If orphan foals become overly bonded to humans, they tend to follow people (as a dog might) even to the point of leaving horses
at pasture and spending time near gates or fence lines to be closer to people. In an article on mare and foal bonding problems
in the 2005 Clinical Techniques in Equine Practice, Drs. Elkanah Grogan and Sue McDonnell state: "As the (overly human-bonded) foal matures, it may have mild to severe handling
problems associated with what appears to be interactions with people as if they were a horse." These handling problems have
been described as "dull to discipline," pushy or "bargy" and poorly responsive to other horses. These descriptions fit the
choking mare seen by Dr. H.
A belled goat, sheep or other companion species can be a good buddy for a blind horse and provide support and leadership around
A "problem" horse can get passed from one trainer to another, and its early history can become lost or confused. Improperly
socialized orphan-horse behavior should be considered by practitioners when this dull, unresponsive behavior is observed or
if training issues support such a condition.
Treatment for this problem is far easier when the foal is young. Drs. Grogan and McDonnell remind owners and veterinarians
that orphaned foals should receive limited human interaction, and caretakers should "particularly disassociate human presence
It is imperative that orphans be introduced to equine companions, and often, older mares, geldings, ponies or donkeys can
serve as a surrogate family. But if this is not done and you are faced with a mature horse that is maladjusted, there are
still a few steps that can be taken.
Placing these horses in a pasture with a quiet companion for an extended period of time may help some animals, though many
will revert to their original behaviors when humans are around. Because these horses tend to see humans as equals, they might
simply need more forceful and directed training than usually employed with better-socialized horses. But caution must be used
because these overly human-bonded horses sometimes react aggressively to increased force and aggression toward trainers or
Drug therapies, ranging from tranquilizers to mood enhancers and antidepressants, have been tried with little consistent response.
Spotting these horses for what they are and making trainers aware of the source of the problems can be a tremendous contribution
from an equine practitioner. Educating breeders and owners about the proper methods for raising orphan foals is the best means
of avoiding these problems.
There are many stereotypic behaviors seen in equine practice. These are repeated sequences of behavior that are, for the most
part, without purpose and include cribbing, wood chewing, pawing, head bobbing, stall walking and weaving. It is estimated
that 15 percent of domesticated horses show some aspects of these activities, and many behaviorist say these actions are incomplete
forms of normal behaviors that develop when individuals lose control over their environment. For most horses, this means excessive
stall confinement, lack of work or exercise and reduction in social contact, resulting in boredom and frustration.
Boredom and frustration in stallions (and occasionally geldings) sometimes manifests in stereotypic self-mutilation. This
behavior is so common that it is now referred to as equine self-mutilation syndrome (ESMS). This syndrome is believed to affect
slightly less than 2 percent of horses. Affected horses exhibit random face, neck or muscle twitching. They can kick or paw
without pattern or direction. Theses horses can show vocalization, again without direction or purpose, and they might bite
at their chest or flanks. Researchers recently have attempted to draw parallels between ESMS and Tourette's syndrome in humans.
Both conditions involve head and neck twitching, hemiballismus (constant, unidirectional, purposeless striking out with either
arm (foreleg) or leg (hind leg), preoccupation with environmental boundaries (walking the perimeter of an enclosure) and occasional
bizarre vocalization. Both diseases are juvenile onset and show a strong male predilection. Hereditary concerns are present
with both Tourette's and ESMS; stress will make both conditions worse, while activities that are mentally absorbing will lessen
the signs of both.
Interestingly enough, neither ESMS nor Tourette's syndrome cause impaired performance, and there are numerous examples of
top human and equine athletes with these conditions.