BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
The majority of foals, certainly in my experience here in the UK, are spending their first few months alone with the mother. Although, I am well aware of reputable horse breeders that turn out a number of foals and mums together to live amiably as a herd, I have seen many individual horse owners segregate the mother and baby until weaning. Then – between 4 and 6 months – the foal is usually separated from the mother and put into a herd of horses.
However much wild foals will learn a great deal about herd dynamics in that first 6 months, they will also get their backside kicked occasionally by either an older horse, or by a foal of similar age. It’s all a worthy, necessary and natural education, but one that isolated foals could miss out on. The owners choosing to isolate the mother and foal often feel it’s necessary to ensure the safety of the youngster, yet the most formidable protector of that foal would be the mother, and a mother that would feel safer by being part of a herd. What some owners may identify as threat is actually natural behaviour.
There will be 2 adult mothers keeping an eye on this pair, yet not interfering because they have not registered this episode of play (behaviour) as perilous.
I have seen footage in which a mare gives birth while enclosed in a small paddock amongst a number of horses. While some of you may think this isn’t ideal, but maybe almost natural considering the mare is part of a herd, this isn’t correct. A mare in the wild will distance herself from the herd to give birth. She will not leave the herd but she will, if safe to do so, put a great deal of space between herself and the other horses. Sadly, in this case, a second horse interferes with both the mother and the new-born foal. The second horse may have been curious about the foal and the smell emitting from the baby and the mother, considering the amount of discharge coating them both, and the ground. Mother naturally defended her foal from the curious second horse and a kicking match ensued, with the foal caught up in the middle. The foal ideally would have only needed a short while to get to his feet, but it wasn’t given the chance. This situation was ultimately caused by an irresponsible horse breeder trying to get it right, but getting it catastrophically wrong.
Therefore domesticated horses should either give birth in an enormous paddock, or alone away from a herd, and, as usually is the case, in a stable so the vet can have easy access should there be a problem. Ideally mare and baby would share a paddock with other mares and babies so that the foal can grow up within a herd while developing familiarity with other members.
Come weaning when the mother is removed, the foal would still find some comfort in that he still has ‘friends’. This would be far less shocking than suddenly losing his mother, and being introduced to an entirely different herd. Worse still is to remove a youngster from everything he knows and to bully it onto a trailer without first developing separation confidence, and preparing for transport by completing loading training.
Those that remove foals straight from a paddock and bully it onto a lorry without preparation are either ignorant, or worse, do not care about the mental cruelty they are inflicting on the animal.
Owners that decide to put their horse in foal should prepare a plan for the next two years. They need to understand exactly what they are doing, and when it will occur. Concentrating on just birth and separation is not enough. Both the mother and foal should be prepared by incorporating confidence, separation, handling and transport training.
Psychological trauma experienced early in life could manifest itself as behavioural problems in the adult horse. This is because very single aspect of training should have been completed exactly right with patience, sensitivity and knowledge culminating in ultimately building a foundation of trust between the human and horse. Owners that decide to breed from their mare should only do so with a full and sensitive understanding of what it entails. Those buying yearlings and young stock should also be aware of the breeder and their level of horsemanship and experience. Let’s give our youngsters the best possible start in life, anything less is unacceptable.
Images: By kind permission of photographer Gary Odell