A healthy mare-foal bond is critical for growth, provides nursing and warmth, and supports foal development and socialization. A strong bond sets the foundation for the foal’s behavior and interaction with humans and other horses.

Foal rejection occurs when a mare and her foal fail to bond after birth. As a result, the mare may show disinterest, fear, or even aggression towards her newborn foal.

The precise cause of foal rejection is often unknown, but may stem from various mare-related factors or disruptions during the critical bonding period immediately after birth.

In many cases, foal rejection is treatable through appropriate management of the mare. Management may include:

  • Restraining the mare to allow the foal to nurse
  • Behavioural modification techniques
  • Pain medications
  • Sedation

If foal rejection continues, or if the mare is overtly aggressive towards the foal, the foal must either be raised as an orphan or transferred to a nurse mare. Both processes can be costly and require extensive hands-on management for success.

Normal Mare-Foal Interactions

Research suggests that maternal bonding in horses begins when the mare smells the placenta and associated fluids after birth. This gives her a strong smell to associate with her foal, a process that continues as the mare licks the foal shortly after delivery. [1][2]

Initial maternal behaviours mares display towards the newborn foal include: [2][3]

  • Nuzzling the foal
  • Licking the foal
  • Flehmen response
  • Scraping the foal with her teeth
  • Avoiding walking or laying on the foal
  • Encouraging nursing
  • Positioning herself between the foal and humans

Maternal Bonding

The behaviours most associated with development of the maternal bond are: [2][3]

  • Sniffing the placenta and birthing fluids
  • Nose-to-nose sniffing with the foal
  • Nuzzling or licking the foal’s perineum while the foal nurses

These behaviours are most common in the first three hours after foaling, but can continue for up to three days.

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Signs of Foal Rejection

Foal rejection refers to a situation where a mare does not exhibit normal maternal behavior towards her newborn foal. Rejection results in a lack of nurturing, protective behaviours, and bonding. This abnormal behavior can hinder the foal’s ability to nurse and receive maternal care.

The manifestations of foal rejection can vary. The main types of foal rejection include: [1][4][5]

  • Mares that seemingly ignore the foal (ambivalence)
  • Mares that avoid the foal or display fear or anxiety
  • Mares that do not allow the foal to nurse
  • Aggressive mares that attack the foal

Distinguishing Rejection from Normal Behaviours

Breeders should not mistake normal maternal behaviours during initial bonding as foal rejection. Truly aggressive mares often attack the foal unprompted, and may bite, shake, or throw the foal. [1]

During initial nursing attempts, or if the foal is aggressively bunting the udder, normal mares may display behaviours such as: [1][5][6][7]

  • Squealing
  • Nipping or gently kicking at the foal to stop nursing
  • Pinning ears at the foal
  • Stepping away from the foal during the first nursing attempt

Many investigators report seeing domestic and feral mares stepping away from their foals when the foal first attempts to nurse, even if the mare and foal have bonded normally. This behaviour may teach the foal to follow the mare as part of the bonding process. [2]

Additionally, mares during early lactation frequently walk away from their foals while the foal is still nursing. [2][7] This appears to be a normal behaviour which has been described in many breeds, and should not be confused with foal rejection. [2]

Causes of Foal Rejection

The main causes of foal rejection are: [1][5]

  • Mare factors
  • Disrupted maternal bonding
  • Abnormal foals that do not encourage maternal instinct in the mare
  • Pain in the udder during nursing

In many cases, the underlying cause of the rejection is unknown. [1]