What is Parturition?
Parturition is the act or process of giving birth to an offspring. In nature, horses normally foal in secluded areas away from others. They tend to foal at night to keep away from predators, so by morning they are far away from the birth site. In a commercial setting, horses are kept in foaling stalls so they can be monitored in case of any birthing complications to avoid loss of the foal or even the mare.

 Signs that a mare is experiencing parturition

  • Rib cage becomes distended
  • Bulge in stomach lowers towards the mare’s flanks
  • Udder swells
  • Muscles round hindquarters show weight loss
  • Vulva starts to relax
  • Teats will appear “waxy” (opaque buildup of substance on teats)
  • Mare will separate herself from the rest of the herd
  • Frequent urination
  • Restlessness
  • Water breaks
  • Mare shows flehman response to amniotic fluid that is expelled
  • Tail swishing
  • Lying down
  • Strain or pushing from contractions

Water Break

This is the first stage of labor.  She may move to a corner, paw the ground, swish her tail, and become very restless. After the water breaks the foal should be out within 15 minutes to prevent oxygen deficiency.

 Mare Pushing

This is the second stage of labor.  The mare is lying down and begins pushing and straining from the contractions. This can last up to 10 to 15 minutes.

Expulsion of Foal

This is part of the second stage of labor.  The correct position of the foal is the forelegs first with the muzzle in between.  Once the mare has passed the foal’s shoulders the foal should easy slide out with one or two more contractions.


During the third stage of labor the placenta is expelled.  This process can take up to 2 hours after birth before is fully removed.

Maternal Behavior

When does Maternal Behavior begin?
Maternal behavior can begin immediately following parturition to 1 to 3 ours after labor.  The mare will begin to shed the placenta, nuzzle, lick, nurse, and encourage the foal to stand up.

Licking the foal

The mare will stand 15 to 20 minutes after giving birth and begin to lick the amniotic fluid off the foal and nuzzle the foal.  

Reasons for licking

  1. This is a cleaning process that starts at the head and ends at the rear.  It usually is accompanied by vocalizations.
  2. This is a “getting to know you” process.  Primary socialization is acquired within 2 hours, but bonding can take up to 2 to 3 days.
  3. Licking stimulates activity in foal and encourages standing up and nursing.


Nursing is instigated in the immediate post partum period.  Most foals will nurse within 30 minutes to 2 hours after foaling.  The first few hours after birth are critical for the mare to recognize and accept her foal.  The intake of colostrums is important for the foal because they get their initial does of antibodies from the mare.
Foals can be confused about the location of the teats and may try to nurse the mare’s neck and under her belly.  This is completely normal at first.  Watch for the mare exhibiting aggression towards the foal when this occurs (ear pinning and threatening to kick is common).
Some mares will terminate nursing when the foal is very young by simply walking away.  As the foal gets older, it will stop nursing on its own.

Encouraging Foal

Recumbency (Recumbence) Response

    This is the response when a mare will stay in close proximity to their foal when it is very young.  It functions to protect the foal from predators as well as keeping it from becoming lost.  New born foals spend most of their time lying down, and the mare will stand next to or graze in circles around the foal to keep a close proximity.  When the foal is awake it is responsible for maintaining contact with the dam.
    The response gradually decreases as the foal matures.  During the first weeks, the mare will maintain a distance of 5 yards of the foal 94% of the time.  By month 5 of the foal’s life, the mare only spends 52% of her time within this distance.

Mare and Foal Recognition

    Vision and Olfactory senses are the most important for recognition.  These actions occur solely in the first few hours following parturition and are critical for the mare to recognize her foal selectively.  Foals usually take about a week to recognize their dams and may follow and large, moving object.
    The mare will also recognize their foal by vocalizations.  This is important if the foal is separated from the herd.  The mare will vocalize and the foal will go toward the mare’s call.  

Maternal Aggression

    Mares usually protect their foals and may resort to aggression in their defense, be it against other animals or humans.  The mare and foal should be given adequate time to bond away from other horses and people, and should not be reintroduced into groups that are excessively nosey, pushy, or aggressive.
    Maternal aggression is generally not a problem in a herd situation because most mares will not allow a foal this is not their own to nurse, and new mothers are very protective of their foals for the first few weeks,
    Good maternal behavior including protecting the foal from aggression by other horses as well as predators is important for foal survival.
    Defense mechanisms include: biting, kicking, rearing, and bucking.

