Natural Horse World

New Ways for Weaning Foals

The time for weaning foals is approaching and thus begins what can be a very stressful event for both the mare her foal.

Foals raised with their siblings or other horses will have good social skills.

But it needn’t be if we consider how horses naturally wean their foals. Family structure is an incredibly important part of a horse’s life – young horses need role models and teachers they can trust. Sadly this isn’t often thought about in our world that is so often driven by economics, greed and the need for fast results.

An Equus magazine article on weaning has prompted me to write this post. The article referred to recent research that outlined the behavioural and physiological responses to different weaning protocols (by Christine Aurich et al) and gave some examples of the different ways to wean.

Weaning Methods

These included the traditional ‘remove mare suddenly out of earshot/sight’ method which is considered the most stressful, to weaning in pairs or in a group (still with the sudden removal of the mare), with a ‘baby sitter’ or by removing one mare at a time from a group.

Gradual separation was also covered but considered to be more time consuming and unsafe if the foal was on the other side of a fence to its mother. It was also said to be more stressful for both, probably because the foal’s milk supply is stopped suddenly and the mare is still ultimately taken away completely, plus the length of separation may be in too large a chunk to be as gradual as the foal really needs.

Some of these methods also rely on having more than 1 or 2 mares and foals which makes them impractical for the small breeder.

The one method the article didn’t present that produces no stress at all for mare or foal, is the ‘progressive weaning’ method. While this method hasn’t been scientifically studied (and perhaps the reason it wasn’t included) myself and others have experienced great results, and feel it could be more widely shared and hope one day it will become the most accepted way of weaning.

Progressive weaning very gradually increases (by the hours) the time of separation, and decreases the ability to drink, over a period of around two weeks, always ensuring that the mare and foal can see each other and touch noses. This method allows the mare’s milk to dry up slowly (reducing the risk of mastitis), as the mare is never completely taken away, and eventually when the milk has completely dried up 6-8 weeks) the pair can be reunited to benefit from the social bonds and learning they experience in the wild.

2 strands of electrified tape is a safe fence for separating mares and foals provided the foal is taught to respect it first.

This method is best done using a ‘paddock’ track system so that the foal is on the inside of the track where it can access more feed and is with friends, and the mare is on the perimeter track, on restricted grass to help the milk reduce, and the pair can move anywhere in the pasture but remain within sight and contact. An electric fence is also safer to use for this purpose and only needs to consist of 2 strands of high visibility tape or poly wire. If a track system is not used, then any safe pasture can be divided by an electric fence to give the foal constant sight of the mare, but the ability to move further away as it becomes more confident.

Weaning Age

Also in the article, the age of weaning was quoted as the “generally accepted age of between 4 and 6 months” which is much earlier than this would occur in a natural situation where the mare will self wean the foal at between 10-11 months or just prior to giving birth again.

In her book ‘Horse Watch: What it is to be Equine’ – Marthe Kiley-Worthington says “the between-(inter) generation bond is very strong and is also crucial for the normal development of the foal. ..The effect of artificial weaning (usually incorrectly advocated for between 3 and 6 months) frequently results in trauma to the foal who, thereafter, may show evidence of behavioural distress. It is often forced weaning of this type that stereotypes such as crib-biting, wind-sucking, weaving or head throwing show a significant increase in performance. ….. in order to have a young equine who is behaviourally normal, that wants to learn, and does not have any pathological behaviour, it is important to ensure that the youngsters are not weaned before 9 months. If possible leave the mother to wean the foal herself as she would in the wild before she foals again.”

In my experience as a breeder for over 40 years, I have also noticed the horses that are progressively weaned are much more independent and suffer much less ‘separation anxiety’ than those that are weaned suddenly.

Many times I hear the excuse that the foal must be weaned because the mare is losing condition, is back in foal (and presumably needs all her nutrition to grow the next foal) or the mare won’t wean the foal herself because she’s not back in foal.

My answer to this is; if you can’t feed your mare sufficiently well enough to maintain reasonable body weight (its to be expected that she will drop some weight) then you should learn more about nutrition and what to feed, or simply feed more!
A mare that’s back in foal is designed by nature to be in foal and feed one, so provided she has good nutrition there’s no reason she can’t support two at a time.

