What You Need to Know About Weaning Your Foal
At some point, your cute foal scampering around the pasture will need to be weaned from his mother so he can start his journey toward full maturity.
When it comes time to break the natural bond between mare and foal, horse owners and handlers have many opinions.
Even among those who have bred and raised horses for years, you’ll find wildly varying theories, some anecdotal and some based on research. Past experiences plus current circumstances generally determine the approach taken.
All things considered, most breeders and horse owners agree that one of the most important considerations is to minimize stress on both baby and dam.
Abrupt vs. gradual weaning
When weaning a foal, the biggest decision to make is between abrupt weaning and gradual weaning.
Just like its name implies, the abrupt method separates mother and baby all at once, with no adjustment period. Although opponents to this method feel it’s cruel to both foal and mare, many experts believe the abrupt method is the least stressful for all involved—foal, mare, and handlers.
Abrupt weaning works best if the foal is left in his present surroundings, and the dam is removed to a remote location. The foal’s stress will mount if he is able to see or hear his mother, so out of sight and hearing is best.
In gradual weaning, foal and mare are separated for short periods of time during the day, and over a period of several days handlers increase their time apart.
Proponents of gradual weaning believe this method gives the foal more time to adjust and helps him to become more independent. Nursing intervals are gradually lengthened as well, allowing the mare’s milk to dry up naturally.
Breeders choosing abrupt weaning feel the gradual method needlessly drags out the stress involved. The thought is that because stress when weaning is unavoidable, it’s best to get the process over with as quickly as possible.
The gradual method works best when weaning one or just a few foals. On large farms with many horses, gradual weaning may not be practical.
Wean your foal early or late?
Much debate has taken place over the pros and cons of early weaning versus late weaning.
Most experts agree three months is the minimum age to wean a foal. One big reason for this is that the dam’s milk production slows after three months, plus research has shown that her milk has less nutritional value after about three months of nursing.
While many breeders will wean foals at three months, others wait longer—up to six months or longer. There are many reasons for this longer time table, but one important one is that if left alone, mare and foal may not separate for a year or longer. Even when pregnant, mares have been observed not weaning their foal until around ten months old.
Late weaning proponents also cite research indicating foals that are weaned early are more likely to develop negative habits such as cribbing and stall walking. If early weaned foals are also fed a larger proportion of grain in their diet and kept isolated socially, they have an even greater likelihood of picking up these habits.
When it comes to deciding when to wean, your foal’s maturity level and development will be the biggest determining factors. Before weaning is attempted, a foal should forage on his own, as well as socialize with other foals apart from his dam.
Bear in mind that your facility’s setup and resources may also play a role in how and when you decide to wean your foal.
Weaning variations to consider
Depending on the number of foals to wean, as well as the availability of pasture, fencing, and stalls, different weaning variations may work better for your situation.
If working with several foals and mares, group weaning may be a good option. Research indicates that group pasture weaning is less stressful overall for both foals and mares.
For this method, individual mares are removed from the pasture and taken to a location out of sight and sound. Over a period of several weeks, all the mares are taken away one at a time. The advantage to this method is that both foals and mares get to remain with horses with which they’re familiar and comfortable. Group pasture weaning works best if the babies have already developed some playmates they like to socialize with.
If there’s not much pasture available, barn weaning may be the best approach. After his dam is removed, the foal remains in the barn for a period of time, perhaps a few weeks. This method requires giving him significant daily attention to adjust to life without his mother, as well as to become comfortable with his handlers.
The bottom line
In the end, there’s no magic formula for weaning your foal. Several factors will come into play, including his overall development, the number of foals to be weaned, and your facility’s resources.
If this is your first experience with weaning, realize that you will probably make mistakes along the way. Sometimes trial and error is the best approach.