Now that your newborn foal is on the ground, safe and sound, you probably think the hardest part is over. The fact of the matter is, the first 24 hours of a foals life are probably the most important, and its your job as the attendant to oversee that all goes as planned. Apart from observing that the newborn is aware of its surroundings and stands as well as defecates within the first two hours after foaling, you must ensure that he receives the vital colostrum. (3) This "first milk" contains essential antibodies which provide immunity for the foal's first few months. So what do you do if the mare refuses to accept the foal or allow it to nurse? Rejection of a foal by its dam is a fairly well known behavioural abnormality due to its potentially dire and possibly pathological consequences.
There is thought to be a genetic component to the rejection problem, both familial and breed tendencies, since a good portion of the cases have involved the Arabian breed. (1,4) A mare's temperament is also believed to be important as it is seen more often in nervous mares. (5) Rejection is seen primarily in maiden mares, thus the dam's experience seems to play a key role in determining foal acceptance. (1,4,5) Environmental disturbances, such as human interference or the presence of other animals, are also indicated in the causation. (3,5) The mare's general health is another factor to consider. A prolonged foaling period, sickness or exhaustion may result in a weak bond or prevent bonding all together. The effect of the mare's hormonal status has also been suggested, but not yet thoroughly studied. Altered levels of estrogens, progestins, oxytocin, prolactin, or prostiglandins have been indicated. (5) It has been found that the progesterone levels were lower before foaling and fell more rapidly after parturition in mares who reject their foals than that of normal mares. (1) The causes of this problem are diverse, thus a treatment must be determined on a basis of a combination of particular causes.
There are different forms of maternal rejection. We will deal with each of these separately as they have variations on the suggested treatment due to the different causes. In any case, it is advisable to discuss the situation with your veterinarian in order to rule out any possible pathological causation to the condition. In most cases, given time and the proper treatment, the mare will eventually accept her foal. (1,3)
Signs usually involve passively walking away from the foal or kicking at the foal when it tries to nurse. (5)
Udder pain, lack of experience, a previous painful experience, any or all of the above noted causes, (5) and anything which may aggravate the udder or increase teat sensitivity (3) have all been indicated as causes.
As long as there is no pathology (such as mastitis), the mare can be taught to accept suckling by restraining her while the foal nurses. You want to be careful to avoid causing any pain to the mare while the foal is nursing as she may associate this with nursing which only worsens the problem. You might try rewarding her with treats as the foal nurses. One method of restraint is to hold one leg up to discourage movement and kicking. If this is unsuccessful, you can section the stall with a bar or a partition and tie the mare's head forward so that she can't kick or swing around and bite the foal while it's nursing. (3,5)
A variety of drugs may be used such as diuretics to reduce congestion or oxytocin to increase milk letdown and lessen udder engorgement. Antianxiety drugs or painkillers such as bute or dipyrone may also be used. (5) Only in extreme cases would one use tranquilizers as they're eliminated in the milk, which subsequently sedates the foal and may prevent it from attempting to nurse during a time when it can absorb the essential antibodies. (3)
Some mares will tolerate hand milking but not suckling. In this case you want to gradually accustom the mare to suckling by feeding the mare's milk from a bottle held in the area around the mare's udder. This also teaches the foal where the milk can be obtained. (3)
Practitioners have suggested to wash, handle and gently squeeze teats and udder within the last month of gestation. This serves to prepare the mare for the act of nursing as well as to rid the area of dirt and debris which could result in a pathological condition.
The dam's aggression can be in the form of kicking but is usually that of biting, which is primarily directed to the neck and withers. She may even grab these areas, shaking the foal and throwing it. Some mares attack only when the foal gets between her and food, but others will attack whenever the foal stands. (3)
The ultimate causation of this behaviour is unknown, but there are many possible contributing factors. Some of these factors include the general causes stated above as well as the presence of other horses, other mares in visible range (4), and the presence of too many people. (2,3) Removal of the expelled placenta has also had implications in rejection and aggression. This thought stems from the finding that olfaction determines maternal behaviour during the maintenance phase. (3) If the mare associates the smell of birth fluids and membranes as hers during the initiation phase, and these are removed too early, this may alter the association of the foal as hers.It has also been found that mares with retained placentas seem to accept their foals whereas mares that do not retain their placentas tend to reject their foals. (2) The act of passing the placenta creates pain and stress, thus, if a mare passes her placenta within the first couple of hours after birth, this may interfere with bond formation.
The first thing to do would be to avoid any unnecessary human or equine contact, and leave the placenta and fetal membranes in the stall. (3,4) If the mare still will not accept the foal then one could try releasing them in a less confined area with attendants present to protect the foal. (3) Another approach would be to restrain the mare and section off the stall as described above. Some practitioners have also found that the administration of oxytocin or progestin can aid in reducing aggression. (1)
One can predict the possibility of rejection by referring to the mare's previous foaling history. The following precautions can be taken with these mares as well as with maiden mares. Within the first 2 hours after foaling the placenta and fetal membranes should be left in the stall. For at least the first 24 hours and up to a couple of weeks, you should try to avoid visual contact with other horses and avoid having too many unfamiliar people in the stall. (3,4)
This type of rejection is the result of a change in the foal's odor which is usually caused by extensive clinical treatment, as in the case of ruptured bladder treatment.
All of the above mentioned maternal factors can increase the chance of this type of rejection occurring, but the main factor here is the interference during the critical bonding period and the change of the foal's odor. (3)
The above procedures for other types of rejection can be followed. One additional method which seems to be successful is to mask the altered smell of the foal by applying mentholated ointment to both the mare's nostrils and the foal's head and perianal area. (3) Some practitioners have also found that draping the afterbirth over the foal is beneficial.
There are no preventative measures for this type of rejection as emergency clinical procedures are impossible to avoid, if the foal is to survive.
1. Equine Research Center. The Thinking Horse. 1995. Resto Graphics. Mississauga, ON. pp3-5.
2. Houpt, K.A. and J. Feldman. Aggression toward a neonatal foal by its dam. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1993. Nov. 1; 203 (9): 1279-1280.
3. Houpt, K.A. Foal rejection and other behavioural problems in the postpartum period. Compendium on the Continuing Education for Practicing Veterinarians. 1984; 6: S144-S148.
4. Houpt, K.A. and D. Olm. Equine behavior : foal rejection - a review of 23 cases. Equine Practice. 1984; 6: 38-40.
5. McKeown, D. and A. Luescher. Parental - offspring behavior. 1989. Equine Behavior. Vet Med Vertical File. p 40-45.