Minimizing Foal Stress Levels in the Breeding Shed

What would be the best plan for handling a foal whose dam is being covered by a stallion?

Minimizing Foal Stress Levels in the Breeding Shed
Q.What would be the best plan for minimizing foal stress levels in the breeding shed when his dam is being covered by a stallion? Every farm seems to have their own way of handling the foal during live cover.In one facility I worked at the foal was kept in a padded pen in the corner of the breeding shed. That was pretty good in that you knew it was safe and contained, except that the foals I saw in that setup fussed the whole time, mostly calling and trying to climb out of the pen. And when the stallion mounted the mare, some foals seemed to become frantic. And then everyone got upset. Another way I’ve seen is to have a person hold the foal off to the side of the breeding shed. That also was usually okay at first, but it was difficult to calm the foal after it got upset about the stallion jumping on the mom.

Both ways seemed pretty upsetting for the foal, and it could not be helpful for the mare to be concerned about her stressed foal. Some farms say that’s why they like to have the foal in the trailer or in a stall far away from the breeding area or even leave it back at the mare’s farm. Couldn’t that be just as traumatic for both the mare and the foal, though?

Via email

A.This is one of the most frequently asked questions about the logistics of natural breeding, and minimizing foal stress levels in the breeding shed is important.

First, it’s difficult to say which method is more stressful for the foal, the dam, and the staff. Different foals at different ages might do better or worse with any of those practices you described.

Frisky Foals

One thing I’m glad you brought up was your observation about the foals becoming very animated at just the moment you want them to be still; this is a reliable phenomenon. That scramble to mom just as the stallion approaches for mounting is a natural instinctive response seen in horses breeding under natural social conditions. Under natural social conditions, of course, the foal is present and unrestrained. Most of the time, foals seem to hardly notice the breeding itself, since breeding is so quiet under natural conditions. The foal is around the stallion in a familiar environment 24/7, and mares are bred over and over whenever in estrus. So it is not all that new or unusual for the mare and foal. But should there be any excitement that gets the foal’s attention, as there almost always is under domestic breeding conditions just at the moment of mounting, foals—particularly young ones—scoot to stand in front of and perpendicular to their dam’s chest. The position in front of mom’s chest seems to be the safest and most “out of harm’s way” for the young foal, and it seems to be reassuring to the dam that the foal is in a good place.

So that burst of animation to get to the dam seems almost reflexive, elicited by that little nicker vocalization the stallion makes in those last seconds of teasing the mare just before lifting his forefeet off the ground to mount. Some mares will actually vocalize to the foal at that moment, as if to say, “Where are you? Get over here.” Based on this understanding of natural behavior, my recommendation is to organize the domestic breeding situation to be able to accommodate this natural behavior as much as is safely possible.

Leaving Foals at Liberty

Working in a large area is far better than a small one. Allow the foal to follow along unrestrained into the breeding area with its dam. Some foals tend to hug close to the mare, while others explore around as is natural and expected for foals in a new nonthreatening environment. When the stallion enters, the foal is likely to either continue exploring and playing about the room, or he may go closer to the head of the dam. Some may nurse or nuzzle their dam’s udder. This appears to be reassuring to both the dam and the foal. The handlers holding the mare need to be aware of and prepared for the foal to scoot into position at the mare’s chest.

When the foal is at liberty in the breeding area, it is essential to have the area especially uncluttered and otherwise “baby-proofed.” A comfortable, unworried foal is inevitably curious and attracted to any novel objects. The excitement of the stallion entering the shed may stimulate a burst of playful romping, just as if an unfamiliar stallion were to approach a family group under natural conditions. If available, designate someone as the foal-minder, just to keep an eye on the foal and to quietly guide it away from any inadvertent chances to get into trouble as it explores the breeding area. If the stallion comes in gangbusters-style, or if there is any sort of ruckus, the foal is more likely to run to the dam, which will tend to calm them both. The foal may display that submissive “I’m a baby” nursing posture and clap its mouth toward the stallion—again, a natural behavior.

Keeping Foals Restrained or Elsewhere

Some establishments find the concept of an unrestrained foal in the breeding area too far out of tradition for their staff or clients, or they worry about the foal’s and personnel’s safety. An alternate approach that can usually work almost as well in terms of reduced stress, both for the mare and her foal, is to have someone cradle the foal as close to the mare as safely possible, a bit to the off side and in front of the mare. The point is that the foal and dam can be as close as possible and certainly be able to see and hear each other, rather than off in a corner or in a pen. If the foal should struggle to get to the dam, the person holding the foal can make a decision at that juncture whether to hold on, move with the foal, or let go and allow the foal to go the mare’s chest.

For those who really prefer to contain the foal in a pen, it can help to have it as close as possible to the mare and especially where the mare and foal can see and hear each other.

Leaving a foal on the trailer or in a stall outside the breeding shed can work for some mare and foal pairs. There is some research suggesting that having a person stay with the foal can reduce signs of stress.

Of all the variations you mention, my least favorite is to leave the foal at home, unless the stallion is only a few minutes away, and it can be kept with some other familiar horses or with a familiar caretaker while the mare is gone. If nothing else, going along for the ride can be a good opportunity to become acclimated to transport.

About The Author

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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