It’s always amazing to witness horse herd behavior – even when it involves domesticated equines. We’ve been dealing with a sad situation at Halcyon Acres® in recent weeks, but it’s been fascinating to watch how the horses are respond to these odd circumstances.

A filly was born here in May out of one of our best Irish Draught Sport Horse (IDSH) producers, a mare that has always been a devoted, protective and superb mom. It’s been a difficult four weeks for mom, baby and me.

Herd mechanics experiment

We’ve been exploring using herd mechanics at Halcyon Acres® a bit in new and different ways (for us, anyway). After our spitfire colt of last year kept figuring out remarkable feats to get to the main herd and away from his mom at a very young age (jumping a 4-foot, 4-strand high-tinsel coated electric fence; managing to crawl through two-strands of interior electric without touching the wires; rolling under the fence; running through it; etc.), we decided (read gave up) it would be best to save the maiden mare the angst of being separated from her darling and turned the pair out with the farm-owned crew. He was a huge, independent and smart colt who managed to buddy up with everyone almost immediately, unscathed.

So this year, we made the decision to put our broodmares and babies out with an appropriately selected group of horses who weren’t towing a foal (or waiting for one) after a brief period of giving mare and foal time to bond. The older I get, the more I come to welcome the help other horses provide in schooling young horses – and realize how significant an imprint the right horses can make on a foal’s behavioral development. At about five days of age, Crooked (I need a better nickname for this foal – suggestions?) and her mom joined three other gals in the big digs.

Foal challenges – filly takes a turn for the worse

Right about the time we moved the pair into this segregated herd, health issues started escalating with the foal. Early on, we were focused on a localized infection near the umbilical cord (she came out of the mare with a huge stump and large hematoma right in front of the site – likely due to the cord breaking in the birthing canal) and noticed the crooked legs, but hoped they’d straighten over time. Then, she almost doubled in size in less than a week. The front tendons contracted first, next the back, which were worse. Now, most of her time is spent lying down to minimize the pain – she’s also recently been relegated to stall rest all but 2 hours of the day. Tried small paddock turnout, but the mare was so much more interested in the gals, she ran the foal ragged and knocked her down if she traversed into her tantrum path.

Mare’s aloof, client filly steps in

As I write this post, a three-year-old client filly is standing at the gate screaming to the foal in the barn. This big gal spent the winter in low status with her gang of ‘babies.’ They left, so we culled out a few kind horses to keep her company. When the birth mare started to ignore, leave and reject the foal (she’s still letting her nurse, but otherwise seems to wish she were gone) this young mare kept watch over the baby as she lay in the grass for hours, resting her sore and constricted legs. Mom left the filly, heading up the hill for richer grasses – or into the barn unconcerned about her whereabouts at feed time. Funny, this nurturing role seemed to boost this filly’s confidence (and rank and popularity in the herd) in ways no grouping of horse company could.

Horses will surprise you

Horses do things you never expect. This mother went ballistic for the better part of a week a few years ago as I tried to remove the second twin – born alive, unlike her sister – when she died after a struggle to save her. By the time I was able to separate the dam and the carcass, she had scraped all the hair and skin off the baby in an effort to get her up. Witnessing her now ignoring a young foal because it isn’t perfect is a shock. Similarly, this three-year-old TB filly is a classic follower. Watching her take the lead in giving this foal the comfort and protection the mom failed to provide was a joy to observe. This experience will likely serve both horses well. The baby knows where the milk is, but clings to the filly for other needs. The stand-in has blossomed into a confident and expressive equine in many aspects of her existence, which should carry over into future career requests.

It will be a very sad day when the two must part, but the weeks where they touched each other will likely last them a lifetime in terms of how they handle future challenges.

Do you have horse stories to tell?

Have you witnessed surprising behavior from horses in the herd? Please share in your comments below.

2 Responses

  1. Nanette,

    That is a heartwarming story; I thoroughly enjoyed reading the love shown by the filly adopting the foal. I remember reading a prior post about the birth of this foal and was surprised to learn that the mother just kind of gave up yet is still allowing the baby to nurse. It is good to know that she is still receiving love and affection for however long they will be together. You are right, horse do the strangest things.

    1. Thanks, Marie. Yes, it was special – and a relief – to watch this filly take over the nurturing.

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