Natural Horse World

Weaning problems in horses

Traditional Weaning practices can result in behavioral and social problems.

This colt (unrelated to this mare or stallion) learns polite behavior by shadowing the herd stallion.

Hearing of horses with social issues – usually, aggression towards other horses has widened my search for proof that these problems can be caused by traditional weaning practices.

For years now, I have seen the difference in my own horses by weaning them close to their natural weaning time of 10-12 months and giving them a social up-bringing with herd members of various ages. Their progressive weaning was relatively stress-free, and after the physical weaning from nursing was achieved (it takes 4-6 weeks for the mares milk to dry up), they lived with their mum (and father when I was still breeding) as they would in the wild.

This quote from Marthe Kiley-Worthington, author of ‘Horse Watch: What it is to be Equine’ shows us what she has observed in her years of studying equine ethology;
“Foals are usually weaned between four and six months old. This causes profound trauma and distress to both the foal and the mother. Since the attachment between mother and foal has been selected for and is molded by the lifetime experiences of the animals, it seems foolhardy to break this bond in a sudden way when the foal is so young.
In fact, our recent work indicates that it is at this time that the foal may begin to exhibit stereotypes, that is ‘vices’ such as crib-biting, weaving, head throwing, etc.”.

These youngsters try to instigate play with their father.

According to Kiley-Worthington ” The between (inter) generation bond is very strong and is also crucial for the normal behavioral development of the foal. In the absence of their mother, when given a choice, the foal, up to and over a year will attach itself to other adult mares rather than others of the same age, even if he is familiar with his peers.
It is from older animals that they acquire knowledge: social learning. ”
“Consequently in order to have a young equine who is behaviourally normal, it is important to ensure youngsters are not weaned before 9 months.”

As I’ve discovered, it is better to let the mare wean the foal herself which she will do if back in foal, between 10 and 11 months – usually a few weeks prior to foaling again. If the mare is not back in foal, she will not have hormone changes driving her to wean the foal. Then I’ve found a progressive separation over an electric tape fence enabling mare and foal to touch but not nurse, is the least stressful. This works very well with a track system so that the mare is on the perimeter of the paddock with the foal in the middle with the rest of the herd or at least one older gentle companion.
It is important in whatever situation you use, that the foal can always see the mare and has the larger space to choose to move further afield when they are ready.

Un-social aggressive behavior is the result of early weaning and no opportunity to learn from older equines as a youngster.

Socially it is far better for weaned foals to have other mares and foals to live with rather than isolating the youngsters in a group as many studs do. They can then learn appropriate behavior from other adults to develop good social skills.

So often it’s the owners of ex-racehorses that I hear from with herd aggression issues. Generally, foals destined for the racetrack are weaned far too early because the racing economy is dictated by money and it costs more to feed mares with older foals properly.
They are then put into peer groups prior to isolation (stabled) from the time they are prepared for yearling sales or ‘broken in’ as pre-two-year-olds. What hope do they have to learn any social skills?
These horses then become quite defensive of their own space or form strong emotional attachments to particular horses that cause them to be overly aggressive to others in the herd when they finally get to live like a natural horse.

Another issue that stems from weaning too early or suddenly is separation anxiety. Horses that were weaned by taking the mare away suddenly seem much more insecure when leaving their herd or when the horse they are most bonded with leaves.
I’ve seen the results in my own horses, some of which were weaned stressfully (the older horses before I knew better) and others more recently who have never been weaned from their family herd.
They are the most confident and keen to leave or go out of sight of their mother without any anxiety and they also have excellent social skills when meeting new horses, being both polite and able to read the other horse’s signals.

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,”

So if we are to raise confident and socially well-adjusted horses, then weaning at 9-12 months along with choosing a gradual weaning method and appropriate herd members is a very important part of their development. To read more about Progressive Weaning Naturally click here.


7 thoughts on “Weaning problems in horses”

  1. Teresa Smith

    This was my first foal and for my mare too. I had them at a boarding facility and people suggested I wean her at 5 months so I did with a heavy heart. At 6 months we bought horse property and my mare, foal and gelding to new place. There is a split fence and mare kicked foal through fence connecting. The mare is extremely aggressive; biting, charging fence at foal. I can hardly stand it. Now I too wanted baby and mare to naturally part ways. However, the mare will not be in foal again. Is this “normal” behavior regarding aggressive behavior? Those ears are back, charging with teeth etc.

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Teresa,
      It sounds like your mare has been stressed by the move to be charging her own foal over the fence. You didn’t say if the foal was in with the gelding (I hope so) and I’m wondering if the charging behaviour is directed at the gelding (if the foal is nearby)? This would be more ‘normal’ as she will be trying to ‘protect’ her foal from another horse.
      You could try confining the gelding away from the fence (but still in view of the foal) to see if the mare really is being aggressive towards her own foal.
      If not, then I’d put them back in together but if she does, keep trying with them alongside until she settles into her new home and hopefully shows fewer signs of aggression.
      Regards, Cynthia.

  2. Denise

    Great reading! Everything you’ve said makes absolute sense. I have 3 mares – x racehorses who are all together on a very large farm and are very aggressive towards each other. My dilemma is should I put my 2 weanlings which are the foals of 2 of the mares in with them or will they copy that aggression. I want the weanlings to be able to roam around the farm and behave like real horses before they start their racing careers.

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Denise, As the weanlings are foals of two of the mares, I think it would help them a lot to learn to be social and behave like real horses – they can only learn this from being with older horses.
      The aggression may be caused by guarding food resources or lack of space (the usual issues in domestic horse herds) so ensure the herd has plenty of room to get away from each other, spread their food out a lot further apart (the weanlings may prefer to eat closer together) and ensure there’s always an extra pile of hay so no-one misses out. Also ensuring they have hay 24/7 will alleviate aggression which can also come from having gut ulcers due to long periods (2-3 or more hours) without roughage to settle the gut acid. Hope these ideas help. Cheers, Cynthia.

  3. Chloe Parker

    I completely agree. I have an ex racehorse whose nearly 20 that suffers awfully from separation anxiety. She was raced as a two year old and her social skills are awful. She hates other horses being in her space. I retired her last year and bought a youngster who it turns out was weaned too early (earlier then 6 months!) she has even worse separation anxiety but apart from being quiet dominant is good in a herd situation. My mares are both kept together. My youngster is 7 but has the brain of a 4 year old, I’m hoping my older ex racehorse will make her a little bit more mature but the separation anxiety is very very hard to deal with.

    Do you have any advice for dealing with delegation anxiety?

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Chloe,
      its very sad to hear this but unfortunately it happens all too often.
      I have an article on my website here that may help: /Articles-Behaviour.htm#herdboundhorse and there are also links to further reading at the end.
      Hoping this helps and that your horses can get more confidence away from each other eventually.
      Cheers, Cynthia.

  4. I have heard the same thing from Mark Rashid – that the herd will teach appropriate behaviour of an adult horse very quickly after the foal is naturally weaned.

    He also said that many horses remain babies in their own minds and in their behaviour because they were never afforded the opportunity to learn how to be an adult from the other horses.

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