Separation at feeding time is a good place to start the weaning process.

If the mare isn’t back in foal then it’s true – she may not wean the foal herself, but the time and method of weaning can then be done when its least traumatic for the foal which is around 10-12 months old. If there’s no harm being done, why not leave them together and see if nature will take its course. Many mares will get sick of the foal drinking at around 12 months and may just wean themselves.

If the owner wants to use the mare again and can’t wait, then the foal can be gradually taught to have her leave for short periods (initially within sight) or it can be taken along for the ride. Foals of 4-6 months of age or older are quite capable of keeping up on a trail ride and the experience will be an invaluable education for them.

Stress-Free Weaning

So if you want to have a well-adjusted foal that is confident and free of social or physiological issues, read more about progressive weaning here and follow these ingredients for stress-free weaning which are:

  • Raising in a herd with horses of varied ages and if possible a young friend to play with.
  • Wean at no earlier than 9 months of age, preferably closer to 12 months.
  • Wean progressively and with friends in a familiar environment.
  • Wean when the foal is physically well, not under any other stress such as from worming, gelding, other vet treatment etc.
  • Practice short periods of separation when the foal is offering that behaviour itself (ie straying far from the mare and even going out of her sight without worrying).

Here is an example of how progressive weaning worked for one foal owner:

Nito on the pedestal.

“My husband and I are the proud owners of a 10-month-old filly. Its the first time we’ve bred a horse or had a foal, although we’ve been into horses for years and years. I just wanted to let you know we were searching for help about weaning a few months ago and came across an article on your website. We are avid Parelli fans and use it daily with all our horses. So of course, we wanted to wean as naturally as possible with the least amount of angst for either Mom or baby.

The article was awesome and we followed it pretty well. I just wanted to tell you how thankful we were and to let you know the whole process was uneventful, stress-free, and totally successful! All we did was put Sweet P (our mare) into a big paddock and left Nito (our filly) out with our two boys. At the time Nito was about 9 months old. She had already bonded to our big Dutch warmblood so it worked perfectly. She could nose her mom over the fence but not nurse. After six weeks we just let mom back out and bingo, Nito tried to sniff near her mom’s teats but Sweet P put her ears back, lifted her back leg, and/or bit her on the bum. Happened a couple of times and that was it! Sweet! Then Nito just went over and stood on the pedestal for fun!
Dont’cha just LOVE horses!?!
Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your information. I’ve signed up for your newsletter as well and want to peruse your website some more as I find time!”  Cheryl Hogg, Certified BodyTalk Practitioner, USA.

This article also highlights some recent research on weaning that concluded: “We now have a better scientific base of knowledge about weaning in horses, like an understanding (from previous studies) of some of the effects of artificial weaning such as high levels of stress and the introduction of coping mechanisms like stereotypies, and, in this new study, of the way natural weaning occurs,”

Recommended reading:

Progressive Weaning by Cynthia Cooper

Natural Weaning: How you wean your horse may affect his attitude and even his intelligence for years to come by Linda Kohanov

Follow This Foal – Weaning by Cynthia Cooper

Book: The Foaling Primer by Cynthia McFarland

Book: Horse Watch: What it is to be Equine by Marthe-Kiley Worthington


21 thoughts on “New Ways for Weaning Foals”

  1. This may sound an odd question but with winter coming fast, how do we ensure Lily our 4 months foals’ safety when feeding from I-candee, when I-Candee is wearing a rug (horse blanket)? Lily is a little clumsy and I am concerned that she may get her head, leg or something stuck in the straps. She has managed to get herself stuck in a haynet (hung at the correct height!) so it is not a completely irrelevant question. Temps get below 0 here, and I-Candee needs her rug (horse blankets in US).

    We are based in an area where it is normal for foals to be weaned at 4 months, and as we are opting to go down the more natural route, described in this article, we are already getting some interesting feedback (!)

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Beth,
      Good to hear you’re planning to wean later although having a rug on the mare may be challenging. The best option would be to choose a rug/blanket that has minimal straps and keep them secured with a breakaway like a small piece of thin string between the fastening points. That way if your foal does get her leg caught, it will release.
      I hope that helps.
      Cheers, Cynthia.

