Ways to Wean Young Horses

Ways to Wean Young Horses

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

How you separate the mare and foal depends on your experience and the housing facilities at your disposal.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. Breaking the mom-baby bond can be painful or painless, depending on how you do it. There are many ways to wean foals, but a method in which the foal can make a gradual adjustment to being apart from his dam or herdmates is often the least stressful. There's no best way to wean, however, because many factors enter the equation, including health, age, and temperament of the individuals, as well as facilities and management time.

Abrupt Separation

Foals in the pen The traditional way to wean on many farms has been to put foals together in a pen and remove the mares. This works best if mares are taken far away, to another farm if possible, so the foals can't hear them. Foals should remain in a familiar place, as they will be less likely to injure themselves and won't come into contact with new pathogens while their immune systems are compromised by stress.

On large breeding farms or ranches this is still the way weaning is often done. Ideally, the mares and foals are brought into a big weaning pen together so the foals become familiar with the feed and water and are at ease with their surroundings. A few days later the mares are taken away.

Foals in stalls Some breeders prefer to wean foals in a box stall and think it's safer than a pen because the foal can't build up as much speed if he becomes frantic. Some prefer to wean a foal by himself, while others wean two foals together for company.

Jimmie Hardin raises Paints and halter horses in Aubrey, Texas, and she weans babies by themselves in safe stalls--after they've been halter broke, dewormed, and accustomed to eating the feed they'll be given at weaning.

"I don't want extra stress in their lives at weaning time," says Hardin. "I try not to move them from the stall they're used to. I simply take the mother away and leave the baby in the stall. I don't put babies together. I found that if you put them together it's like weaning all over again when you eventually separate them."

She believes that foals weaned together become too codependent and often pick on one another or chew each other's manes and tails.

Taking Mares Out of a Herd

Ed Kane is the broodmare manager at Hurricane Hall Farm, a Thoroughbred nursery in Lexington, Ky., and the former broodmare manager at Lane's End Farm, in Versailles, Ky. At Lane's End he kept 10 mares and foals in each paddock. He fed them in their stalls and led them to the paddock twice daily, where they spent most of their time. He weans foals based on the age of the foal (usually 4.5 to 5 months) and temperament of the mare.

"If some mares are cranky or mean to other foals, they're the first ones we take out," he says. "I wean five at a time in a field of 10 and pick the first five based on attitude. We take the mares away first thing in the morning while it's still cool and they're still in their stalls, before they'd normally go to pasture. We take the mares out of the stalls and leave the foals in their familiar stalls all day. At the end of the day I give the foals a little tranquilizer. Then we take them all back to their paddock--five mares and foals and five newly weaned foals in the group."

Bill Tracy, manager of Oak Tree Ranch in Bandera, Texas, starts weaning foals at five to six months. "This past summer we postponed some of the weaning because we had more than three weeks in a row over 100 degrees," he says. "It doesn't hurt the mare to keep nursing her foal another week or so, waiting for cooler weather."

Tracy takes one mare out of a particular group of mares and foals each week and pairs her with another mare for company in a distant pasture. "The foals are still with their familiar group," Tracy says. "Peer influence is as important with horses as with humans. The first ones weaned get to be the 'old hands' and independent, and when you wean the next ones they say, 'Come with us, don't worry about your mom.' "

Gradual Separation

Some horse owners, especially small breeders with only one or a few mares, take the mare away from the foal for gradually increasing lengths of time, while leaving the foal in his familiar and safe place. The foal becomes more independent, nursing is spread out to longer and longer intervals, and the mare starts to dry up. This can work fairly well for some mares and foals, depending on age of the foal, milk production of the mare, and temperament of both individuals, but it might prolong the weaning ordeal for others or create udder problems in the mare if she's a heavy milker. How well this works depends on the situation.

A slightly different version of this method is practiced by Kieran Lalor, broodmare manager of WinStar Farm in Versailles. He combines gradual separation with mare removal from the herd.

"I always remove the mare and not the foal," he says. "When I decide on when and who I'm going to wean, I always start the process a few weeks prior to the actual event. I use stalls with windows between them. When the mare and foal are brought in from pasture to eat, I give them 20-30 minutes to relax in the stall, then move the mare to the stall next door for a few minutes. They can see and sniff each other."

Lalor starts with a five-minute separation and increases that time period daily until the mare and foal grow accustomed to being apart. "This helps mature the foal and makes him more independent. It's very important that he is now eating on his own and not just when mama eats," he says. "I have found that this process helps prevent any stall vices that may occur afterwards such as box-walking, etc."

Preceding the separation process, Lalor restrains the mare during feeding to allow the foal to eat first. As the foal gets older the mare's milk decreases in nutritional value, so the foal needs to eat a balanced ration to ensure his proper development.

Lalor weans foals in the pasture where the foal can stay with his herdmates. "I put feed out in the pasture, and the foal will usually pay more attention to the feed than to the mare at this stage. I then quietly remove the mare from the pasture, load her onto a trailer, and off she goes to a pasture far enough away that she won't hear the foal whinny. I always try to wean two each time--and never more than four--in each pasture, so the mare has a companion on the trailer and in the new field."

He never weans very many at once because this creates more panic among the foals and can lead to injury.

When it comes down to the last foals in a group to wean, Lalor brings the whole herd to the barn. "I always wean the last two or so in the barn," he says. "I'll have a dry nanny mare on standby to baby-sit the group of weanlings when I take the last mares away. I put the nanny into the pasture, give her some feed, and slowly turn the weanlings, one by one, out with her. My nannies are tried and true and accept the weanlings, and the foals are always happy to have an adult horse with them."

Lalor notes that any quiet horse--such as the older Belgian horses he uses--¬provides a soothing effect, critical if a storm rolls in or if something causes the weanlings to spook. "They see how the nanny reacts (she stays calm) and stay close to her," he says. "By contrast, if they were on their own, they might do all sorts of damage to themselves, like running through a fence."

Fenceline Weaning

A study conducted at Texas A&M University in the 1980s about fenceline weaning (mares and foals are placed in separate, but adjacent, pens) showed that foals with fenceline contact with their dams during the first week of separation had fewer signs of stress (less pacing, running, and whinnying, and lower cortisol levels in their blood) than foals abruptly and completely separated from their mothers. Foals weaned adjacent to the mares had behavioral and physiological responses similar to foals not being weaned. Most mares and foals accept fenceline weaning with little protest, and after five to nine days can be completely separated with no fuss. The researchers showed this is probably the least stressful method, if done properly.

Take-Home Message

There are many different ways to separate mares and foals at weaning time. Housing situation and manager or owner experience will dictate which method works best for each farm.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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