As many of you know, I had two foals born this year. It has been about 6 years since I raised foals and Stoli (paint) and Whisky (palomino) are the 10th and 11th foals I have raised in my lifetime. Over the years I have used different weaning methods, ranging from "cold turkey" weaning to natural weaning. Now that Stoli is 6 months old and Whisky is 5 months old, I am often asked when I plan to wean them. Most breeders wean their foals between 4-8 months of age. In this blog I would like to share my view on the best way to wean a foal.
Most Common Weaning Practices
Most breeders that I know practice what I would call "cold turkey" weaning. This is where the foal is abruptly separated from the mare (preferably where they can not see each other). Many times the foal is either turned out with other foals and/or a "baby sitter" horse. The baby sitter horse is normally an older mare or gelding who gets along well with young horses. The foal usually cries out for it's mom and paces the fence until it eventually (can last hours to days) settles down and seeks companionship from the other horse(s). If the mare and foal can hear each other's cries, this will usually prolong the process.
While this can be a very stressful way to wean, it can be warranted at times. Some circumstances that would support abrupt weaning are medical reasons and necessary sale of the foal and/or mare. However, it is important to note that in addition to it being emotionally stressful on the horses, it also can have physical implications. The potential risk to the mare and foal is higher due to them possibly trying to escape to find each other and also the likelihood of frantic running along the fence line. Additional, you need to consider the risk of GI ulcers during this high stress time. The mare will also experience discomfort as her udder enlarges due to the foal no longer nursing. The period of time it takes to dry up will vary from mare to mare. Some mares will dry up in days while others can take months.
Unlike "cold turkey" or abrupt weaning, gradual weaning takes place over a longer period of time. With this method of weaning, you can begin to separate the mare and foal for short sessions and then re-unite them. As they become comfortable with the short separations, you can then increase them until eventually you separate them permanently. This method of weaning is far less stressful for both the mare and foal and decreases the likelihood of separation anxiety. The longer you take to complete this process, the less emotionally traumatic it will be.
In the wild, the mare will naturally wean her foal by nipping at them when they attempt to nurse. The mare usually begins the process of natural weaning when the foal is about 10-11 months old in anticipation of her new foal being born (the foal will be 11-13 months old when their sibling is born).
This is my preferred method of weaning. Along with being the least stressful method of weaning, it also allows the foal to benefit from learning socialization skills from their mother and other horses. I believe that is essential to the foal's mental development to have them turned out with other horses. I try to always breed two mares together so that the foals can interact with each other and the additional mare. I also introduce my other horses (geldings) into the herd once the foals are old enough so that they can learn from them as well. In my opinion, the more horses a foal is around, the more mentally stable they will be as adults. I'm not a fan of keeping young horses together without older horses as role models. I also like the idea of the foals being able to benefit from the nutrients they receive from their mother's milk for a longer period of time. I believe this will make them physically and immunologically stronger.
That being said, natural weaning will not work in every situation. Sometimes stud colts will become too "stud-y" when left with their mom and other mares for that long. Other times the mare may not be able to physically handle the caloric requirements necessary to lactate and be pregnant at the same time. In these cases gradual weaning would be recommended.
Stoli and Whisky
With Stoli and Whisky (who are both fillies), I plan to do natural weaning with them. Their mothers are not pregnant again (I personally do not like to breed-back mares....I prefer to give them at least a year off in between pregnancies) and they are both in good condition. There is no reason for me to rush the weaning process. I will allow the mares to begin weaning them as they see fit. In the meantime, the foals are handled daily and are being exposed to different environments. They have stalls that they go in when the weather is bad and they have learned that just because they are separated from each other, it doesn't mean that it is permanent. They always see each other again. This takes a lot of the stress out of separation (not just separation from the mares, but separation from their other horse friends). They have been exposed to other horses and I move my geldings in and out of the pasture so they can become used to not always seeing them. We also ride the mares with the foals following along. We plan to do more of this during the winter when the weather cools off here in Florida. Whisky had an injury recently which required her to be in the hospital for a week. The silver lining to this was that she gained a lot of experience with the horse trailer, being handled by other people and being away from mom (for short periods) and away from the other horses (for 2 weeks). I plan to keep both Stoli and Whisky so they will remain with their moms until they go off for training as 3 year olds. My goal is for them to be completely independent and emotionally well rounded horses by that time. If you do not have the time or ability to work with your foal during the natural weaning process, I would recommend following gradual weaning instead. Foals that are too attached to their mom and companions will be more difficult to train and could potentially end up in bad situations. I like to know that if something were to ever happen to me, my horses would be productive members of society and have the best chance at a happy life.
Dr. Angelique Barbara is the founder of Angel's Animals LLC, a company that has developed online animal bodywork courses for both owners and professionals. Dr. Barbara's unique teaching style along with the dynamic layout of the courses allows people of different educational backgrounds from all over the world to benefit from her knowledge.