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  3. Finally an article that concurs with my views. So many “experienced” people telling me I have to wean my warmblood colt at 6 months. Mum is in brilliant condition coming into winter. I stay with the colt at feeding times to make sure mum doesnt steal his food(also gives me the opportunity to brush him etc. no restraints , tying up and stressing him.Im sure he will respond better if he is allowed to mature naturally. He was born in April and in spring next year i will start physically separating them . they are happy and calm so why create problems

    1. Cynthia

      Well done for following your own common sense! I’m sure your horses will be happier and healthier for it, 🙂

  4. Sassafrass

    Hi Cynthia I too bought a connemara X Qh last december and a baby QH was born late sept. (father a full QH we have been notified) I too want to do this naturally and so am following your advice. I am under pressure to separate as he is a rather big foal compared to Mom and so she needs 4 large feeds a day to keep up!! any advice to help her to keep the weight on? She cannot be rugged up when she is out as baby biooy is all over her, so she is using her supplies to keep warm and feeding. I love them to bits, so I am trying my hardest to do the right thing by them. I have an older appaloosa mare and a young welsh Mountain pony playmate for him x thanks in advance x

    1. Cynthia

      It’s great to hear you are concerned for the future of your foal, and are keen to follow my weaning advice. At 3 months, he is way too young to even consider weaning so making sure he and his mum have the right nutrition will be the best way. Do they have access to good quality grass hay 24/7? That is what will keep them warm and help with maintaining weight. Also, if its taking 4 large feeds a day, then you may need to feed something with more protein and/or fat content.
      Might be best to consult an equine nutritionist to see that she’s getting all she needs. And remember to have her teeth checked and worming up to date as a connemara x should be a fairly easy keeper if she is in good health overall.
      I’m glad your foal has a playmate and an aunty – sounds like you are doing the best you can to provide him with all he needs. Another thing to be sure of is that she is not being pushed away from feed by the other horses. If she’s lower in the herd order, then you may need to find different companions.
      Hope this helps and I’d love to hear how things go.

  5. Lisa Marie Ballew

    Hi Cynthia! Well Tipper has healed up great from his hernia and gelding. He is growing like a weed! Very nice manners and just a sweet almost 9 month old. He and Snowball are great pals…I’m hoping to begin that progressive weaning soon. It’s been more than a JOY to watch Tipper grow and develop into a calm and loving colt. I am sure it will mean a lot when it’s time to go under saddle. In the meantime, we will do groundwork and just everything we can think of to mold him into a well grounded fella.
    Many blessings. Lisa Marie

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Lisa Marie,
      Thanks for the update on Tipper’s progress and so glad that he has Snowball to play with. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things with him and I hope the progressive weaning goes to plan. Let me know how it works for you, or if you need any help I’m only an email away.

  6. Lisa Marie Ballew

    Just found this website and very much appreciate the advice about weaning. I bought a mare last winter and she foaled in October 2012. Gave me the prettiest little few spot Appaloosa colt. He is almost 5 months now and vet says time to wean. I only have the 2 and not the perfect set-up for separating. I want to let it happen naturally.
    I’d like to do an ACTHA event this summer but have to see how the weaning goes and if I can actually take the mare away from the place without him freaking out.
    I will keep an eye on your page and let you know how we are doing.
    Thanks and God bless.
    Lisa Marie

    1. Cynthia

      Glad you found the information Lisa Marie. Its sad to hear vets are recommending weaning at 5 months when a foal isn’t naturally weaned before 10 months. You could take the time to work towards separation for a day so you can go to an event, but I’d strongly recommend that you get a companion for your foal while the mare is away. It’s pretty hard on young horses to be without another and injuries often occur unless you can do this very gradually and be sure he is under supervision while on his own.
      There’s no reason why you can’t leave him with his mum for most of the time while you’re preparing for the event because as long as she is fed appropriately, it won’t affect her, but it will affect his long term psychological state if weaned at such a young age.
      Let me know if there’s anything I can help with.

