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How to discipline a 1-day-old foal

From: Tamara

Dear Jessica, last year we bought a mare (our first horse) and she turned out to be pregnant. Last night she had a little filly foal. This afternoon we invited some friends out to see the baby and we had two big problems that I feel we should correct right away before the behavior gets worse and becomes a habit.

First, when I went to halter the mare to get her out of the stall so that our friends could go in and pet the baby, she threw her head up very high and didn't want me to put the halter on. This embarrassed me because I had just been telling them how good she usually was. Then she didn't want to leave the stall, and when I closed the door behind her and held her away from the stall, she started whinnying and prancing around instead of standing still. I shanked her a couple of times and she quieted down. Then my friends went in the stall to play with the filly and pet her, and when my one friend got behind her to pet her on the rump, that filly humped her rump up in the air and kicked out and hit my friend in the knee. She whacked the filly hard, which was fine with me because I'm not about to tolerate behavior of that kind. But then everyone came out of the stall and I put the mare back in and we went up to the house.

All the way there I was saying how sorry I was for the filly's bad behavior. Now I am wondering, since I don't know who the father of the filly was, if he might have been a horse with behavior problems? I don't know where this kicking came from. My mare has never tried to kick me or anybody else. I know there is not any way to find out about the father since we didn't even know the mare was pregnant when we bought her, but I could definitely use your advice on how to stop this kicking problem in its tracks.


Hi Tamara! Congratulations on your new foal! I hope all is well with her, and I also hope that by now you will have called the vet to come out and check the foal and the mare, give any necessary injections and treatments, and tell you how to feed and handle the new baby.

I have good news for you. I don't think that you need to worry at all about who the filly's father was, and I'm sure that you don't have to worry about how to stop a kicking problem, because this filly doesn't HAVE a kicking problem. What she does have is normal foal reflexes. These reflexes - specifically, kicking out when touched just over the tail - were provoked by a person who shouldn't have been in the stall with the filly, doing something that she shouldn't have done. It's as simple as that. The filly did nothing wrong, and your friend should not have hit her. Any young foal would respond the same way, because kicking out at that sort of pressure from behind is an instinctive reaction in young foals. Take a new foal's mother away, then send in a group of strange humans who crowd around the foal and touch it over the tail, and the question isn't "Will the foal kick out?" but "Who will get kicked when the foal reacts reflexively?". Your friends obviously didn't know any better, but now you do!

A one-day-old foal, like a one-day-old human infant, should not be disciplined at all - the entire concept of "discipline" for a neonate is inappropriate. At one day old, your filly is brand new and still adjusting to an entirely new world. You need to be very gentle, quiet, and patient with her. Move slowly, talk to her gently, and don't chase her around and try to force her to stand still for petting - let her come to you, and don't be disappointed if it takes a few weeks for her to do this.

From everything you've described, I can tell you that the filly exhibited NO bad behaviour at all, and neither did the mare. There was no need for you to apologize for the behaviour of either the mare or her foal. It is natural for a mare to want to stay with her foal, and it is natural for a mare to be protective of her foal. Your mare shouldn't be taken away from her foal for any reason short of a veterinary emergency. I understand that you wanted to share the pleasure of the new foal with your friends, and you thought that removing the mare from the stall would give your friends a better view of the baby, but you didn't think this through, and the situation you created was not a good one or even a safe one. Instead of separating the mare and foal and sending your friends into the stall to try to handle and pet the newborn, it would have been a much better idea to leave the mare and foal together (in a large, clean stall with a straw bed). Then you and your friends could have sat or stood OUTSIDE the stall to admire the mare and foal at a distance that would have been comfortable FOR THE MARE.

Even a very sweet mare will be protective of her new baby, and "protective" can mean much more than just standing over the baby while it sleeps or placing herself between her baby and any strangers. If the mare perceives a threat - and strangers trying to handle her foal can seem VERY threatening, especially if she is being kept away from her foal at the time - she may act defensively or even aggressively towards the source(s) of the perceived threat(s). This can quickly become dangerous for all concerned: for the humans who may get stepped on or even kicked, for the mare who (as in this case) is likely to be punished for no reason, and finally for the young foal, who may be hurt or traumatized by the humans crowding and grabbing her - or who may end up being stepped on by her own mother if the mare has become frightened, defensive, and agitated, and is trying to guard her foal in a small space such as a stall.

