How Do Mares Protect Their Foals?

An equine reproductive behavior expert shares insight into how mares and herds will ward off danger to their young.
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How Do Mares Protect Their Foals?
The main mechanism horses have as protection for themselves and their foals is to run away from danger. | Photo: iStock
Q: How do mares protect their foals? I’ve heard mares in the wild will circle to protect their young from threats. Is this something they actually do?

A: Horses are made to run from predators and other threats. Foals are born precocious, meaning in a very short time after birth they can stand and run with effective agility. So the main mechanism horses have as protection for themselves and their foals is to run away from danger.

I’ve spent almost no time myself watching feral horses or wild equids so I cannot share from experience a harem band’s response to a predator. However, I have not read any accounts of ritual circling of foals as defense from predators. Dr. Sue McDonnell (PhD), in her Equid Ethogram, mentions adults “clustering” around foals when the band is on the move. It would not surprise me if a group of mares, solidly cornered, sequestered their foals behind themselves to protect them from a predator. However, the circling behavior you’re probably thinking of is one more common to some other large prey species and the thing that is common among those is that they have some other defensive and offensive physical attributes, such as horns or tusks. Even these species might choose to run first, then circle if needed. Also, unlike these other species that run in a large herd and effectively form circles, feral bands of horses tend to have only a few individuals, so making a tight and menacing circle will be harder to do.

Certainly a mare can bite, strike, or kick at a threat to her foal and will do so if flight is unavailable or unsuccessful. Likewise, a stallion will be protective of his band and his position as the harem stallion and will indulge in elaborate posturing and fight sequences against threatening or intruding outside stallions

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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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