Anyone who has witnessed a foal’s first few minutes in this world might agree that one of the most miraculous parts of the process is the way a mare greets and bonds with her newborn. With a deep sniff at the baby’s nostrils, that distinctive deep “chuckling” nicker (answered by the foal’s higher-pitched response), and some broad strokes of her tongue on the wet hide, a new mother seems to recognize the foal not only as something she needs to nurture, but as something uniquely hers–even if she has never given birth before.

What triggers maternal behavior? What factors might influence the strength of the bond between mare and foal? Animal behaviorists have studied the mare/foal dynamic in considerable detail, so there’s lots we do know about the process, but there are a few lingering mysteries, too.

What’s Normal?

Sue McDonnell, PhD, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, is the founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She notes that there should be four distinct qualities in a new mother’s behavior. She should accept her foal, respond to it, interact with it, and facilitate its standing and nursing.

“Many animals prepare a birth site before they give birth, but horses don’t really do this,” McDonnell notes. “A mare will usually just find a quiet spot a little removed from the herd. She will, however, interact with her foal very early–sometimes even before he’s fully expelled. The interaction takes the form of nickering, nuzzling the foal, and oral/nasal contact (the ‘breathing into each other’s nostrils’ ritual horses use to greet each other–in essence, the mare is ‘meeting’ her foal for the first time).”

The next stage, licking her foal dry, usually occurs as soon as the mare gets to her feet after foal