Last Updated on March 8, 2022 by Allison Price
To ease the separation from mom during foal sheaning, build your foal’s confidence.
Hilltop Farm is a sport-horse breeding center in Colora, Maryland. It is midmorning. Megan Fischer, director of Raising Services and her crew open a gate to allow the mares and foals to enter a paddock with piles of fresh grass. Megan calmly and quickly halters the mother foal of the oldest horse, a 4-month old colt, and takes her to the trailer. Her foal is unable to lift his head from the hay heap he’s making with one of his friends. He is a confident foal who can be left alone for short periods of his mother’s time.
Megan takes Megan’s mare to a pasture far from the foal weaning fields. After loading the mare, Megan whinnies for her colt and then trots out to meet some of her former friends. The mares and foals go into the larger pasture after the hay has been removed. After a quick search for his mother in the field, the new weanling rejoins the rest, who are still grazing peacefully.
How can a mother-foal relationship be broken so peacefully? Megan and Christine Skelly, associate professors at Michigan State University’s Adult Equine Extension Programs, and founder and director, My Horse University, discuss how you can make this potentially stressful transition easy and painless by making sure your foal is confident.
When, Why and How to Wean?
Mares in the wild allow their foals to nurse for at least a year, and they don’t push them away until they give birth. Domestic situations can be difficult. There are many reasons to wean your foal earlier. You may wish to sell your foal before a certain age or have competing plans for your mare.
If your mare’s health is rapidly deteriorating, you may want to wean her. Sometimes, a foal’s nutritional needs exceed the mare’s milk supply. The mare could experience health problems, including inability to conceive again, if she doesn’t have enough nutrients. A nursing mare should have a score of 5-6 on her body condition. This means her backbone should not protrude out of the ground or be hidden under a crease of fat. You should also feel her ribs, but not see them.
Dr. Skelly recommends that weaning should be done between 4 and 6 months. She explains that foals don’t learn as well eating forage or grains before four months of age. She says it’s okay to wait for six months. But, keep in mind, they will be more difficult to handle the longer they grow.
Megan and Dr. Skelly recommend that weaning be approached with the goal to minimize stress. Dr. Skelly says that the mare-foal bond can be very strong. You’re taking away everything a foal knows, including the caregiving and nutritional bonds, and communication through all senses (sight, taste and touch, hearing, smell, hearing, and hearing).
You can make the experience more difficult for the foal if you take them away too quickly. He might panic or injure himself. Or, the stress of weaning could suppress his immune system. Dr. Skelly states that this can make a foal more susceptible to colds, flu and strangles.
She recommends that foals be given a healthy lifestyle from birth. This includes regular hoof trimming, vaccinations, and deworming. You should give your colt several weeks to adapt to being weaned.
It is important to handle your foal regularly and to establish a routine from the beginning to reduce stress during weaning. Megan says that Hilltop breaks down its program into blocks. We build confidence in the foals from birth until weaning, teaching them the same routines as yearlings, 2-year-olds, and 3-year-olds.
This includes daily grooming, picking-up feet, and leading beside the mare. When a foal feels comfortable with being handled, he is led to the mare’s stall for grooming. Once he is comfortable, he can be led to another area for grooming, but still within reach of his dam. He eventually leaves his mother and is led to a grooming area further away.
Megan claims that her program introduces everything to foals step by step, adapting it for each individual. Megan explains that foals who are relaxed and open to trying anything we ask will only need one day for each step. Some foals are more anxious and require more time to build their confidence.
Regular handling is a great method to learn about your foal’s personality and help you predict how he will react during weaning. Megan says, “Some foals can be so confident that they act just like Mom!” Megan explains, “Some foals are so confident they’re just like,?See ya Mom!’
Which Method Is Best?
Megan and Dr. Skellly agree that, “although there are many different methods for weaning horses, more gradual methods work better than abrupt separations?suddenly taking a mare out of sight and earshot?
Fencing-line weaning, a gradual approach to nursing, allows for sensory contact while limiting nursing access. The mare and foal are separated by a fence so they can only see, touch, hear, and smell each other. However, the foal cannot nurse. Megan does not recommend this method, even though Dr. Skelly has seen it work in many facilities. She explained that a mare or foal in panic might get hurt trying to cross or pass the fence. Some foals and mares are so intelligent that they can learn to line up along the fence and then nurse through it.
Dr. Skelly recommends a 2-by-4-inch rectangular-mesh or diamond mesh wire fence. This fence should be expertly installed and attached to solid wooden posts. The bottom fence edge should be 3 to 4 inches above the ground, while the top fence edge should be at least 5 inches. A wooden or vinyl rail can be added as an additional visual barrier.
