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Everything You Need To Know About Foal Development: The First Month

The developmental periods of the foal

A foal walking up to the camera
A foal in the first week of life

Equine researcher, Sharon Crowell-Davies (1986a) identified three developmental stages: the dependent period from birth to three to four weeks, the socialisation period from two to three months, and the stabilization period from four months onwards. Boy and Duncan (1979) also identified a pre-weaning period in the last month before natural weaning where foals had another rapid shift in behaviour.


What to do with foals in the dependent period


Allow the mare to stay close to her foal and avoid bringing the foal to the teat:

Foals that were restrained and brought to the teat for first suckling avoided human approach for two weeks and physical contact for a month (Henry et al, 2006). When left alone, mares and foals stay within 5m of each other for the first week (Crowell-Davis, 1986b). It’s the mare who actively maintains a close distance to her foal during the first weeks to promote the foal’s bond towards her. This peaks at two weeks of age (Houpt, 2002). After this the distances between mares and foals increases gradually (Crowell-Davis, 1986b, Houpt, 2002).

Henry et al (2005) used gentle, positive handling of the mare during the first five days post foaling, familiarising foals with people. Protective mares needed to be able to move between foal and the handler, so while positive interactions with the mare are beneficial, this must not interfere with the mare-foal bond.


Keep a peaceful and quiet environment for the foal to rest in the morning and finish yard activities by 9pm:

Foals need frequent rest which takes up at least 32% of their time (Crowell-Davis, 1994, Zanker et al, 2021). Zanker et al (2021) used polysomnographic recording to measure foals’ sleepiness, REM sleep, slow wave sleep, light sleep and wakefulness during the first week. Foals were also filmed to monitor their behaviour. Foals were most awake and active from 3pm to 9pm, more sleep occurred overnight. In their study the stable staff started from 6am and there was an abrupt shift from predominately sleeping to more wakeful behaviours as a coincidence with this. Until the effects of circadian rhythm on how foals wake up, it’s advised that main yard duties are postponed to the later afternoon when foals are naturally more alert.


Feed orphan foals frequently throughout day and night:

Foals suckle frequently at all hours of the day and night (Zanker et al, 2021). Where foals are artificially suckled in groups there is temporary disturbance of behaviour – longer durations of standing, more aggressive behaviour and suckling other foals, and less suckling than naturally suckled peers (Tateo et al, 2013). These disturbances reduced after 10 days. Every 2 hours overnight and every hour during the day is a good guide.


Have positive interactions with the mare:

Scratching at the withers helps to lower heart rate (Feh and de Mazieres, 1993) and is likely to be relaxing (Thorbergson et al, 2016). Henry et al (2005) demonstrated that gentle grooming and hand feeding for 15 minutes a day for the first 5 days post birth made people more attractive to foals. The foals were more likely to approach a stationary human and to accept human approach in tests at 15 days, 30-35 days, and 11-13 months of age.


Avoid frightening foals:

Foals with a more nervous temperament will approach their dams more quickly and spend less time exploring new items (Christensen et al, 2020). Some foals are naturally more fearful than others and fear behaviour is a persistent temperament trait (Lansade et al, 2008, Diugan et al, 2014, Christensen et al, 2020).

The foal should be present whenever possible during any teasing and covering. Being left in the stable while the mare is removed causes distress and increases the risk of injury. If this is not possible, a person remaining with the foal reduces the intensity of the stress related whinnying and agitated movement (McGee and Smith, 2004).


Consider early training of the foal very carefully:

Foals might not find handling by humans positive (Henry et al, 2006). Foals exposed to a stationary person in the neonatal period were slightly attracted to humans when tested 15 days later. Foals deliberately brought to the teat or restrained and stroked were more averse to humans when test 15 days later (Henry et al, 2006). Unless it’s absolutely essential to protect the foal’s health, postpone early handling in favour of using the International Society for Equitation Science’s training principles when the foal enters the socialisation period (King et al, 2019).

Removing the foal from the mare for handling in the first hour after birth resulted in an insecure attachment to the mare (Henry et al, 2009). Foals developed a strong dependency on the mare and played less than foals that hadn’t been treated this way. Decreased social confidence and increased aggressive behaviour and social withdrawal that resulted persisted to at least adolescence (Henry et al, 2009). In another early handling study, mares of handled foals were less active in maintaining closeness to their foals by the time the foals reached five weeks compared to dams of foals that were left untouched (Sondergaard and Jago, 2010).

