Does My Mare Think a Miniature Horse is Her Baby?

In response to a reader question Dr. Nancy Diehl shares insight on equine maternal instincts, foal stealing, and more.
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Does My Mare Think a Miniature Horse is Her Baby?
Some mares have a greater 'maternal instinct' than others. All mares with foals should have a certain baseline level of protectiveness and attention directed toward their foals. | Photo: iStock
Q: A Miniature Horse recently moved to my barn, and my 6-year-old mare is absolutely infatuated with him. We joke that she thinks he’s her “baby.” Is this purely anthropomorphizing, or do some mares have a maternal desire or instinct?

A: This question opens up a lot of avenues to interesting equine behaviors. I can’t say for sure that your mare isn’t showing any maternal behaviors toward this Miniature. However, I would find it unlikely that she’s mistaking a mature, but very small, horse for a foal. Your mare just probably really likes this new horse. Perhaps she had no other buddies, or perhaps she didn’t really get along with other horses she was with. It would be good to carefully identify the specific behaviors she is showing and see if they correspond with actual maternal behaviors or just common social behaviors among cohorts.

Adult humans seem to find baby (both human and animal) features—such as big eyes, chubby cheeks, a large head, and a rounded body shape—very compelling. This is, theoretically, an adaptation so we have a strong nurturing instinct even for young not our own. The degree to which this is true in horses, as far as a mare generalizing her attachment to any other that has babyish features, I don’t know. However, we can look at other behaviors and see that, broadly, mares tend to show specific maternal attachments only toward their own foals.

Certainly some mares have a greater “maternal instinct” than others. All mares with foals should have a certain baseline level of protectiveness and attention directed toward their foals. But certainly there’s variation among mares in how permissive they are toward humans or other horses interacting with their foal, tolerance of the foal wandering about, and distance they’ll travel away from the foal

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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