Weaning Foals

Weaning Foals

"The most important thing is to minimize stress on the foal," Coleman states.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

There are many ways to wean foals. Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, PAS, an equine extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, says there are basically two methods--abrupt weaning and gradual weaning.

"Whether you put the foals in a pen and take the mares away, or take mares one at a time out of a herd, this is abrupt weaning," says Coleman. "The mare is removed, taken out of sight and sound. In a herd, however, a foal still has the security of his herdmates, so it's not as stressful as putting him by himself."

Traditional Pen Weaning

The Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie, Texas, has 80 broodmares, raising foals for cattle work on the ranch. Manager Bob Moorhouse says they wean foals about the same way the ranch has done it the past 100 years. Foals are born in April and May and weaned in January, and mares are placed in breeding groups in early summer. When stud bands are rounded up in July to take the stallions out, foals are handled and halter broken.

"They're about two months old and easy to halter break at that age," says Moorhouse. "We play with them about two weeks, then brand them and turn them back out. The mares and foals are put together in one big pasture for the rest of the year.

"We take more time with the halter breaking than we used to, and we do the branding gentler," he adds. "We used to throw the foals down and brand them, but now we sedate them and let them stand in the chute. It's easier on them and leaves them with a better memory. You don't want branding to be their final memory about being handled."

At weaning time the ranch hands drive the herd in--about a five-mile drive from their pasture--and run them through an alleyway. The foals are separated from the mares, and the mares are dewormed and driven to their pastures. When the mares are out of sight and sound, the foals are dewormed and sorted, putting colts in one pen and fillies in another, with about 35 in a group.

"We feed them pellets and a little hay for about a week, and they settle down quickly," Moorehouse says. "We fed the mares cubes while they were on pasture, so the foals have already sampled the feed. What they get at weaning is a different size cube with a different texture, but they know how to eat it."

After about a week, when Moorhouse feels they've settled down, they put each group of weanlings out in a 20-acre wheat pasture adjoining their pen. "When we open that gate the first time, you wonder if they're going to knock the back fence down on that pasture!" says Moorhouse. "They run and run, after being shut up in the pen. It's a little scary, because you worry about them breaking their necks, but they never have. They run around that pasture full speed for about 20 minutes."

After they've grazed that pasture a week, they are taken to bigger pastures on the north side of the ranch. "We put them with the coming 2-year-olds--fillies in one group and gelded colts in another--and they stay on those pastures until spring," says Moorhouse. "They do fine with just a little supplement to keep them coming to the pickup when we drive in there to check on them."

Removing Mares One at a Time

A weaning method used by some farms is to 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.

Bill Tracy, manager of Oak Tree Ranch at Bandera, Texas, says this works well for his farm. "We actually start preparing for weaning from the day they are born," he says. "We imprint them and give them lots of handling. The ranch raises Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. Most of the Thoroughbred mares are sent to a breeding farm in Kentucky, where daily handling of mares and foals continues. When they come home, we group them by the sex of foals in the pastures and continue their education. Each pasture has a 50-foot catch pen in one corner. In the corner of that pen is a smaller catch pen, to ease a timid one into. By continually handling these foals, we can trim their feet out there or do whatever we need to do to them. This makes it easier at weaning time."

The foals are started on feed so they are used to eating what they'll be fed at weaning. "Then we take the dam away, usually starting with the oldest foal in a group," says Tracy. "We take her to a pasture far enough away her foal can't hear her. The one that suffers most is the mare, not the foal. He has his pals, and it doesn't take him long to figure out it's no fun standing by the fence screaming when all his buddies are over in the pasture doing something else. So he goes back to join them."

The mares do better if taken away in pairs--to have a buddy in their new pasture. "We take the mother of a colt and the mother of a filly--one from each pasture, so there are two mares getting weaned the same day," he says.

"In a herd situation, two foals without mothers tend to buddy up; you usually don't see the frantic behavior you see with a single foal or a group of foals together in a corral," says Coleman.

After a few days, foals without mothers are comfortable with their new status. Tracy says, "After we take the dam of the oldest foal, we wait about a week and take out another one. Soon more are weaned than not and are quite content to hang out with their buddies. The last one to be weaned may nicker, but doesn't want to be left out of the fun, so he soon takes off with his pals. It takes longer to get them all weaned, but it works well for us.

"In some farms in Kentucky, they load all the mares from one pasture and haul them away, confining the foals in barn stalls or paddocks," says Tracy. "This gets it done faster, but we feel our way is easier on the foals and the people doing it."

Taking a mare or two away at a time is a natural way to wean foals. If a foal in a wild herd loses his mother, he's not very stressed because he still has the herd for security. If his mother dies, he might stay by her body a short while, but when the herd moves on, he goes with them.

Abrupt Stall Weaning

Some people put the foal in a box stall and take the mare away. "They lead the mare and foal into a stall, turn the mare around and lead her out, slamming the door on the foal," says Tracy. "The stress on that foal is intense--and made worse if several guys jump on him, wrestle him into a corner, and put a halter on. The worst way to wean foals is to not handle them before weaning, then abruptly separate mares and foals. This is when foals and people get injured, and may leave the foal with a bad attitude about being handled."

Horses are herd animals that are happiest with other horses. Foals want the security of adults. "If you take a foal away from his mother and put him in a stall, even if you have two foals together, they are desperate to get out," he says. "They don't have enough room and may run into one another or the walls."