Hilltop Farm employs a more gradual method of weaning that encourages independence as soon as the foals are born. The foals live in large pastures and follow their mothers around the clock. They are then taken to individual feeding stalls (permanently constructed within sheds within the pastures) where they are introduced into grain. They are placed in adjoining stalls separated by a mesh fence at around 1 to 2 months old. This allows them to hear and see their mothers while also enjoying their grain rations. A shed contains similarly-arranged feeding stalls in the weaning field, where mares and foals are moved a few weeks before weaning.
Megan says, “It’s amazing to how quickly they adapt and how easy it is to separate early on.” Megan says that foals can be taught confidence through a variety of feeding arrangements. If your foal and mare can’t see one another through the barn walls, you might start small. Take the foal to the adjacent stall, give him treats, and then bring him back to the mare’s place. You can gradually increase the time it takes to separate until your foal is comfortable with this routine.
Create a Plan
Dr. Skelly says that no matter what technique you choose, make sure your facility can accommodate excited horses of all sizes. Make sure your fences don’t have any gaps that could allow foals to squeeze under or through. Check your stalls for any dangerous protrusions or windows that could allow foals to leap through. Also, check for ceilings too low to strike their heads.
You should also ensure that there is enough space for your weanlings to run and play. Dr. Skelly says that exercise is vital for the development of the musculoskeletal system and digestion. He also recommends that weanlings get plenty of free exercise (pasture turningout). Longeing and other forced exercises can cause bone problems by putting too much strain on cartilage tissue.
Megan believes Hilltop’s full time turnout results in weanlings that are healthier and more physically fit than stabled children. It is also important for their mental well-being, she says. It allows them to socialize, teaches them how to interact with one another and herd dynamics.
If you don’t have the space to move your mare out of the foal’s reach, consider temporarily boarding one of them at a farm. Dr. Skelly says that if you can break this auditory bond, it will make the situation less stressful for both mares and foals. Instead of running along the fence to hear the other’s voice, they will instead focus on calmer horses in their field.
Megan states that while some farms will board foals from outside during and after weaning, it is usually easier to find a place for a mare. The foal should be kept in a familiar environment.
You should plan to board your mare for at least two more months if you have to. You should be able, once the mare is weaned, to pasture her without them calling each other. Wait at least four months if you have to reunite mother with foal in one pasture. Most mares stop producing milk by this time. Megan warns that even then, some mares may resume lactation if they “reconnect with their foals”.
Dr. Megan and Dr. Skellly stress the importance of minimizing any changes in your foal’s environment and routine. Your foal should be introduced to new pasturemates at least one week prior to weaning. This is while his dam is still there. Dr. Skelly explained, “Horses always need to learn the dynamics of any new addition to their herd.” A weanling born to horses he isn’t used to may try to nurse from another mare. This can pose a risk if he doesn’t have his mother to help him.
Megan loves to wean foals with other foals because they are naturally curious and playful. Megan recommends that you find at least one “babysitter” who is tolerant and available if other foals are not available. Dr. Skelly says that this could be any type of animal, from an older, gentle mare or gelding to one of other species. “Any kind of livestock is acceptable?Sheep, goats and donkeys?all as long as the baby is familiar with it before, and the one species is not too rough with the other.”
You can wean your foal and mare in the morning to keep an eye on them both throughout the day. It is important to integrate it into their daily routine. Keep the foal safe and familiar, while leading the mare off.
Dr. Skelly warns against weaning two foals in the same stall. This is what many farms used to do in the past. She explained, “Even babies will establish a hierarchy, and one might beat up on the others.”
Instead of weaning all your foals at once, and causing chaos, you can only wean one or two foals at a time. Megan says that this will ensure calm mares are left in the weaning area. This will make new weanlings feel more secure. Allow the foals to settle for a week before you wean them.
Megan says to take into account the mares’ adult attachments. Megan says, “Make sure that the last mare in the field with her foals is OK with all of her friends gone.” It is a waste of time if there are only one mare and all her foals in the field.
No matter how upset your mare/foal might appear right away after weaning, you should not give up and put them back together with an intention to try again later. This will only increase the stress and encourage the mare to continue lactating.
Don’t let the mare’s udder get milked manually. It will begin to swell immediately after separation. If the milk is not expressed, it will slow down and stop in a matter days. Dr. Skelly says this will help the mare to overcome emotional stress faster. “Most mares will be happy to let their foals go once their bags [udders] are dry.”
Megan suggests that you start an ulcer preventive a week before weaning to reduce stress for your foal. Consult your veterinarian for dosage recommendations.
Megan recommends that handling sessions be suspended for the first week after weaning. Megan says it’s unfair to ask them to concentrate on something right now. Unless you have a person-friendly foal that wants to be pampered.
Megan says that you should take a week off to help your baby adjust to the world. She suggests that you limit your sessions to 10 to 15 minutes. Remember that horses are born with phases. They can be happy, grumpy, agreeable, or not so agreeable at times. Sometimes your weanling will pick up his feet and then stop the next week. Keep patience and end on a positive note.