One of the most traumatic times in a young horse's life is when he is separated from his mother at weaning time. From birth, he has been dependent on the mare for sustenance and protection. At weaning time that changes, and the youngster must cope with the world, minus his mother's protective presence.
True, the youngster has become less and less dependent on the mare's milk for a food supply, turning to hay or grass and supplemental grain instead. And the youngster has become more and more independent. During those first few days after birth, the foal was likely glued to his mother's side, moving when she moved, stopping when she stopped. As the foal matured, that behavior changed--as independence grew, the youngster romped off with other foals or by himself, often to the consternation of his mother.
However, when danger threatened or he was traumatized in any way, the foal normally fled back to the mare's side, often nursing on arrival. The nursing appears to be as much a security blanket as a need for nourishment.
Now, all of that is about to change, because it is time for permanent separation.
The first question the horse owner must answer is the age at which the foal should be weaned. Three months? Four months? Five months? Six months?
The next question involves how to go about the weaning process. Should you do it cold turkey, with the mare and foal being separated suddenly and completely? Or should it be done gradually, over a period of time?
We don't get much help in finding these answers by looking at horses in the non-domestic state. Mares in the wild are pretty casual about weaning their offspring. If they have become pregnant again after giving birth, they will begin the weaning process a couple of months before giving birth again. They do this by refusing to allow the foal to nurse. Each time the youngster heads for the milk supply, the mare turns away, sometimes resorting to a kick to help make her point if the foal is persistent.
Soon the foal will give up, but often will trail along with his mother even though he's not allowed to nurse. This trailing along might continue even after the new foal arrives.
If the mare does not become pregnant after giving birth, she might not bother to wean the foal at all, and the young horse will continue to nurse, often into his 2-year-old year or until the mare becomes pregnant again. Sometimes, the offspring is as big as his mother and is still nursing. The mare's milk has very limited nutritive value at this point, but nursing has become an ingrained habit with the young horse and seems to remain a form of security. Mares in the wild don't seem to mind this continued contact as long as there is no concern about an impending birth.
Most horse owners aren't all that casual about weaning. Normally, there is a set date and method for this event to occur.
Setting the Date
For some time it was common practice to wean foals when they reached six months of age. Many owners still follow this practice and are highly successful in doing so.
By six months of age, the foal normally is receiving very little nutrition from the mare's milk and is eating grass and/or hay and grain. Many horsemen believed that at six months of age, the foal had also gained a degree of independence and mental maturity that would better enable him to withstand the trauma of separation.
The six-month approach was appropriate for many years because adequate food supplements to replace the mare's milk were not available. That has changed--research has resulted in food supplements that can fulfill a foal's nutritional needs, even if he is orphaned shortly after birth. The supplements are available at most feed stores, but a foal owner considering early weaning or faced with providing nourishment to an orphaned foal should contact his or her veterinarian for help in determining just what the foal needs at that particular stage of his development.
We know that a mare's milk is at its richest at or just after birth. The thick, rich colostrum is laden with nutrients and antibodies to protect the foal from disease until he manufactures his own protectants.
The mare's milk remains rich and nourishing during the foal's early weeks of life, when he is dependent on the milk as his prime food source. However, after six weeks or so, the nutritive quality of the milk begins a gradual decline.
Today, a number of healthy foals are successfully weaned at three months of age, rather than six months. The key word here is "healthy." The physical condition of the foal at time of weaning is highly important. He should be robust, full of energy, and eating well on his own. He should have access to food that will provide his growing body with the necessary nutrition, but not so much that he grows too rapidly and develops problems such as physitis. This is why it is important to make your veterinarian a partner in the weaning process. The proper level of nutrition is critical in maintaining good health and proper development. Your veterinarian is your best ally.
Horse owners have a variety of reasons for weaning early. There are, for instance, some mares which can't seem to handle the double burden of providing sustenance for the foal via milk production while at the same time preparing their bodies for further reproduction.
Sometimes it is necessary to wean the foal early in order to get the mare's body back into suitable condition for another pregnancy.
There's also the concern that some mares, although their bodies are healthy, might not produce a breedable follicle while the foal is nursing. They are what old-timers call "every other year" mares.
In another instance, the owner might want to return the mare to the show ring without risking the foal's safety by having him travel along. Show mares spend a good deal of time in the trailer and in box stalls at show grounds. Each time the mare is taken from the stall to the show ring, the foal's safety might be placed in jeopardy. (For more on returning a mare to work, see "Working Moms" in the September 2000 issue of The Horse, article #131 at www.TheHorse.com.) If the foal is weaned and left at home, those dangers are eliminated.
Whatever the reason, modern-day food supplements have made early weaning a viable option.