Remembering early learning, the foal’s ability to cope with social isolation and new experiences has had mixed results when foals are tested later. Spiers et al (2004) found foals handled for 45 to 60 minutes 10 minutes straight after birth and again 24 hours later were more cooperative with hoof handling up to three months of age, but they were no different from unhandled foals in their ability to cooperate with general handling and vaccination. In similar early training, Simpson (2002) found that handled foals were generally calmer, more likely to approach people and easier to handle than unhandled controls, but Williams et al (2002) found that foals became gradually less handleable, and the effects of training did not persist beyond three months (Williams et al, 2002). This was also the case for Lansade et al (2005) who also tested reactions to social isolation and new experiences, even when the procedure was extended over 14 consecutive days.

However, I do find that once foals have learned that people give nice scratches, they are very keen to hunt these down! In these cases I always try to make sure that I give scratches when the foal is more relaxed and is keeping out of my personal space to help them learn how to get them. This sets up a nice foundation for future handling and halter training.



Keep mares and foals at pasture:

Play behaviour is spontaneous and energetic, and at this age it all happens around and at the dam, as well as towards natural objects found in the environment (Crowell-Davis et al, 1987). Spontaneous play behaviour promotes musculoskeletal development (Rogers and Dittmer, 2019). Running play in the first month is the most energetic: it’s fast and foals will run as far as they can, often in a circles around their dam (Kurvers et al, 2006). When foals are stabled and let out to pasture for part of their day, the amount of play doesn’t make up the deficit compared to play by foals kept entirely outside (Kurvers et al, 2006).

Pasture is also important for early grazing behaviour. From days 0 to 40 foals explore a wide variety of plants and are not selective (Bolzan et al, 2020). They will not avoid toxic plants though so be careful!

Early season foals could be provided with an indoor play space such as an indoor school if the external weather conditions are too harsh.


Keep mares and foals in socially compatible groups:

Foals in the dependent period don’t tend to interact with other horses until the 3rd or 4th week but being in a group prepares the mare and foal for the socialisation period that follows. Where mares have access to plenty of resources and are in good condition, the social status of the mare has no effect on most social behaviour. Heitor and Vicente (2008) found that only foals of high-ranking mares did not receive aggression during the first month. Adults only tend to direct mild aggressive behaviour towards foals that are not their own, and usually when the foal comes too close. Provided horses are in a stable social group the risk of injury to the foals remains low (Sigurnsdottir and Haraldsen, 2019).


Observe suckling behaviour:

Mares that stopped suckling bouts more often than others were more likely to have foals that started abnormal repetitive behaviours before weaning (Nicol and Badnell-Waters, 2005). Foals that nuzzled the teats twice as much and which spent more time suckling were more likely to develop abnormal oral behaviours after weaning (Nicol and Badnell-Waters, 2005). Note that time spent suckling is not a good proxy for milk consumed (Cameron, 1998).


Coprophagia is normal:

Foals may start to eat poo anytime from the first week (Francis-Smith and Wood-Gush, 1977, Crowell-Davis and Houpt, 1985a). It corresponds with the foal starting to graze. While it might be to ingest intestinal microflora, vitamins (Francis-Smith and Wood-Gush, 1977) or maternal pheromones (Crowell-Davis and Houpt 1985a), Marnier and Alexander (1995) suggest it is a mechanism for learning food preferences from the dam. Crowell-Davies and Caudle (1989) tested whether foals would eat maternal faeces and/or those of other mares: 2 out of 6 foals tested ate faeces and only maternal faeces. This followed earlier field work where Crowell-Davis and Houpt (1985a) observed a larger cohort of foals mostly eating maternal faeces, but also sampling the faeces of others. Coprophagy has received very little scientific attention and the reasons for this natural behaviour remain unclear, although it doesn’t seem to cause any harm and it’s a behaviour that goes away.



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McGee, S. and Smith, H.V., 2004. Accompanying pre-weaned Thoroughbred (Equus caballus) foals while separated from the mare during covering reduces behavioural signs of distress exhibited. Applied Animal Behaviour Science88(1-2), pp.137-147.

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