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When Mares Reject Their FoalsBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · December 15, 2011

It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes a mare will refuse to care for her newborn foal. Walking away and ignoring the foal is a mild form of rejection; not allowing the baby to nurse is more serious; and in the worst cases, some mares kick, bite, and have even been known to kill their foals.

Rejection behavior is most common in mares that are first-time mothers; those that have been separated from their newborn offspring for several days because of illness or injury; and mares that, for whatever reason, have rejected their foals in previous years. Mastitis can be very painful; any mare that shows signs of rejection or aggression towards her foal should be checked for mastitis.

It’s important for foals to nurse within the first few hours after birth because colostrum, the early fluid produced by the mare, contains antibodies that are critical to the newborn foal’s health in its early weeks of life. However, mares with full, tender udders may not want the foal to nurse because of discomfort. Putting the mare behind a barrier that allows the foal to nurse without being kicked is one way to overcome this problem, which should ease after the first few nursings. If this fails, the mare should be milked by hand if possible, and the foal can get the colostrum from a bottle.

The first 24 to 48 hours are critical in getting nursing off to a good start. If a mare shows a tendency toward aggression, keep a close watch to be sure things are going smoothly. Holding the mare’s head, using a twitch or hobbles while the foal nurses, or distracting the mare with grain are techniques that might work until the mare and foal become more familiar and comfortable with the nursing process.

If foal rejection is expected because of experience with a mare in previous years, handlers can ask a veterinarian for assistance. Some success has been achieved by using mild tranquilizers like acepromazine or reserpine to decrease aggression. Regumate® is another drug that has helped in some cases. An analgesic like flunixin meglumine or phenylbutazone could decrease post-foaling discomfort or pain from a swollen udder. If there is serious inflammation or infection of the mammary glands, veterinary diagnosis and treatment will be needed.

Inexperienced mares that don’t seem to know how to care for their foals are sometimes assisted by being turned out with another mare-and-foal pair. In other cases, nothing seems to help and the foal must be taken away from the mare to prevent injury. In this situation, finding a nurse mare is the best alternative. The last resort—hand-raising a bottle-fed foal—is an undertaking that calls for an enormous investment in time and energy.