Steps to Take
There are a few steps that the horse owner should take to ensure a successful weaning, no matter the age of the foal. As mentioned, the foal should first of all be in good health, with outside stresses eliminated as much as possible. For example, this is not the time to be vaccinating the foal. Nor should one launch a training program with the foal the day after weaning or decide that is the day to have his feet trimmed.
The foal will still be focused on the absence of his mother and will need some time to adjust; how much time will vary on a foal-by-foal basis. Some foals make the adjustment in a day or two, while others may still be calling for their mothers a week after weaning. Much will depend on the foal's level of dependence. It is likely that the foal at six months of age will be more independent than the youngster that is weaned at three months.
While the foal shouldn't be trained immediately in the wake of weaning, he should have been handled well in advance of weaning so that he knows about being led, being tied, and having his feet picked up. A newly weaned colt which has never been caught and haltered can provide the owner with daunting handling problems during and immediately after weaning.
Once all that has been accomplished and you have decided that it is time to wean your healthy youngster, the decision must be made as to just how to separate the mare and foal.
Getting the Job Done
Safety is of utmost importance. The foal should be placed in a pen or paddock that is deemed safe. Wire of any kind is an invitation to disaster as the foal might try to get through the fence to return to his mother. Instead, the foal should be placed in a safe box stall or paddock surrounded by boards, poles, or plastic fencing that will reduce the potential for injury.
Before weaning is undertaken, closely inspect the stall and/or paddock to make certain there are no protruding nails or objects lying about in which the foal might become entangled. The rule of thumb is this: If there is a danger spot, the foal will find it.
The "cold turkey" method involves separating a foal and mother abruptly and not letting them have any contact for several weeks or even months. This method often makes it possible to get through the weaning process in a very short period of time. Being abruptly and completely out of sight and sound of the mare seems to hasten the weaning process.
At the same time, this is perhaps the most traumatic approach. The foal often will be desperate to find his mother that first day or so and will be calling for her constantly. If the mare can hear the foal and answer it, the problem is worsened. If this method is utilized, the foal and mare should be completely out of sight and sound of each other.
The "gradual" method involves separating the mare and foal, but allowing them to have visual contact by housing them in adjacent stalls or pens. Some owners separate mare and foal for a period of time, then allow them to get back together. As time goes on they extend the time spent apart and, at an opportune point, make the separation permanent.
Here again, it is important that mares and foals be lodged in facilities that are safe and secure. The foal will attempt to get back to the mare, and if there is a weakness in a fence or stall, he will find it.
The gradual method often is less traumatic than the cold turkey approach, but it does take longer. Much, in this regard, depends on the mare and her attitude. Many mares, after having a foal at side for four to six months, are happy to be rid of them. Sometimes larger youngsters batter their dams' udders in their quest for the diminished milk supply, and the mares simply become tired of the abuse.
In many cases, mares will welcome the separation so that they can eat and rest in peace. These will be the mares which don't respond to calls from their foals in the adjacent stalls and paddocks. This lack of response can serve to increase the foal's feelings of independence and lessen the trauma of weaning.
Once separation has become complete, some owners with multiple foals place them in a pen together so that they have company. This approach has both positive and negative aspects. The positive part stems from the companionship the foals provide for each other. The negatives can be in the form of dominant foals not allowing ones lower in the pecking order near the feed or water, and in the foals becoming so attached to each other that removing one from the group is like a new weaning process for that particular youngster.
The cold turkey process works best in my situation. I remove the mares completely so that they are not only out of sight of the youngsters, but out of hearing as well. I do group the foals, but keep them under close observation. If one appears intimidated by the others, I remove him and place him in a separate, but equally safe area.
It has been my experience that strong attachments to each other are less likely if there are more than two foals in a grouping. When two foals are placed in the same pen, they often become as attached to each other as they were to their dams. Separating them can be even more traumatic than weaning.
One must not forget the mares once separation is complete. Although milk production is now at a low point, it is nevertheless present and will continue for several days after weaning. Mares should not be fed grain, but should receive plenty of forage at weaning time. The forage not only provides them with nourishment, but also occupies them during the first few days after weaning. Continuing to feed the mare grain in the wake of weaning will exacerbate the milk production problem.
Generally, the owner should let nature take its course in drying up the milk supply. Often owners seek to alleviate pressure on the udder by milking the mare, which merely increases production. Manual milking can also cause the udder to become sore.
As is the case with so many matters when dealing with horses, weaning is something that should be approached on an individual basis. What is right for one foal might be totally wrong for another.
The key elements in successful weaning are starting with a healthy foal, providing him with proper nutrition, and placing him in an environment where there is minimal danger of injury.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
POLL: Managing Working Horses