Weaning is one of the most important times in a young foal’s life, so it is important both to get it right, and also to know that, done correctly, it will pass without incident and stress.
There are many thoughts on when is the ‘correct’ weaning age for a foal. In the wild, the mare and foal will wean themselves naturally by the time the mare foals down again the next year and often before this, as the mare needs to put her energy into preserving weight over the winter and producing quality milk for her new foal.
For most people nowadays however, the way we keep our breeding stock means that weaning takes place earlier, typically at six months of age. Many foals may be sold by this time and ready to go to new owners, and as owners of domesticated horses, we clearly want them to be in better general condition than wild horses, so you would not want to leave your mare to be dragged down by the foal. Six months, however, is just a guideline – if it suits your situation and your mare is doing well condition wise, then it will certainly not hurt the foal to be left on the mare. Early weaning is often an enforced option – if the mare is doing the foal ‘too well’ and her milk causes them to grow too quickly, or if the mare is simply not holding her condition despite adequate feeding. Strong, healthy foals will normally take easily to weaning from four months if the situation dictates that it is a necessity for the health of the mare or foal.
One of the most important parts of weaning is to ensure your foal feels secure and happy within their social group. Ideally this should be a group of other mares and foals of a similar age. You will notice after a time that the foals become increasingly independent, happy to spend time with the other foals, and the mares will also become more relaxed about leaving the foals to their own devices!
Before weaning, your foal should also be well used to hard feed. Many foals will share their mother’s feed from a very young age – try to encourage them to eat out of their own bucket. This means not only do they get used to eating independently of their mothers, but also they can be fed a diet more appropriate to their needs. One of the biggest mistakes made by owners is overfeeding weanlings – a stud balancer formulated specifically for youngstock, and plenty of good quality forage is all that will be required, and will ensure even, steady growth patterns avoiding problems in later life.
There are many different ways and preferred methods of weaning, so I am describing the one we use ourselves, and have done successfully with hundreds of weanlings. Done properly, this creates minimal stress for mare and foal. With this method, the foal is kept in, with company, for 24 hours, and the mare will be out immediately.
On the day of weaning, make sure you have stables already prepared. These should be bedded down, and they should have water and plenty of hay. The ideal set up is interior stables with bars the foals can see through - there should be nowhere the foals can jump or climb out! The mare needs somewhere outside, with company and out of earshot of her foal. The easiest scenario is obviously somewhere else on the premises, but many owners also take the mare away to another yard (or indeed take them home, having foaled down at stud). For at least a week, while her milk supply starts to dry up, she should not have any hard feed or rich grass. A sparse, properly fenced paddock with access to ad-lib hay is ideal. She should be kept out, as walking around helps her bag go down and reduces the risk of her developing mastitis.
In the weeks prior to weaning, you will have noticed social groups forming within the herd of mares and foals. Foals are paired up for weaning and should be paired by age, size and temperament – for instance, you wouldn’t want to put a bullying, boisterous foal in with a shrinking violet!
On the day of weaning, go to the field and catch the pair of mares and foals. You will need three pairs of hands for this – one for each mare and foal, and one to help get the foals into their stable and stay with them. Put the foals into their box together, and take the mares straight away from them to their paddock. In some cases, you may hear the odd neigh for each other, but the vast majority of time they will settle down straight to eating, happy that they are with their companion.
The mares should be left in their paddock with plenty of hay, and not fussed over unduly – again, you may hear the odd neigh, but most will settle down to eating very quickly!
Providing the foals are settled and happy, they will be able to go out in the field the following day. By this point, in our experience, they will be grazing and acting as if they have never known their mother! Over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on the weanlings, making sure they are all getting their fair share of food.
The important thing to remember with mares is the risk of developing mastitis, as her foal is no longer suckling, yet her milk supply will take a time to dry up. This is reduced vastly by cutting out hard feed and leaving her out to walk around. Twice a day, you should check her bag – make sure it is not too hard or lumpy, and is not hot. If your mare has any of these symptoms or you are at all worried about mastitis, call your vet straight away so your mare can be treated.
We have found that most mares and foals will display no signs of undue stress using this weaning method, providing they are properly integrated into a social group, which is an important part of a growing youngster’s life anyway, so it makes sense to start here.