Last Updated on May 21, 2020 by Allison Price
One of the most stressful experiences in a horse’s life is weaning. The fear and insecurity they feel after separation can lead to anxiety.
There are 2 types of weaning: Gradual & Abrupt:
You begin separating mare and foal at feeding time. There’s a safe fence between them for short periods of time each day. You little by little increase the length of time over the course of several days. Until you no longer need to put them back together.
An overview of a procedure of gradual weaning would be:
- Keep mares and foals for several days in stalls or paddocks.
- Carry the mares into the adjacent paddock or paddock resistant to injury. The fence does not encourage nursing and should be sturdy, nail-free, sharp edges, etc.
- Make food and water accessible at the side of the paddock or stall near the mare.
- Place them once again with a buddy like an old aged gentle gelding. It will calm them and make the process easier for all concerned.
- You separate a mare and a foal completely all at once. The abrupt method sounds harsh. Yet, if done right, it is often easier on everyone involved: mare, foal, and handlers.
- The abrupt method works even easier because the tension is over in the first few days. There’s going to be stress no matter how you wean, so you want to cut it as much as possible.
An example of a method of abrupt weaning would be:
- Position at least two mares with foals overnight in adjacent stalls.
- Remove the buckets from the stall the following morning. Next, remove the mares from the sight and earshot of the foals. And place the foals together in the stall or paddock. Replace the buckets after the foals have calmed down. And leave the foals alone for the rest of the day.
- Start working and bonding with the foals the following day. Put halters on them with soft cotton lead cords which are at least 5 feet long. The foals will step on them and begin learning to give to a rope. It also makes it easier to catch them.
- After the changes, start treating the foals in a relaxed manner. But no more than 15 minutes at a time, as they have a short attention span. Again, having a buddy in the paddock or stall makes the whole process less difficult.
The Method You Choose In Weaning Will Depend On Several Factors:
- The particular horses themselves
- Your farm set-up, including fencing and stalls/corrals
- How many mares and foals you have to wean
- Who’s available to help
Safety comes first. This means all fencing and enclosures must be sturdy and foal appropriate. We should never consider barbed wire, electric wire, or plain smooth wire for fencing. Especially during weaning, foals tend to act first and then think later.
How to Separate The Foal & Mare?
How you separate the mare and foal depends on your experience. This goes the same for the housing facilities at your disposal. There are many ways to wean foals. The least stressful is often a method by which the foal can make a gradual change. This change includes being apart from his dam or herd mates.
There’s no best way to wean. Many factors enter the equation, including:
- The temperament of the individuals
- As well as facilities and management time.
Weaning usually takes place somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7 months. Other ranches leave their foals with the mares a little longer.
At about three months, some horsemen wean. Others keep the mare and foal together until the baby is between 4-6 months old.
Weaning from group pastures is usually the least stressful approach on both. This works well when the group has been together long enough that the horses have buddies. Plus there are some mares and foals to wean. After determining which foal is for weaning, a mare is then removed from the pasture. You will take the mare to a distant paddock where she can’t see or hear her foal. Her baby remains in the field with his pals and familiar surroundings.
The rest of the mares will transfer out one at a time from the group over a period of weeks before weaning all foals. This method ensures that both mares and foals stay with their known horses. This helps to reduce stress.
The mare and foal will be brought into the barn and fed. A handler then leads the mare out of the stall. It will take the mare to a distant paddock while leaving the foal inside the stall.
It is necessary to remove water buckets before separating the mare. Then the foal may run into the mare after separated for a short time. Some owners think it’s easier for the babies to put two foals in the same stall for weaning. But research has shown this can actually be more stressful for them. Once the weaned foals settled and eating well after days or weeks, they can be together in a herd again.
5 Steps to Reduce Any Weaning-Related Stress:
- Introduce creep feeding:
By the time a foal is two to three months old, mare’s milk production is often starting to decrease. It no longer fulfills the foal’s nutritional needs. Creep feeding with a fortified feed designed in particular for young horses. Growing horses have to meet all the nutritional needs. Also, it helps prospective weanlings get used to eating grain. This provides a less stressful feeding experience once they separate from their mothers. Free access to good-quality forage as well as fresh, clean water during this time is a must.
- Plan ahead:
Decide which method you are going to use for weaning: abrupt or gradual. Then plan a strategy for when and how you are going to execute this process. Some prefer abrupt weaning to get the experience over with faster. But a gradual method through group pasture weaning is the least stressful option.
Give your foal to some company. Horses are herd animals that thrive on the company of others. Proper socialization is critical to a foal’s development. Older mares who have earlier had foals are often good companions for single foals. They can help teach them acceptable horse manners.
- Provide lots of human interaction:
Weaning is a great opportunity to build trust with a young horse. This can be through companionship. It is also an ideal time to halter break and focus on handling foals. Visit the weanlings often to build an emotional connection. Introduce the halter little by little and lead.
- Practice safety first:
Despite your best efforts, mother and offspring may panic a bit at the prospect of separation. Before weaning, check the fences and the general environment of the area where the mare(s) and foal(s) will be moving. Remove anything that could cause injuries and, if necessary, repair fencing.
Don’t combine weaning with other stressful situations such as:
- visits from the farrier or vet
- Extreme weather or an introduction to a new turnout group.
Make sure your schedule will allow enough time for you to check mares and foals often. Especially in the first couple of days where they need attention the most. It is also advised that you track body temperatures daily for at least a period of time. Stress may weaken the immunity of a foal.
Tips & Advice
- Many breeders agree that daily separation of a mare and foal will result in stress.
- The mare’s behavior sometimes contributes to the foal’s stress or comfort as they separate. Mares differ very much in the way they react with separation. If she’s stressed and calling back to the foal, it seems to further upset it. If the mare separates calmly and willingly, the foal will usually settle down sooner. It will also seem less stressed.
- Careful progress. Know that the mare may become hostile towards the handler. It could even bite or barge over the handler to get back to a calling foal.
- Sight and sound are two of the most important things about weaning. If the baby can hear or see the mare, even a quarter-mile away, it’s stressful on both the mare and foal.
- Introduce a new buddy to the foal over the fence before weaning. Let them get accustomed to each other before putting them together. A buddy such as a donkey, older pony, or even a goat can be a “babysitter” for the foal.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!