Abnormal Behaviors

    Foal rejection by its dam is a well known abnormality due to its potential consequences.  The causes of this problem are diverse, so a treatment must be determined on the basis of a combination of particular causes.  

Factors of Rejection

  1. Genetic Component- usually a higher rate in Arabian breeds
  2. Temperament- higher rate in nervous mares
  3. Experience- rejection usually seen in first time mares
  4. Environmental Disturbances- human and animal interferences
  5. General Health- prolonged foaling period, sickness, or exhaustion
  6. Hormonal Problems

3 Types of Foal Rejection

  1. Rejection of suckling- Mare may be attracted to foal and lick it but will not allow foal to suckle and will kick the foal if it persists. Can be treated by tranquilizing the mare or milking the mare and holding the foal next to the mare while feeding the foal with a bottle.
  2. Fear of the foal- Mare is afraid of the foal and tries to escape; may injure the foal or herself; may kick the foal if he approaches. Can be treated by turning the mare and the foal out together so that the mare can get away from the foal; also putting another horse in with the two may stimulate mare’s protection instinct of the foal.
  3. Attacking foal- Most dangerous type; mare actually attacks the foal and tries to kill him usually by throwing him across the stall by his withers. Can be treated with immediate punishment of mare after the behavior occurs and tranquilization may also be necessary.

Neonatal Behavior


    Licking is one of the first signs of mare/ foal bonding.  This is important in stimulating, encouraging, and drying the foal.

    Nudging is another form of bonding between the mare and foal.  The mare encourages the foal to stand and directs the foal to the udders by doing so.


    This behavior sometimes needs a little help from the mare or as a last resort human help.  Standing needs to occur within 2 hours, and while more than likely take multiple attempts.  The foal will forcefully swing themselves up in attempt stay balanced and eventually be able to run quickly.


    Nursing usually occurs right after the foal stands up. The mare helps by nudging the foal in the direction of the udders.

Eliminative Behavior (Passing Meconium)

    Eliminative behavior in foals is known as the passing of the meconium.  This is the “first poop” and is firmer than normal fecal matter.  More than often the newborn is given an enema to aid in passing the meconium.

Play Behavior

    Foals have very playful behaviors so don’t be surprised if they jump, crash into each other, fall, or dart off.  Their playfulness actually increases as foal ages.

Inquisitive Behavior

    This is the investigation of novel objects

Teeth Clacking

    This is an example of a submissive behavior exclusively in foals and sub-adults, directed towards fearful objects

Fear Behavior

What is fear?

    Fear is a powerful, unpleasant feeling of risk or danger, either real or imagined.  It is a neural circuit that has been designed to keep the organism alive in dangerous situations.  Fear goes beyond feelings and emotions.  After a frightful experience, an animal can remember the logical reasons for the experience (example: time and place of the happening), and the animal can also “feel” the memory while his body reacts.  The body can react in such ways as increased heart rate, respiration rate, and sweating.  We often call the act of a horse reacting to fear as a “spook”. 

What Causes Fear?

  1. Sound- Unfamiliar and startling sounds can cause the horse to be fearful and react in spooking.
  2. Visual- Suddenly visible, visual stimuli
  • More likely to cause an alarm reaction in the horse than strange sounds
  • Fear of new objects start as early as the end of the second hour of life.

Neophobia- Fear of the Unknown

Results from Fearful Behavior

Flight- Often a reflex reaction:"organized responses using neural circuits which range from simple spinal arcs, involving only two large neurons, to elaborate internuncial networks of many small neurons localized in higher brain centers”
The reactivity involves the reflex of moving when startled and the orientation of turning towards or away from the source of fear.

Head shy horses- Often the result of abuse

Fear of humans- Caused by using fright inducing actions and sounds to achieve actions from the horses
Every human-horse interaction should cause a benefit, not hindrance to the training of the horse


This is the waning of a response, which could still be shown, to a repeated stimulus.  This results in a decrease in response shown by the horse with each successive stimuli.  Eventually, repetition leads to no response.
Habituation to the environmental situation can be an important first step in a training program. The horse is allowed to adapt to the surroundings through repeated or continuous exposure to the fear-inducing or distracting stimuli.”

  • for example: "sacking out"