We know that dams have a strong influence on their foals, shaping lifelong patterns of feeding, learning, and social relationships. But French researchers have determined that mares also appear to impact their foals’ relationships to humans.

“Not having a good relationship with the mare is certainly an obstacle to a human developing a good relationship with her foal,” said Séverine Henry, PhD, lecturer of animal behavior at the University of Rennes. Henry presented the results of her research review on horses’ interactions with humans carried out in collaboration with colleague Martine Hausberger, PhD, at the 2015 French Equine Research Day, held March 12 in Paris. Much of the review was based on data collected at the Rennes equine behavior experimental station over the past 10 years.

“Particular attention should be given to the choice of (parents), especially the mother, based on their behavior,” Henry said.

The dam’s influence on her foal is especially significant in the first month of life, when the foal spends 90% of its time less than 5 meters away from its mother and nurses about seven times per hour, Henry said.

In wild or feral conditions, mares separate from the herd at foaling time and create a strong bond in the first two or three days postpartum with their foals, Henry said. Afterward, the mare allows social contact between the foal and other members of the herd. But her influence on the foal’s behavior is much stronger than that of any other herd members. Through its mother’s guidance, the foal learns to choose which grasses to eat, where to find water and shelter, and even which “friends” to make. Typically, the foal’s “best friend” is the foal of the mare’s “best friend,” said Henry.

In domestic settings, mares still have these influences on their foals if they’re given social and pasture time, but they also appear to affect how their foals will react to humans, she said. In identical breeding situations, mares that were given positive human attention (“taming”) in the first five days after foaling (soft brushing followed by food rewards) had foals that were more receptive to humans than mares that didn’t receive such attention. In these situations, the foal was not handled by the human at all but left to observe the humans handling its mother. The differences between the two groups of foals continued even when the foals had become young adult horses, Henry said. Those that had observed their mothers being handled gently (without being touched themselves) came naturally closer to humans in a field and were easier to handle and train.

However, Henry cautioned, mares with natural protective attitudes against humans in the first two or three days of foaling should be left alone until the protective attitude subsides. Otherwise, the foal could learn to perceive the human as a threat, she said.

By contrast, human intervention with foals in the first hours of life can lead to abnormal behavior in the young horse for years, Henry said. The team observed that foals receiving human assistance to stand or nurse or those that had been imprinted took longer to reach natural stages of independence from their dams and had more difficulty socializing with other horses.

The presence of other adult horses can also influence a foal’s attitude toward humans, Henry said. These influences take more and more precedence as the foal grows, but the mare’s influence still remains strongest, at least up until weaning.

“Ensuring a positive relationship with the dam through repetitive positive contact (gentle physical contact and feeding) is an easy, time-efficient procedure that allows us to establish a basis of easy interaction with the young horse,” she said. “The long-term sustainability of the effects of this simple and brief contact demonstrates to what extent this experience has a powerful impact on the foal.

“Furthermore, all of the results coming from our studies indicate that it’s not necessary to manipulate the foal to familiarize it with humans—all the more so because these direct manipulations of the young horse, if they’re seen as stressful, increase the risk of altering or delaying the developing of the horse-foal relationship,” Henry added. “It’s thus better to (use) indirect approaches so as to establish a relationship based on trust, which will constitute a solid basis for teaching the different tasks necessary for the later use of the horse.”