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Horses as social animals: bonding

From: Joey

Dear Jessica,

I can't tell you how much my husband and I have enjoyed your posts. We've learned so much about the care and personal attention we need to give our horses and they've enjoyed it as much as we have.

My question is concerning mare and foal bonding. Our mare (the one that's due to foal in June) has already had one foal. Leiter is 18 months old and a mule filly. Suener (the mare) had been bred to a Jack when we bought her. Her preg check had come back negative so her first owner, wanting to raise mules, sold her to us. She's 7 now, and that was her first foal. She was extremely protective of the foal and readily came between the foal and ANYTHING that would come near. She didn't act mean or anything, just protective. When the foal was weaned, we seperated them for a short time thinking the bond would lessen and they'd pretty much forget each other. After about 3 months, we reunited them and it was like old home week. They immediately recognized each other and the protectivness started again. Suener didn't want anything to get near the filly. We moved the filly to another pasture until just recently (2 weeks ago) we put them in together again. The same thing happened. They raced to each other like they'd missed each other terribly. The mare's about to foal in June and we're wondering if this bond will break as soon as the new foal arrives or if she'll try to mother them both. Of course, they're in seperate lots right now, so nothing will get in the way of the upcoming birth, but is this long-time bond natural? They still stand by the fence seperating the lots and act like they don't want to be apart. We just can't believe this...the filly's almost 2.

Joey Mills


Hi Joey! First, thank you -- I'm glad you're enjoying horse-sense.

I couldn't quite tell from your description, but I'm guessing that your mare and her filly are the only two horses on your place. What I'm going to tell you about horses as social animals holds true even if you have large groups of horses, but it will be intensified if you have only two or three horses.

Horses are VERY social animals. It's natural for them to want a herd -- herds mean company and SECURITY, both of which are terribly important to horses. They'll make a herd out of whatever's available, including their own foals. Horses also make very intense friendships with other horses, and here again, it's not unusual for a mare and foal to become best buddies if they are turned out together. Many a horse owner has become frustrated and upset because his horse screamed and yelled whenever he was taken away from the horse in the next stall, and moved heaven and earth to shift the horse to a different stall or a different barn, only to find out that his horse immediately became attached to his NEW nextdoor neighbor.

The long-time bond you're describing isn't at all unusual, especially if you don't have a lot of other horses on the place. Mares and foals can be very close, and weaning doesn't necessarily make them forget one another -- horses have excellent memories. Weaning stops the baby nursing and lets the mare dry up. But if you reintroduce the mare (or the foal, depending on which one you moved) to the same pasture several months later, the foal may resume nursing, in which case you have to separate them AGAIN, or it may simply develop a close, dependent friendship with a nice mare who happens to be its mother. The protective relationship does, often, come back under those circumstances -- but you will frequently see the same protective instinct displayed by an unrelated older horse (male or female) toward a foal or a young horse. Baby horses have built-in behaviours that remind older horses that they ARE babies and should be looked after -- and many older horses are very sweet with the little ones. On many breeding farms, the weanlings are turned out with an older "babysitter' gelding so that they'll have SOMEONE to turn to when all their mothers are taken away.

The nice thing about the way horses socialize, though, is that they're usually quite content if they can see and hear each other. They'll graze very happily on opposite sides of the same fence. So although your

Now, as for the new foal -- it's really better if you don't try to put the three of them out together until the foal is big enough and coordinated enough to get out of the two-year-old's way. Mules aren't always especially kind to horse foals anyway -- you want the baby to be able to escape if it needs to. And the mare and foal can enjoy watching you work with the molly mule! When and if you DO decide to put them all together, watch them carefully and be ready to get in there and separate them again if you need to.

As for how the new foal will change your mare's relationship with the molly mule, we'll have to wait and see. She will certainly become protective of her new foal -- that's natural. Whether she will want to keep the baby AWAY from the molly mule, or include the mule in the family circle, is something that you'll have to figure out by watching them along the fenceline. In nature, the mare is supposed to push away the yearling when she has her next foal, and she usually does just that -- but every so often, you'll find a patient, thin mare with a foal AND a yearling (with a crick in its neck!) both nursing. So your mare may push away her older foal, or not -- but whether the older foal tries to kill the younger one or just monopolize the milk supply, it's usually better to keep them separated for at least the first couple of months, to give the new foal a chance.

Why don't you talk to your veterinarian about this when you see him? He may have some good suggestions for you.

Good luck!

- Jessica

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