The more aggressive ones take out their frustrations on the more timid ones--who can't get away in the small area.

"If they were previously unhandled and have been wrestled down and haltered--with a rope hanging on the halter for easy catching--they spin around and get tangled up," says Tracy. "I've seen this, and done it myself in earlier years, but after seeing some of the results, I felt there had to be a better way. Sometimes circumstances prohibit you from doing it the way we're doing it now, but you can usually figure out a method to minimize the stress."

Foals weaned in pairs in a stall are more stressed than foals weaned by themselves. A 1990 study at Rutgers University in New Jersey showed that even though foals weaned in pairs were quieter (less frantic activity and whinnying), they suffered more immune suppression, which indicates more stress, says Coleman. Immune suppression can make them more susceptible to disease.

"Don't put two of them in a stall together," Coleman advises. "There is not enough room for the subordinant one to get away from the more aggressive foal."

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. If there's a friendly body next door, the foal settles down more quickly.

Gradual Stall Weaning

Jim McCall, PhD (equine reproduction) and his wife, Lynda (specialist in equine behavior), raise cutting horses at their farm in Mount Holly, Ark., after a long career of teaching and writing. They have written several books and many articles about horse care. They 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.

"When we put up the partition, they can see through it," says Lynda. "The mare and foal are in the same space, but now have a division between them. The foal still has Mom for company. At feeding time he eats out of one bucket and she eats out of hers. Before we put up the divider, she showed him where all the buckets were so he knows how to eat out of them.

"Depending on how they do after we divide them, we might move the mare to a stall slightly farther away," she says. "The barn has a double row of stalls, back-to-back, with one stall on the inside of the barn and the adjoining stall on the outside. If we move the mare down a stall, the foal can still see and hear her; they can still talk to one another. We put a calm, gentle horse in the stall next to him, or another foal that's already weaned--one of his buddies from summer pasture."

When the foal adjusts to this new situation, the mare is taken away to a field with the mares she was with earlier. Gradual weaning is not very stressful for mares or foals, says Lynda. "The mares let you know when they're ready to let their babies go; you can move a mare out when you know she won't get excited about it," she adds.

After the foals leave the barn, they go out in groups with an older horse whose presence helps keep them settled down. If the foals run around the pasture and work themselves into worry, they just run up next to the older horse and calm down.

"Weaning in groups or taking mares out at intervals works, if you have a lot of foals," says Lynda. "You also need the management that goes with this--halter breaking foals before you take the mares away. When we ran the horse program at the University of Maryland, we had 40 to 50 foals, but also had students to help halter break and handle them. Available labor determines how labor-intensive you can be. In our small herd, weaning three to five, the stall set-up works well and is the least stressful weaning method we've ever tried. We used to use the divided stall, then take the mare out of the barn abruptly, but some foals just go through the separation stress again. So now we do it in stages and it works better."

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, showing foals with fenceline contact with their dams the first week of weaning had fewer signs of stress (whinnying, running, or fretting) and lower cortisol blood levels (indicating less stress) than foals abruptly separated. Foals weaned next to their dams had behavioral and physiological responses similar to foals not being weaned at all. Most foals accept fenceline weaning with little protest, and after seven to nine days can be completely separated with no additional stress. Success of this method depends on good facilities, including a safe, foolproof fence between mares and foals.

Bob and Nina Lundgren of Eltopia, Wash., raise cutting horses and make weaning with this method as stress-free as possible. "We creep feed foals so they are accustomed to eating the feed they'll get at weaning," says Nina. "We wean them in adjoining pens with mares on one side of the fence and foals on the other. During the first day or so we feed mares right by the fence, so mares and foals eat together and the foals have mama nearby for security. Then we move the feed a little farther away as they become less dependent on having mama right there. A few days later we open another paddock so the mares have more room and can be farther away if they wish. After a while, the mares just leave and are no longer worried about their foals. It's pretty painless for them and for the foals."

She adds that no foals have tried to climb out or have hurt themselves during weaning with this method. There is a seven-foot pole fence between the mares and foals, and the poles are close together so a foal can't get his head through to try to nurse. The foals' pen is about 50 feet square. The foals have room to move around comfortably, but can't do much running. "Usually by the time we turn the mares out, they've all accepted the weaning and the mares have no inclination to come back," she says.

The Lundgrens wean only six or seven foals at a time, as they feel this grouping is easier on the foals than having a large number in the pen.

Final Thoughts on Weaning

"If you don't have facilities for gradual weaning, and don't have a place to take a mare far away, you might have a friend who has foals to wean and you can put the foals together on his place, or the mares, so you can wean the foals with a buddy and have the mares removed," suggests Coleman.

"When making weaning decisions regarding foals to wean first in a group, think about their social order," he adds. "If there are already some buddied up, consider that, as well as their age."

If you are taking mares out of the herd a few at a time, consider personality of the mares. If you have one that's cranky and aggressive (more likely to injure a foal that might come up to her for comfort), take her out first. This leaves the motherly individuals to be the baby-sitters left in the pen or pasture until their own foals are weaned, he says.

"The most important thing is to minimize stress on the foal," he states. "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. The data says that gradual weaning is less stressful, but if you don't have facilities for that, it may not work. Have the foals eating dry feed prior to weaning. Also think about the mares. Will a motherly mare try to go over the fence to get back with her foal? Some may be very distraught, and this needs to be taken into consideration when you are handling them," he says.

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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