Weaning can be very stressful for both mare and foal. But, there are ways to minimize the physical and mental trauma of separation, which will lead to happier, healthier horses.
Normally, a five- to six-month-old foal is independent enough to handle weaning. But there are times when a foal does need to be weaned earlier, such as when drought conditions mean poor pasture, or when the health of the mare is a concern (one that is too old or too thin), or to keep a fast-growing foal from contracting DOD (developmental orthopedic disease) from too much milk. With these animals, it is especially important that care be taken to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.
You should also keep in mind that, when weaning early, a foal is most vulnerable to disease at two to three months, when passive immunity wanes and his own immune system is just getting started. In fact, his system may not be able to protect him until he’s five or six months old.
The Ways of Weaning
The traditional way to wean is to completely and abruptly separate foals and dams. The mares are often taken far away—out of sight and earshot—and the foals put in a strong, safe pen or box stall, sometimes two to a stall for company. Then, after running themselves into exhaustion and whinnying themselves hoarse, they resign themselves after a few days to life without mama.
If weaning this way, it’s best to take the mares clear away—to another farm, if possible—and it’s better to take the mares rather than the foals. The foals are more likely to be severely stressed in an unfamiliar place, more likely to injure themselves, and also have a limited ability to combat new pathogens in the strange environment.
Some horsemen do a gradual weaning, separating mares and foals during the day and putting them back together at night for a few days, or remove mares for an increasingly longer period each day—using 5 to 10 days for weaning. But this can also be quite stressful and just prolongs the ordeal. It can also cause udder problems in the mares and digestive problems in the foals.
Another common practice is for foals to be weaned in groups with other foals. However, a 1990 study at Rutgers University showed that even though foals weaned in pairs were quieter (less whinnying and frantic activity), they suffered more immune suppression, which indicates serious stress. Perhaps the presence of another foal is intimidating; one is usually dominant and that aggressive behavior can be stressful on the timid foal. It’s also traumatic to put several youngsters together in a pen, all being weaned at the same time, because they are all frantic and their desperation is contagious. They pace the fence calling for their mothers, stirring up dust, which can irritate young lungs and open the way for pneumonia, especially in the stressed youngsters. Weaning with a companion is wise, but it may be better to use one the foal already knows, perhaps an older “baby-sitter horse.”
Another method in a large group of mares is to periodically remove a few mares from the pasture as their foals come of age. That way, the newly-weaned foals still have the rest of the herd for company and are not as frantic since they have adults in the group for security. Some horsemen keep an old granny mare with the mares and foals, so that when the mares are taken away the foals still have the security of the old mare. One drawback is that foals may be injured by mares left in the herd if forlorn foals pester them while searching for their own mothers.
Finally, there is fenceline weaning, where mares and foals are in separate but adjoining pens. This type of weaning was inspired by a doctoral study at Texas A&M, which showed that foals who had fenceline contact with their mother during the first week had fewer signs of stress (less whinnying, fretfulness and lower cortisol blood levels) than foals abruptly and completely separated from their mothers. The foals weaned in pens adjacent to the mares had behavioral and physiological responses similar to foals who are not weaned at all.
Most mares and foals accept fenceline weaning with little protest, and after seven to nine days can be completely separated with no additional stress. The research showed that because the initial separation still allowed for visual, audio and scent contact (but no nursing), the weaning process was much less stressful.
Foals weaned in pens next to their dams usually spend most of their time near the fence, but are not very worried. There’s very little whinnying or pacing. They may sniff and nuzzle each other through the fence, but the foal cannot nurse, so the mare starts drying up. After a few days the foal can be moved farther away from the mare, or the mare taken to another pen or pasture, with very little protest, if the foal has other horses for company. By that time, the mare has dried up enough so that she is no longer as urgently interested in the foal.
While most foals manage this transition smoothly, some colts are a little more insecure than fillies and may take longer to adjust to life without mama. A few foals seem to need the maternal security through the fence for a little longer than most. Once the mares are taken away, the foals may pace the fence for awhile and scream their displeasure, but are much less frantic than foals separated abruptly at the beginning.
A Safe Environment
Whether weaning a group of foals together or using the fenceline program, pens and pastures should have safe, adequate fencing, with no hazardous obstacles a foal might run into while trying to get out. There shouldn’t be any places a foal could be tempted to put his head through or get a foot caught. If a group of foals is to be in a weaning pen together, it should be large enough that timid ones have room to get out of the way of the aggressive ones. Emotional trauma of weaning makes the bolder foals into bullies and they take out their frustrations on the timid ones. On the other hand, the pen should not be so large that a frantic foal can get up a lot of speed forcing it to jump or crash into the fence because he’s running too fast to stop in time. Remember, some mares are just as emotionally upset at weaning time, so the enclosure for the mares should be as safe and foolproof as that for the foals.
If you are putting mare and foal into separate adjoining pens for a few days, pens should also be constructed so the foal cannot reach through to nurse. A mesh wire fence works well (small mesh, such as Diamond V), with a pole or board along the top so it cannot be squashed down.
Another good rule of thumb is to make sure the pen is a familiar place. A strange, new place will likely make the foal more frightened and upset. Weaning can be stressful enough without introducing him to a new place and new companions at the same time. When using the fenceline weaning method, introduce the mare and foal to the weaning area a few times before the actual separation. It’s best if you can put mares and foals in the weaning pen a few days ahead of time, then just move the mares into the adjacent pen, leaving the foals in the familiar one.
The foal will also take weaning in stride better if he is already accustomed to the kind of feed he’ll be eating. If he’s been on pasture with his mother, bring them in a few days before the weaning and feed hay. If the foal is started on hay and grain while still on his mother, with her example to follow, he will be eating adequate amounts. It’s easier on him if he doesn’t have to learn to eat a new feed at the same time he’s going through weaning. In fact, a foal that has never had grain may not show any interest in it at all when he’s upset.
With careful planning, weaning won’t, or doesn’t have to be, stressful or dangerous for the mares or their offspring. And, the leg up we can give to the little ones will help them to become happy, healthy and productive horses.
Anything to minimize stress at weaning is important, since too much stress can lead to illness.
Stress triggers increased release of cortisol, a hormone that helps the body during short-term stress by focusing all energies into things that aid the “fight or flight” reflex, and shortchanging the body systems that aren’t as critical to immediate survival. If stress continues over a longer period, however, this focus has adverse affects on the body, hindering a number of important things, such as normal immune function.
A worried foal also does not sleep well, and this adds to his stress, while also hindering his growth hormones. Furthermore, stressed foals are also more susceptible to ulcers.
Stressful weaning almost always affects a foal’s weight gain temporarily because he doesn’t take much time to eat and may actually lose weight. Then, when the stress subsides and his hunger returns, he will resume eating, which can lead to a sudden growth spurt. This, in turn, can trigger DOD in some foals, adversely affecting bones and joints.
Because the process is stressful already, it is important that new stresses are avoided. For example, weaning is not a good time to deworm, vaccinate or halter-break a foal. Do these things before weaning, or wait until the foal is weaned and well adjusted to his new lifestyle. It’s much easier on the foal if some of his training and handling is done before weaning; it’s also easier on the humans because it won’t be such a struggle to deworm, vaccinate, trim feet and accomplish all the other aspects of routine care.—HST