after he is born, but moves out of his way or bites and kicks him when he touches her udder. This type of foal rejection often occurs because the mare is not used to having her udder touched and is “ticklish.” You can help prevent this in first-time mothers by handling and rubbing their udders several weeks before they are due. Also teach them to tolerate being touched on their flanks, legs and stomachs. Be careful when desensitizing the mare, since she may kick or bite at you in the beginning.
If the mare previously allowed the foal or others to nurse or was desensitized to having her udder handled, but now refuses to allow her baby near it, she may be suffering from mastitis or an injury to her udder. Have your veterinarian examine her. Once you identify and alleviate the source of pain, she will probably be willing to let the foal nurse.
In some cases, the mare may completely ignore the foal. She will not lick or nuzzle him or seem to acknowledge his existence in any way. If he moves toward her, she walks out of his way and avoids contact with him. In other instances, the mare avoids the foal out of fear. As well, a mare who has had a long and difficult delivery is also prone to ignore her foal because she is exhausted.
In the above cases, the foal rejection might be temporary. You can restrain the mare and allow the foal to nurse and touch her. Although it could take several encounters, eventually she may relax and let the baby approach her without being restrained. While getting the mare accustomed to her foal, stay near the stall to supervise the two. A mare who previously ignored her foal may kick him if he refuses to leave her alone, and a well-aimed kick can kill a foal.
While keeping the foal safe is your first priority, insuring that he gets colostrum is also a major concern. Colostrum, or first milk, is rich with immunoglobulins, which protect the foal from infection by bacteria in the environment. The foal can absorb these live-saving nutrients for only about his first 12 hours of life, and if he fails to receive colostrum, he will be weak and likely succumb to an infection that would not affect a healthy horse.
If your mare will not let the foal nurse even when restrained, you may be able to milk her and bottle feed the foal. However, if he does not get colostrum from his dam, you need to purchase colostrum and bottle feed him, or your veterinarian will need to administer IV immunoglobulins.
In rare cases of foal rejection, the mare attacks the foal. She bites and kicks him and may strike him or knock him down and trample him. Foals who are brutally attacked often suffer internal injuries and broken bones and may not recover. If the mare attacks her foal, immediately remove him from her stall and ask your veterinarian to examine him for injuries. While you may restrain your mare with a halter, leadrope and hobbles and allow the foal to nurse, do not leave him with the mare unsupervised.
Researchers are unsure why any mare would try to kill her foal, although some theorize that she is afraid of her baby, feels like she cannot escape him and decides to eliminate what she perceives as a threat. Katherine Houpt, DVM, Ph.D. of Cornell University, has discovered that Arabian mares are more likely to reject their foals than Thoroughbred or Paint mares. This, combined with the fact that mares who have rejected at least two foals are likely to reject subsequent foals, suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to foal rejection, and mares who have rejected at least two foals should not be bred again.
Some horsemen feel that horses should be allowed to foal on their own, unassisted by humans, for the best chance of a healthy mare-foal bond. These horsemen feel that the presence of humans, other horses or other animals in or near the foaling stall leads to foal rejection. But researchers at Cornell University could discover no correlation. They also saw no relationship between humans assisting the foal to stand and nurse and foal rejection. So you should not worry that your presence will cause the mare to reject her foal.
In the end, foal rejection is rare, but if it does happen to one of the foals in your care, be ready with alternative solutions.