Rejection of a foal by its dam can take several forms. The mare might avoid the foal, prevent the foal from nursing or become aggressive toward the foal. Mares in the latter category might assume a threatening posture, pin their ears back when the foal approaches, charge or chase the foal, squeal at the foal, or in more serious cases, might kick at or bite the foal. Mares on rare occasions have seriously injured or killed their foals in the first few days after giving birth.
Rejection is most likely to occur in mares giving birth to their first foal. Mares that have rejected a foal in the past have an increased chance of rejecting a subsequent foal. In addition, mares that are separated from their foal for a prolonged period of time in the early postpartum period have an increased risk of foal rejection.
Failure to allow nursing will result in an inability for the foal to acquire the maternal antibodies from colostrum necessary to protect itself against pathogenic disease organisms. In addition, affected foals are deprived of important nutritional support in the neonatal period.
Although you might be exhausted from staying up nights waiting for the foal to arrive, mares exhibiting a tendency toward foal rejection should be monitored closely for the first 48 hours or more after foaling. The vast majority of rejection behaviors occur within the first 12 hours after birth. Therefore, with at-risk mares, it is best to avoid interrupting the bonding that occurs naturally between mare and foal early in life.
Management of foal rejection might include restraint of the mare by hand, use of a twitch, hobbles or cross-ties or by placing the mare behind a bar or nursing chute to allow the foal to have an opportunity to nurse. In mild cases, distraction of the mare with grain might 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 nasogastric tube.
In some instances, the mare might need to be muzzled to prevent biting of the foal. The mare might also need to be tranquilized periodically during the first few days postpartum with a medication, such as acepromazine, to decrease aggression. Administration of Regumate has also been used in many cases of foal rejection in an attempt to suppress or moderate aggressive behavior. Treatment of the mare with an analgesic, such as Banamine, might be indicated if the mare appears to be rejecting nursing attempts by the foal due to post-foaling pain or mammary gland discomfort. Inflammation of the mammary gland might contribute to refusal of a mare to allow nursing.
If other techniques are unsuccessful, some breeders advocate that a mare exhibiting mild foal rejection behavior turned out into a paddock with her foal along with another mare and foal in the hope that maternal instincts will enhance the acceptance of her own foal.
It might take several days of patient, diligent work for the mare to accept her foal. However, if the process is unsuccessful, the foal might be fostered onto a nurse mare. Hand-rearing the rejected foal as an orphan is a labor intensive alternative if a nurse mare is unavailable.
Photo Credit: It is well worth the time and energy to make sure the foal is not rejected by its mother. Journal photo.