Our mare refuses to nurse her new foal. What can we do?

A happy foalQuestion: Mare had a colt 2 days ago and is sour toward her. With coaxing she has let her baby nurse a time or two, but will stop & get irritated. Colt won’t readily take a bottle so we keep trying to get the mare to tolerate her. She is not upset at anyone handling her & doesn’t care to even be with her. The colt gets upset and makes noises at the absence of her mom, but not the other way around. Any way to encourage mare to accept her &/OR good way to get colt to take a bottle? Any good milk substitute you recommend?

Answer from April Reeves: I have run into this problem on occasion. I have never had to separate a mare and foal because of it, nor added milk replacement. You do have a big job ahead of you though.

Some mares experience odd sensations when first letting a foal nurse. They may experience tickling, soreness and irritation. Like some people, some horses are over-sensitive or hypochondriacs. These mares need time to adjust to their new situation.

Some mares take time to bond with their babies. Sometimes this bonding period takes longer than Mother Nature should allow, but again, all horses are different. In the wild, this foal would have died or been taken in by another mare.

Get prepared to spend long nights and days, for about 2 weeks, as you will have to teach this mare to accept what is in front of her – mother duty.

You will have to let the foal nurse at least every 2 hours. I will halter and stand the mare until the foal has finished it’s meal. I then let the 2 of them out into a large paddock. Although the mare may never really bond with her baby, they will begin to share the routine that develops.

As far as milk replacement, I would ask your local vet or tack shop where to find it (just in case), and keep up the feeding program the mare provides. You must nurse the foal regularly, 24/7, or the foal risks dying or getting ulcers and other conditions. Horses need food in their stomachs constantly.

Rarely will you need to separate a mare and foal, unless the mare shows aggression towards the foal or tries to kill it. Otherwise, they can live together and get along with a lot of teaching from you in the beginning.

Foals that are brought up by an uncaring mother tend to be a bit on the bossy side, and can learn to be aggressive (much like a human child left on it’s own). Spend a lot of time with your new foal and get it to enjoy the company of humans. I have raised several foals from mares like this and after weaning they have turned out to be the best horses I ever owned.

Most foals are separated from mares like yours, but it is primarily due to the owner not willing to put in the time needed to allow these two horses to get use to each other. Don’t expect the mare to ever bond like a normal mare would. Some mares are never going to give that even in a lifetime of foaling.

I have often thought (and noticed a pattern) that aloof mares are not as dis-interested in their foals as much as being too interested in rejoining the herd. Aloof mares are usually separated from the herd at birthing time, and tend to put their energy getting back to the herd instead of nurturing their foal. Mares that are alone tend to display this aloof behavior more that mares in a herd.

Just a side note about feeding the mare – only feed minimal amounts of alfalfa while she is feeding her foal (1 flake morning and evening). Alfalfa has two things going against it: 1. Alfalfa is dangerously low in fibre, 2. Alfalfa can contribute to laminitis and bone and growth problems in foals (usually when the mare is on straight alfalfa).

Take the time to help the two adjust. It may sound tough to do, but believe me, it goes by fast. In a few years when your foal is a beautiful healthy horse, you will have forgotten the hours spent keeping him/her alive!

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