Our transition from child to adult is a fraught with physical and mental challenges, made worse by our inexperience. We are less able, when our life’s challenges are greatest. Its tough being a teen.
For horses the transition to adulthood occurs from about just before their first birthday through their second year and, for some, into the beginning of their 3rd year. Compared to people, horses (and most other animals), mature up quickly.
A demanding, vulnerable time
Young mares are naive and still investing into growing their bodies. Their inexperience at competing for resources, like food and shelter, and protecting themselves from risks, like aggressors, competitors and predators, makes them vulnerable.
They have not yet formed protective relationships with other mares  and a stallion  in a breeding and social group called a band. They will, at some time during their teens and probably around their first oestrus, leave their mothers band for another – called natal dispersal .
During their teens they may move often between bands – called social dispersal  - where they will be more attacked and harassed by other mares, stallions, and bachelor males than at any other time in their lives. It is a high-risk period and the consequences are reproductive failure.
The challenges of maturing and growing can delay a mares first foaling and makes rates of reproductive failure higher in younger mares such that foaling rates rise as mares age into their middle years.
Mares are capable of conceiving as soon as they reach sexual maturity around 1 year and, therefore, foaling as a 2-year-old but more commonly they will foal for the first time as 3-, 4-, or 5-year-olds because the physical, cognitive (mental), and social demands of maturing place great demands on them.
Young mare foaling rates measured
The age that mares first breed and foaling rates of young mares have been measured in only a handful of studies where frequent observations have meant that mare birth dates were known and their subsequent foals found.
On Assateague Island National Seashore no 2-year-olds foaled but 23% of 3-year-olds did and from their foaling rates increased up to 69% in 6-year-olds . Similar values with mare age are reported from Nevada, and Cumberland Island, Georgia [5, 6] (see accompanying graphic).
The pattern of climbing foaling success was very different in the Pryor Mountain population  because, although 2-year-olds did not foal and older mares had comparative low foaling rate, 3-year-olds had a substantial foaling rate – almost identical to the extraordinary foaling rate of 3-year-olds in Joel Berger’s erupting population in the Granite Range, Nevada .
I suspect that this difference reflects the extremely mare-biased adult sex ratio due to stallion removals from that population. Where there are substantially fewer stallions, the costs of social dispersal and sexual harassment for 1- and 2-year-old mares breeding for the first time might be substantially reduced. Sexual and social competition have consequences, especially during dispersal for first-time breeders.
Teen pregnancy in Nevada
The magnitude of the eruptive reproductive rates that Joel Berger observed in the Granite Range, Nevada (1979-93) are best revealed when plotted for comparison against other populations . Not only were 2 year olds foaling, but all mares 2 years old and older were foaling at the highest rates ever reported. A remarkable 86% of mares foaled in their sixth year.
The extraordinary foaling rates to a suite of historical events, but particularly the removal of cattle – a competitor of horses – combined to improve the amount and quality of food (grass) available to the Granite Range population.
Kaimanawa mare foaling unremarkable
Although many claimed that Kaimanawa population was undergoing eruptive growth like the populations described in the Granite Range, and Jackie’s and Beaty’s Butte, Oregon, the data on foaling rates by mares did not support those claims .
The graphic serves to show how unremarkable foaling rates by young mares in the Kaimanawa Ranges were compared to other populations. Foaling rates by 3 and 4-year-olds were year olds were low compared to all except the Cumberland Island population, Georgia .
Interestingly though, in 1998 a single two-year-old foaled – the first and only one to do so. Was this an indication of improved range conditions because musters had reduced horse densities?
1. Cameron, E. Z., Setsaas, T. & Linklater, W. L. Social bonds between unrelated females increase reproductive success in feral horses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, 13850-13853 (2009).
6. Goodloe, R. B., Warren, R. J., Osborn, D. A. & Hall, C. Population characteristics of feral horses on Cumberland Island, Goergia and their management implications. Journal of Wildlife Management 64, 114-121 (2000).
8. Berger, J. Wild horses of the Great Basin. (University of Chicago Press, 1986).