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Everything you need to know about foal development: the socialisation period

Socialisation Period

The socialisation period occurs during the foal’s second and third months. It is an important phase of neurological and emotional development that includes rapid increases in social behaviour towards other herd members: mostly other foals. It is also a period of increasingly selective grazing behaviour and by the end of the socialisation period the diet is more like the dam’s.


Here are some key pointers for the socialisation period:


Allow access to concentrate feed, forage and safe grazing with their dams:

After 40 days, Criollo foals studied on rangeland became more selective in their grazing. Their diet shifted from generally sampling any available plant life to more specifically eating grasses. This continued to 110 days of age where their diet shifted again to be much closer to their mothers in terms of the exact plants eaten. Prior to this study, other researchers recorded almost all foal foraging as happing at the same time as the dam; when the foal would also be close to the dam giving them ample opportunity to observe and be drawn to the same plants as the mother is eating. Having various suitable food available to sample alongside the mare might well enhance the foal’s development of adult food selection behaviour making it easier to feed the foal, including adding medication to feed, later in life.


Milk and energy!

Milk is rich in energy, making it possible for the foal to spend much more time sleeping, playing and exploring compared to adult horses. Colt foals of mares in good body condition are more playful than colts from dams in poorer body condition, but the opposite has been found to be true of fillies. At least in feral Kaimanawa horses in New Zealand. Meanwhile in the Camargue, France, minimally managed, free-range Camargue colts spent 40% more time suckling in the first 8 weeks compared to fillies. Those colts were also more active and spent less time grazing. It’s perhaps no surprise that playful colts can result in mares losing body condition and therefore supplementary feeding may be needed for the mums of lively foals. Foals that played more tended to be stronger, survive better and wean earlier than those that did not so it’s clearly worth investing in monitoring the body condition of mares with foals at foot and feeding accordingly.

Not only is being stronger an athletic performance advantage, it may also be a social one that can reduce the risk of injury from field mates in future. Carneddau colt foals in North Wales received more maternal attention in terms of friendly behaviours, this is likely to help them become highly socially skilled for their future role as stallions where they will interact with a wide network of mares and other stallions as well as foals and other youngsters.


Increasing distance from the mare and new social relationships

Distance between the foal and the mare gradually increases until around 9 to 15 weeks of age where it plateaus for a few weeks. This doesn’t mean that the 4-month-old foal is ready to wean! Foal initiated distance appeared to be at least partly influenced by genetic inheritance from the sire in foals aged two to three months, so find out if your foal’s sire makes for bold foals. Foals of subordinate mares were involved in more friendly interactions while foals of higher-ranking mares stayed closer to their dams during the socialisation period. More time with mum will support the foal’s development of confidence in social behaviour.  



Foals are most usually away from their dams while playing and if a foals nearest neighbour is not mum then it’s likely to be another foal. Play includes running and bucking alone, playing with objects, interactive contact and play fighting, as week as play directed to an adult. Stallions are usually very tolerant of foals directing their games towards them, and they will often actively play with both colt and filly foals.

Colts and fillies play just as much as each other but they play different games. Colts engage in more interactive play and play directed towards adults, fillies run and buck in solo play more often, and this might be a surprise but both sexes engage in mounting play. Colts’ interactive play lasts longer than that for fillies therefore it is particularly important that colts have access to suitable playmates to prevent them directing inappropriate, compensatory play to human handlers or to leave their mother as their sole playmate, this can be really draining for her.


Mutual grooming

Mutual grooming is also an important social behaviour. Jeju pony colts preferred to groom yearling fillies than their own mothers, and filly foals were more likely to groom with their dams. Grooming between foals can be equally with each sex with colt to colt grooming often leading to play fighting. Be sure to keep scratching and touching brief when handling colts so as not to accidentally turn it into an unwanted game!

This contrasts a little with observations of a similar size study group of Welsh ponies were colt foals almost exclusively groomed fillies. Mutual grooming between the Welsh pony foals peaked at the age of 9 to 12 weeks and fillies were generally found near other fillies. The interactive play of colts and grooming directed to filly foals and to yearling fillies prepares them for life as a harem stallion. Fillies preferring to be nearer other fillies prepares them for life within a mostly female group.






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