Even the currently popular "imprinting" (actually desensitization) can be, and often is, overdone. It's quite safe, and very appropriate, for you (but not you and a group of friends) to help your mare deliver her foal if she is having trouble (an extra-large foal can get stuck on the way out, for example, to treat the foal's navel, and to (discreetly and quietly, preferably from a distance) verify that the foal can stand, nurse, and eliminate. It's also entirely appropriate for you (alone) to call your vet and work with him when he arrives to check the mare and foal. But beyond that, your most important job will be stall cleaner/feeder/caretaker, and your second most important job will be to keep other people and yourself out of the stall and away from the mare and foal until they've had a good chance to bond, and until the foal has become more comfortable with life outside the womb. After all, she's dealing with all sorts of new things: lights, prickly straw and hay, strange sounds, new smells, and her own body control and balance. Before she was born, she didn't have to breathe for herself, and she didn't have to deal with gravity or figure out how to stand up and lie down and stand up again. There were no flies, no weather changes, and no chance of being frightened or stepped on... in many ways, life was easier. ;-)

Right now, your own energy would be better spent looking after the mare, enlarging the stall (two stalls with a dividing wall removed will make a good stall for a mare and foal), keeping the bedding clean and dry, feeding your mare (remember, she'll need more food now that she is lactating) and keeping the water bucket filled with clean, cool water.

The mare will take care of her filly - at this point, it would be better if you just stand back and watch, and it would be MUCH better if you would have your friends stand back and watch instead of trying to "play with" the filly. This is the time for you to consolidate your trusting, friendly relationship with the mare - that's how you will begin to build a trusting, friendly relationship with her foal. Instead, look at what's already happened: Mare and foal were separated, both were nervous and upset, the mare's lead rope was jerked (I do hope that you didn't have a chain over her nose!), and the filly was hit.

Put a chair or a bench in the barn and spend time there talking to your mare and foal. Move slowly, be gentle, and don't worry about "disciplining" the foal - just talk to her quietly and let her approach you when SHE decides that she'd like to investigate you.

Give your new baby a chance, and give your mare a chance. Take your time, be patient, be quiet and kind, and let the baby come to you in her own time. You cannot force trust and confidence; they have to develop over time, as the foal learns to feel secure with you. Let your friends know that they are welcome to visit, but that you won't be separating the mare and foal for their convenience, and that there will be no crowding and NO HITTING. In fact, set up a few more chairs or a bench outside the stall, run, or pasture, and let your friends know that THIS is the official "viewing area" and that visitors will NOT be entering the stall or going "hands on" with the foal.

In nature, foals are allowed to spend their first few months just being babies. Some mares are more strict disciplinarians than others, but even the strictest mares don't go into "disciplinarian" mode until their foals are active and independent (and actively annoying them). In fact, no herd member - mama mare, other mares, or the herd stallion - will "discipline" a really young foal. Young foals are curious, playful, and have incredibly short attention spans, so attempting to discipline them would be pointless anyway. Any attempts at disciplining your very young filly are going to teach her just one thing: that you are an unpredictable being who attacks foals suddenly, for no reason. That's not a lesson you want her to learn. Instead, let her learn that she can relax around you and trust you. You won't have any trouble establishing your authority later, when she is more secure and coordinated physically, and has a longer attention span. Watch her interact with her mother. At some point, perhaps when your filly is three or four months old, her mother will shift into teacher/disciplinarian mode, and you'll be able to see her respond to her mother's discipline. Notice what her mother does to tell her filly "NO!" and notice how quickly, how strongly, and WHY she does what she does (hint: mama mares react quickly and clearly, but don't hold grudges), and you'll learn how to discipline a foal effectively.

And now, here's your homework assignment: buy and read (and re-read, and re-re-read) these two books: "Blessed Are the Foals" by M. Phyllis Lose, DVM, and "The Formative Years: Raising and Training the Horse from Birth to Two Years" by Cherry Hill. There are many books available on the subject, but these two are really outstanding. Enjoy!


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