Some mares, particularly young first time mothers, may reject and even attack their foals when they try to approach them or nurse. This behavior is most frequently seen in Arabians. For some of these mares, normal maternal instincts will kick in if the foal can successfully nurse.
The mare should be restrained with a trusted handler at her head; the handler should be calm but matter-of-fact. Animals often misconstrue reassurance to mean that the handler is also fearful and the situation becomes proportionally more frightening accordingly. Hobbles, to prevent the mare kicking, may be advisable. A second handler should maneuver the foal to the dam, keeping it as close as possible to her flank so that if she does kick or bump it she won’t have much force behind the movement. The foal should be guided to the mare’s teat; hand milking her first may help induce her to letdown milk.
If the mare continues to reject the foal, this method is usually too labor intensive for the long term. The foal may be successfully placed with a foster mother, or the mare’s colostrum can be milked out and fed to the foal, which can subsequently be hand raised. If possible the hand-reared foal should be placed with an older horse (a mare with no foal of her own or a calm gelding) so that it is properly socialized.
It is not advisable to continue to breed mares that have rejected a foal, unless maternal behavior did kick in after the initial rejection, as the behavior will almost certainly be repeated with subsequent foals and in subsequent generations.
By Linda Aronson, DVM, MA