By Cynthia Cooper
Weaning a foal in a progressive way more closely imitates nature and is proven to reduce stress and future separation anxiety.
I get a lot of people asking, “What is the best age and way to wean a horse”? I think if you can look to nature you have the answers – most mares who are foaling every year in the wild would chase their foal off just prior to having their next one so nature holds the key.
Weaning too early or too late can cause behavioural issues that will affect the foal for the rest of its life. The age I mostly wean my foals is between nine and twelve months, taking into account whether the mare is empty or back in foal, the weather conditions and the availability of time to commit on a daily basis for a period of around two weeks.
Weaning can be traumatic for the foal especially when approached traditionally with instant separation and often isolation!
Done naturally, the mare would begin to stop feeding her foal about a month prior to birth when her hormones are changing to signal the development of colostrum. At this stage, her foal will be about ten months old. Her reluctance to feed the foal and actually stop them from drinking may only take a few days, but the weanling is still allowed to share the close bond they have with their dam.
Once the mare has her new foal, the weanling (probably close to a year old) will develop bonds with other herd members, most likely other youngsters. The dam of this yearling will still be a comfort zone if needed when the youngster is unsure or frightened. Perhaps this is one reason mares don’t appear to discipline their foals very much – they need to be seen as the safest place to run to – always trusting that they will be accepted and protected.
How we can copy nature
In order to replicate natural weaning as closely as possible, I start the process with the foal (now 8-9 mths) and mare being joined by a gentle old companion if they aren’t already part of a herd, which hopefully they can be. Any quiet, gentle horse will be suitable so long as they tolerate or enjoy youngsters.
They should be pastured together for a few weeks before starting to separate the mare from her foal and the companion for short periods (30 minutes) that then progress to longer periods of a few hours. It is always best to confine the mare so the foal can see her and has the choice to move further away. If the foal is confined, it can panic when the mare moves away from its comfort zone, possibly causing itself injury and at the least, emotional panic.
For those familiar with ‘Paddock Paradise’ or a track system of restricting grazing, this works beautifully with the mare on the track and the foal on the inside with other herd members or companion. This way the foal and mare can ‘travel’ together but not suckle.
The separation is best done over a double or triple tape electric fence, or if you’re not using a track, solid wooden or pipe rails on the yard holding the mare. Never separate a mare and foal with wire initially as in panic, the foal could try to run through it or jump it – at least electric tape will stretch or break.
By gradually increasing the separation time daily, it only takes a week before they can go for the full day without a drink.
At this stage, I would put them back together during the nights. For the next week, allow the foal to suckle once a day as this helps to ease the tightness of the mare’s bag, making life more comfortable for her too.
Helping them both cope
The mare’s diet should be reduced to very little pasture and mostly hay (no grain) to assist in slowing the milk production. The daily suckling can be decreased to every 2nd day for a week. By then foal will be enjoying the company of the others and seem to be independent enough to cope without mum.
Finally, extend the suckling to once every 3 days before not allowing it any more. In order to teach the weanling that it can leave sight of its mum, take it for walks in the company of the steady companion, gradually increasing the distance and time out of sight, using approach and retreat, always aiming to return to the comfort zone (the mare in sight) before the youngster gets concerned.
When it comes time to take the mare away, which may be necessary to re-breed her or move pastures, ensure the weanling is kept in a small safe yard with their companion until they are settled. If you don’t need to keep the mare and weanling separated, then wait until the foal has not suckled for 6 weeks to ensure the mare’s milk has properly dried up. They can then live together again to replicate a natural herd situation where the progeny of a mare will stay with the herd until it is at least two years old.
Weaning need not be a traumatic experience if done gradually. This also decreases the risk of injury to mare and foal and allows the youngster to suffer less anxiety in the future when they need to be ‘weaned’ from their pair bond or companion.
Of course, you could approach their next separation in much the same way. Really, it’s just a matter of looking at it from the horse’s point of view. How would you feel if you were a child, suddenly locked in a cell away from your mum, and in the case of some young horses, away from everyone else too?
I’ve found that foals weaned this way are bolder, much more confident and don’t seem to suffer anxiety when they are asked to leave their herd or companion.
This method may take a little longer but you will reinforce catching and leading in the process. It greatly reduces the risk of injury, development of stress-related behaviours such as wood chewing, weaving, fence running etc. and that in turn reduces the stress on us as caretakers of those precious young horses that are our future.
More info on Weaning Foals Here is an excellent article by Linda Kohanov (author of The Tao of Equus and Riding Between the Worlds) detailing the detrimental effects of early weaning and the long term benefits of later and more gradual weaning.
Scientific research has begun into artificial weaning concluding that “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,”