Chill Out: Stressed Mares Produce Anxious Offspring

by | 01.14.2019 | 8:39am

While great importance is normally placed on the selection of a stallion, what a mare imparts on her offspring should not be underestimated, reports Janne Winther Christensen, an associate professor in Animal Science at Aarhus University and president of the International Society for Equitation Science.

Multiple research projects have shown that mares have greater influence on learning capacity, fearfulness and the development of stress sensitivity in foals. Though a foal may be born with specific reaction tendencies, its behavior will be shaped by its interaction with its environment. Mares effect their foals genetically, during pregnancy and after foaling.

While in utero, the foal is affected by maternal hormones. A mare that is distressed during her pregnancy can leave lasting behavioral and physiological changes in her foal, including fear-related behaviors and learning deficits. A distressed mare can be one who is alone, one who is in a constantly changing environment or one who is around a lot of other horses without a lot of room.

If the foal is born fearful, a lot of interaction between the mare and foal can alleviate some of the fearfulness and stress reactivity, as well as increase learning ability. Foals that do not have consistent interaction with their mothers or have mothers who are anxious will have an increase in fear-related behaviors.

Additionally, foals tend to copy their mother's reactions when exposed to similar situations later in life. This emphasizes that a foal's environment can affect behavior as well as his genes. Christensen encourages breeders to limit stressful situations during pregnancy and notes that calm mares are likely to produce calm foals; those mares that are more interested in their foals are also more likely to have resilient offspring.

Read more at Eurodressage.

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