How wonderful would it be if you could teach your foal not to be afraid of people by giving their dam a wellness treatment in the first days after birth? Researchers from the University of Rennes in France wanted to know whether mares influence their foal’s relationship with humans and whether mares that have a positive relationship with humans pass this on to their foal.
41 foals and their dams took part in the experiment, in which half of the mares were gently brushed for 15 minutes a day during the first 5 days after the birth of their foal and then hand-fed some pellets. So in total, the mares were handled for 1,25 hours. To avoid disturbing the bond between mare and foal, the researchers conducted their first session more than 12 hours after birth and the researchers did not handle the foal itself, including making contact with them. The mares in the control group were not handled at all and their foals had no contact with the researchers during their first five days.
The responses of the foals from both groups were recorded at different times and under different conditions. First while they were left with an immobile researcher for 5 minutes when they were 15 days and between 30 and 35 days old. They then entered an approximation test at 15 days of age and were checked for acceptance of a pad on their backs between 30 and 35 days of age. Finally, the same researcher who had conducted all the previous tests tried to approach and pet the foal in the field at between 11 and 13 months of age. This test was repeated by an unfamiliar researcher when they were between 13 and 15 months old.
Several observations during the study indicate that mares can indeed influence the behaviour of their foals towards humans. During the grooming and feeding procedure, foals shielded from the researcher by their dam on day 1 kept more distance from the researcher than the foals of calm mares. Foals of dams who shielded their foal from the researcher on the first day of the study or showed threatening behaviour were less approachable and stayed closer to their dams at 2 weeks and 1 month of age. They also had more difficulty accepting the pad. Incidentally, the difference between foals of protective and less protective dams was no longer noticeable in the studies at the age of 1 year.
The foals in the wellness group remained closer to the researcher at all ages and sought more physical contact such as sniffing, licking, etc. than the foals of dams that had not been groomed and fed. Foals from the control group sought more contact with their dams, which may indicate fear and the urge to be reassured. The contact with the dam helps foals to feel more secure around something they find scary, such as the researcher in this case. Such behaviour can also be seen in wild foals when, for example, a predator is nearby.
Avoidance and flight behaviour was much less common in the foals from the wellness group when the researcher approached them and they accepted a pad on their back much more easily and quickly than foals from the control group. The effect of grooming and feeding the dams was still noticeable at 1 year of age. Possibly later, but this has not been tested. And the foals generalized the behaviour, meaning they showed it not only to the known researcher but also to an unfamiliar person, because they could approach and pet them just as easily.
These results therefore clearly indicate that pampering mares during the first days after the birth of their foal has positive effects in the short, medium and long term on the formation and intensity of the horse-human bond. Incidentally, in a previous study, the scientists had noticed that if a person who was not moving was present with the foal during the first 5 days after birth, it made no apparent difference in how interested the foal was in that person when they were 2 and 4 weeks old. On the other hand, they accepted touch more readily.
Are you considering using this method with your foal? As the dam can not only pass on a positive relationship to her foal, but also a negative one, it is important to first look at how your mare reacts to people. If she doesn’t like us, it’s better not to groom and feed her during the first days after the birth of her foal. However, if your mare has a positive or neutral relationship with people, pampering her is a simple and stress-free way to teach your foal at an early age not to be afraid of humans.