      1. Lisa Marie Ballew

        Thanks Cynthia! I am in no hurry to wean Tipper at all; he can hang with Mom until it occurs naturally.
        I do take him out sometimes to feed separately and need to get to doing some real ground manner stuff with him; he is halter broke and has already had 2 trailer rides. This is my first foal and I know I need to treat him like a horse 🙂 but I have no experience with a baby! He is in the serious “let’s play and I will nip you” stage.
        I do want to get another companion animal. I’m looking either for another older broke mare or gelding or a miniature donkey. I would never leave him all alone.
        I know I am going to enjoy all your blog has to offer. Thanks again. Blessings.
        Lisa Marie

        1. Cynthia

          Hi Lisa Marie, I’m so glad to hear you’re a sensible horse owner and not going to rush into weaning Tipper, and that you are looking for a companion. The sooner you can get him a playmate the better, and in the meantime perhaps some toys like a horse ball that he can chase and nip would help too.
          I hope my blog and website can give you some more ideas and that you enjoy the journey of raising Tipper to become a lovely horse.

          1. Lisa Marie Ballew

            Hi Cynthia
            Well I have just ‘adopted’ a small mule “Snowball” to be a pasture buddy for Tipper. Snowball came needing some groceries and with foundered front hooves; my farrier has been here already to fix his hooves and I bought a grazing muzzle for Snowball to wear.
            Tipper had a huge hernia and that is clamped off and he got gelded the same day! I don’t know if it was worse for him or me 🙂
            I am going to start riding my mare a bit and continue working with Tipper on the ground. Snowball is great!!
            I feel I will have a small herd of well rounded animals for sure.
            Thanks for your support.
            Blessings, Lisa Marie

          2. Cynthia

            Hi Lisa Marie,
            thanks for the update and so glad you have found Snowball to keep Tipper company. I hope they get to be good friends and play together a lot. Sounds like Snowball needed to be rescued too so well done.
            I have a mule too – her name is Sassafrass and she’s quite a character. Poor Tipper – hope he’s recovering well from his surgery. Better to have it done young too. Hope you get to do some riding soon.

          3. Lisa Marie Ballew

            Hi Cynthia
            We are beginning the weaning process by having Tipper and Justy separated (electric fence between them) for a few hours a day. Tipper usually hangs out near with Snowball but Justy is really enjoying not being followed around while she grazes LOL Tipper has a lovely mind and I plan to keep it that way! He and Snowball are a hoot to watch. Also want to brag on Tipper a bit; we recently trailered to the vet for vaccinations and Justy’s dental care…Tipper loaded right into the 2-horse trailer in less than 3-5 minutes for me!! He was first on and I just approached it as the most natural thing in the world for him to step right in-no pulling or pushing involved.
            Thanks again for your articles!
            Lisa Marie

          4. Cynthia

            Hi Lisa Marie,
            thanks for keeping me posted of Tipper’s progress. Sounds kike your’e doing everything right for him to load so easily. He obviously trusts you and that is gold! Keep up the good work and glad you are finding the articles useful.

  7. Thanks for the info. My vet had told me that this should be do able. I have a little arab mare that I took in to be a friend for my 16 yr QH mare who had lost her 15 yr friend to colic and old age. I had no idea of her background except, the previous owner only had her very briefly only as a pet,as she was a birthday present from her husband. Anyway I had her vetted after bringing her home and she was in excellent health and carrying a bonus package, that arrived on a windy Feb. night. It is now Sept. and they are still together but Rosie only drinks from her mom very briefly and hangs out on her own or with Reba (QH). She has had lots of handling , leads, picks her feet up for cleaning and is getting along really well. Her mother seems fine when they are out of sight of each other as does the baby too for a while. I believe baby will do fine by gradually taking her from mom. I would love it if they can basicaly stay together. My horses normally are with me till the end.I’ve always owned QH ,but the momma and baby arab are so cute and personable. They nicker to me every time I come out of my house. I just love that!

    Gwen Young

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Gwen, so lovely to hear you are going to keep mum and Rosie together and you will have them till the end. Its so lovely to hear from true horse lovers. I have arabians too and they are very personable – but then so is my QH mare as well. I think all horses respond to love and good care so keep up the good work.

  8. shan daw

    How wonderful to see it in writing. Its no wonder there are so many horses with “issues” when they grow up. Its like children brought up in disfuctional families.

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