Learn when and how to wean your foal with as little stress as possible
Each breeding season, there comes a time when momma and baby have to be separated. There are many different ways to wean, but no matter what option you choose, you can take certain steps to reduce stress on both mare and foal.
There is no hard and fast rule about the best time to wean foals, but the typical age range is 4 to 6 months. Most importantly, a foal should have sufficient maturity to cope. Your foal is not ready to be weaned unless he:
- Eats solid foods and does not rely on his mother’s milkfor nutrition. Creep feeding reduces anxiety during the weaning process because the foal will be familiar with eating on his own.
- Demonstrates some independence by venturing away from mom.
- Manages himself in a herd without his mother’s intervention.
- Has had human interaction well in advance of weaning. He should ideally be halter broke and able to lead.
Under certain circumstances – such as the illness, injury or death of the mare – it is sometimes necessary to wean a foal younger than 4 months of age. If you find yourself in this awkward position, recognize that the weaning process is likely to be very hard on your foal and be prepared to provide extra nutritional and emotional support.
Removing Mares One at a Time: Take a mare or two out of the pasture, leaving the foals with the herd. More mares are taken out periodically until all foals are weaned. The last ones weaned have the earlier weaned foals (who are at ease with their status by then) for security.
Abrupt Stall Weaning: Some people put the foal in a box stall and take the mare away. The stress on that foal is intense. The worst way to wean foals is to not handle them before weaning, then abruptly separate mares and foals. If a foal is put in a stall to wean, put a gentle adult horse in the next stall with a window between them for comfort. Don’t put a buddy in the stall with them, however. The more aggressive horses take out their frustrations on the more timid ones–who can’t get away in the small area.
Gradual Stall Weaning: Others wean foals by putting the mare and foal together in a large double stall, then separating them with a partition after two or three days. The distance between the mare and foal is gradually increased until the mare is taken away to the field she was in earlier. Gradual weaning is not very stressful for mares or foals. After the foals leave the barn, they go out in groups with an older horse whose presence helps keep them settled down.
Fenceline Weaning: About 25 years ago, some horsemen began weaning foals in pens adjacent to their dams. This method was inspired by a doctoral study at Texas A&M University, showing foals with fenceline contact with their dams the first week of weaning had fewer signs of stress than foals abruptly separated. Foals are put into adjoining pens with mares on one side of the fence and foals on the other. During the first day or so, the mares are fed right by the fence, so mares and foals eat together. Then, the mares are moved progressively farther away until either the mare nor the foal seem concerned by the other’s absence.
More: The stressful post-weaning period is not the time to:
- Halter break the foal or teach him to lead.
- Have the foal see a vet for vaccinationsor farrier to have his feet done.
According to Dr. Bob Coleman, an equine extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, “The most important thing is to minimize stress on the foal. Take the mare away, not the foal. Don’t put him in an unfamiliar place. Leave him where he knows where the fence is, and where the feed and water are. Make a plan that works for your facilities.”
By Kristin Syverson
Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association