A Soft Separation

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One of the most stressful experiences in a horse’s life is weaning. The fear and insecurity both mother and baby feel after separation can lead either one down a potentially destructive path.

Weaning doesn’t have to be this traumatic, however. While some horsemen still use cold-turkey methods of separating mares and foals, many breeders are realizing the value of gradual weaning.

Why Go Gentle?

“In the horse world, no relationship is stronger than the bond formed between a mare and her foal,” says Linda Bateman, owner of Horsing Around, LLC, in Eau Claire, Wisc., manufacturers of a product designed to assist in gradual weaning (see sidebar). “In nature, the mare determines the appropriate time to wean. The mare’s natural instinct sets the time frame for weaning, which is typically 3 to 5 months. If she has been bred, she pushes the weaning issue quicker.”

Bateman notes that in the wild, mares do not wean cold turkey, but use a gradual process. When a total separation method is forced upon them in a domestic situation, both the mare and the foal will likely experience separation anxiety.

“Separation anxiety is indicated by symptoms such as constant heart-wrenching whinnying by both animals, pacing fence lines, rearing, pawing, chewing on objects, sweating, stall weaving, and more,” says Bateman. “These stress-related symptoms often lead to life-long habitual problems. They can also lead to self-inflicted injuries and even result in death, all because the bond is being broken by total separation.”

Breeder Julie Kreider of Sawyer Creek Appaloosas in Gouverneur, N.Y., is also a firm believer in gentle weaning. “Less stress makes good business sense,” says Kreider. “A foal who is less stressed during the weaning process maintains a better immune system, is less likely to injure itself, experiences better weight gains, and is better socialized.”

Quarter Horse breeder Marcia Bennetto, of Justamere Ranch, LLC, in Bennett, Colo., also thinks gradual weaning makes good business sense. “This method is generally safer because foals do less running around and screaming, with no thought of what they’re running into or through,” she says. “If the foal is stressed during weaning, it’s very likely he will stop eating and lose condition, which is not good, especially if the foal is pointed toward a futurity.”

Gradual Separation

The strategy for gentle, stress-free weaning is a gradual separation of mare and foal. Breeders use a variety of methods to accomplish this goal, all designed to keep the horses’ stress to a minimum.

Bennetto’s method for gentle weaning involves getting the mare and foal used to being apart, in small doses. “I start creep feeding foals very young,” she says. “Food is offered as early as a few weeks of age, although many foals won’t know quite what to do with it at first.”

Once Bennetto’s foals are eating solid food consistently, she picks a time when the foal is away from the mare and absorbed in something other than his mom. She finds that having another foal of similar-age or an old, gentle gelding in the pasture with the foal helps keep him distracted. When the foal is off doing his own thing, Bennetto moves the mare into an adjacent pasture with good fences.

“It’s important that the fences be strong, highly visible, and without dangerous edges because the foal may not be thinking when he notices the mare is gone,” she says. “Many foals will run up and down the fence all the while calling to the mare. Most of my mares will stay within eyesight, but don’t seem particularly concerned.”

If the foal is very upset, Bennetto reduces the amount of time the two are apart and tries again the next day, but with the foal in a smaller, but familiar place. Bennetto notes that it’s best to move the mare so the foal can stay in familiar surroundings.

“A box stall that the foal can’t get out of or a small corral with stout fencing is good,” she says. “I stick around and watch that neither mare nor foal gets into trouble. Depending on their reactions, I’ll keep the mare separated from the foal for a few hours. We repeat this process for a week or two, gradually lengthening the time they are apart.”

Unlike cold turkey methods, Bennetto’s process allows mares to spend the night with their foals. Once the mare and foal accept this routine, the mare can then spend the night in an adjacent pasture or stall.

“She can see and talk to her foal, but he can’t nurse,” she says. “This goes on for another week or two, with me always monitoring their behavior. During this time, the foal gets extra attention so he doesn’t feel so alone.”

The Buddy System

Another gentle-weaning method involves using a buddy system, with the help of other foals and adult horses, according to Marguerite Eliasso, manager of E.A. Ranches, a Thoroughbred breeding operation in Santa Ysabel, Calif.

“We wean into an adjacent field,” says Eliasso. “Every other day, we take two mares from the field with the mares and foals. That first day, we feed both mares and their weaned foals by the common fence. The foals eventually wander back to the regular feeding area, and as long as the mares see them, all is well. Within a few days. they are used to the situation. The first mares are moved from the field in about one week, and neither mares nor foals seem to mind.”

Eliasso notes that when she is ready to wean the last foals, she brings in an older retired mare or gelding and leaves them with the babies. “This seems to provide a sense of security for the foals,” she says. “These older horses stay with their groups until it’s time to wean again the following year.”

Kreider also utilizes a buddy system in her mare band operation when weaning her foals, minimizing stress to both mothers and babies. “We assess each individual mare and foal pair for readiness for weaning,” she says. “This includes evaluating the maturity of the foal, weight gains, general health and socialization. If the foal and dam are enjoying a sufficient degree of independence from each other, then the weaning process is less traumatic.”

Because her foals are socialized in a herd setting and have run with other mares and foals, Kreider finds using a buddy system most natural. “When the foals are ready, the mares are removed one at a time, from one pasture to another, leaving the foals with the balance of the broodmare band and the other foals,” she says.

Kreider notes that since the foals remain with their peers, they have a support system. “While they still notice the absence of their mother, they are in a familiar social group,” she says. “The mothers experience some discomfort, but it is short-lived. Being removed to another social setting is a distraction from the separation for them.”

When it comes to weaning, many agree that less trauma for both mare and foal is the best approach.

EZee Weaning

While most gentle weaning methods involve gradual separation of mare and foal, a device designed to wean without physically removing the mother or baby is available to horse owners. Called Ezee Wean, the device is worn like a halter by the foal and discourages nursing, causing the mare to naturally wean the foal on her own.

The product works by making both the foal and mare uncomfortable when the foal tries to nurse. The Ezee Wean halter touches the mare in the flanks and it also bumps the baby in the nose. When the foal stops his attempts, he is immediately rewarded by reduced pressure from the device.

“The product allows the animals to remain together and eliminates separation anxiety,” says Linda Bateman, owner of Horsing Around, LLC, in Eau Claire, Wisc., manufacturers of the product. “It functions on the principle of comfort and discomfort. When using the Ezee Wean method, the mare determines how quickly the nursing will come to a halt.” According to Bateman, the weaning process takes generally between four to six weeks when using the Ezee Wean.

The Halter style Ezee Wean retails for $45 to $49, depending on size, while the Strap style retails for $29. For more information, contact Horsing Around, LLC, 2715 Hogarth Street, Suite #4, Eau Claire, WI 54729; 866-GET-EZEE, www.horsingaroundllc.com. —AP