A Horse-Breeding Dilemma: Switching Broodmares

Sometimes broodmare behavior problems warrant foster care for your foal.

The birth mare had never been the warm and fuzzy type, even before she became pregnant. She was the dominant mare in the herd and routinely showed her alpha attitude toward other horses and people. Unfortunately, her abrasive behavior increased exponentially after she foaled. The combination of hardwired surliness and protective maternal instinct turned her into a stall shark. You know the kind - snaky neck, ears pinned, teeth bared, and circling the stall like a barracuda on the prowl. We dipped the navel of the foal after birth and barely managed to collect a blood sample for measuring antibody concentrations at 36 hours of age. Fortunately, the level was fine. We couldn’t imagine giving plasma while attempting to hold onto a 1,000-pound piranha. After that, no one dared to enter the foaling stall. Not even on a double-dare.

A debate ensued as to what to do with the mare and newborn foal. Then the mare made the decision easy. She bit the vet. And it wasn’t just a nip. The unanimous vote was to move the foal onto a nurse mare. The vet would have voted, but he couldn’t raise his arm. Potential options included a mare who had just weaned her own foal, a mare who had just lost her foal or inducing lactation in a nonpregnant mare. Unfortunately, it was early in the breeding season and no mares were available that had recently weaned their own foals. We checked with local breeding farms and veterinary clinics, and no mares were available who had recently lost a foal either. The only option was inducing lactation in a mare, which works best if a mare had given birth and lactated previously.

In the event of an orphan foal, there are certain crucial steps you must take within the first few hours of the foal’s life. Review the steps in the AQHA Orphan Foal Care report.

We located a gentle mare who had given birth the year before and raised her foal successfully. She was not pregnant or lactating. We instituted a short course of hormone therapy, consisting of a combination of estrogen and domperidone (a dopamine antagonist) to stimulate mammary gland development and milk production. In a few days, the foster mare was ready. We managed to tranquilize the foal’s dam sufficiently to allow a daring soul to sneak into the stall and dart out with the foal, who was placed in a large stall by herself for several hours. Our experience has been that grafting a foal onto a nurse mare works best if the foal is hungry and anxious for companionship. We placed a panel in the stall to divide it in half and put the foster mare in the side opposite the foal. The mare showed immediate interest in the foal, and within a few minutes, the foal was pacing along the panel, wanting to join the mare.

During breeding season, orphan foals may present a challenge to owners. Order the AQHA Orphan Foal Care report to explore the many options you have when it comes to caring for an orphan foal.

Introducing a foal to a nurse mare should be done under supervision. Occasionally, the mare might need to be tranquilized and/or restrained as the foal is introduced. We supervised but did not intervene. The mare and foal took to each other like they were truly mother and daughter. The mothering behavior of the foster mare was truly amazing. She nickered to the foal, nuzzled her and willingly allowed her to nurse. When the foal finally laid down for a nap, the surrogate quietly stood watch above her new charge. The bond cemented during the ensuing days. I believe that foals can learn behavioral characteristics from the mare that raises them. I hope this foal attains the gentle disposition of her foster mother and does not retain the malevolent nature of her dam. The vet is wiggling his fingers in agreement.

AQHA Member Benefit Spotlight

Foaling season is upon us, and we look forward to helping you register your new foals! AQHA members get discounted prices on registration. Be sure to register by your foal’s 7-month birthday for the lowest fee. Register your foals online or fax in your form. AQHA Customer Service is here to help with any questions. 806-376-4811.