One of the most serious types of abnormal maternal behavior in horses is foal rejection, defined as refusal to allow suckling and aggression towards the foal. Since the ingestion of colostrum is crucial to the health of the foal during the first few hours of life, the foal is at risk of septicemia and death in cases of foal rejection. Current methods to treat this aberrant behavior, including chemical and/or physical restraint of the mare, may be ineffective or just short lasting and can furthermore lead to secondary behavioral problems.
A 5 year-old registered Egyptian Arabian maiden mare refused to allow her foal or humans to approach her flank/udder region. Since no colostrum could be obtained from the mare for the foal, both were transported to the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) at the University of California, Davis approximately 20 hours after birth.
The initial approach was to attempt to understand the reason for the mare's aggressive and defensive behavior. Gradual desensitization of the flank region and counter-conditioning was used to encourage the mares to accept their foals without restraint or medication. This approach, based on the animal behavioral tendencies, involved the application of negative reinforcement, gradual desensitization of the sensitive flank/udder region and counter-conditioning. Within one hour of behavioral therapy, the handler was able to manipulate the udder without resistance and the foal was able to nurse successfully.