You know it’s time to separate mama and baby, but do you know the safest, least stressful way to wean?
There are two types of weaning: gradual and abrupt. With a gradual method, you begin separating mare and foal at feeding time with a safe fence between them for short periods of time each day. You gradually increase the length of time over the course of several days, until you no longer put them back together. With an abrupt method, mare and foal are separated completely all at once.
Although the abrupt method, like the word itself, sounds harsh, if done right it’s often easier on everyone involved: mare, foal and handlers.
“I’ve used different methods and abrupt weaning is the best I’ve found,” says Kevin Oliver of Snaffle Bit Quarter Horses in Canyon, Texas. “I’ve tried the gradual method where you separate the baby for a few hours a day with the mare across the fence and then increase that time, but I feel it drags out the stress. For me, the abrupt method works much better because the stress is over within the first couple days. There’s going to be stress no matter how you wean, so you want to minimize it as much as possible.”
The method you choose to wean 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 and this means all fencing and enclosures must be sturdy and foal-appropriate. Barbed wire, electric wire or plain smooth wire fencing should never be considered acceptable fencing around foals, especially at weaning time when they are likely to act first, think later.
Studies have shown that group pasture weaning is typically the least stressful method on both mares and foals. This works best when the group has been together long enough that the horses have buddies, and there are multiple mares and foals to be weaned. After determining which foal is ready for weaning, that baby’s mother is removed from the pasture and taken 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 are gradually removed over a period of weeks until all foals are weaned. This method ensures that both mares and foals remain with horses they know, which helps reduce stress.
In barn weaning, the mare and foal are brought into the barn and fed. Then a handler leads the mare out of the stall and takes her to a distant paddock, while leaving the foal inside the stall. Before removing the mare, it’s important to take out water buckets and anything else the foal might run into just for a short while after the mare is taken out. Some owners think it’s easier on the babies to put two foals in the same stall for weaning, but research has shown this can actually be more stressful on them. After a period of days or weeks, once the weaned foals have settled down and are eating well, they can be turned back out together in a group.
Although the abrupt method sounds harsh, if done right it’s easier on everyone involved: mare, foal and handlers.
“I put each foal in its own stall, but there are other horses in the barn to keep them company,” says Oliver, who weans at about three months of age and finds the barn weaning method works to his advantage.
“There’s a transference period as the foal is losing its mother, but I’m playing the part of the mare as the foal looks to me,” he explains. “When the baby is with his mother, he’s dependent on her and on the other foals. By isolating each foal at weaning, they can become completely dependent on me. I spend a lot of time with each baby in its stall when I wean.”
Oliver has found that if there’s only one foal to wean, this can be more stressful on that baby because he hasn’t had other foals to play with and tends to be more dependent on the mare.
“You may need to spend more time with this foal at weaning,” he notes.
Oliver finds weaning time is ideal for halter breaking and extensive handling of the foals. By visiting each foal in its stall multiple times throughout the day, he gains their trust and is soon able to lead them out to walk around the barn. He prefers to keep new weanlings stalled for several weeks while working with them. After about a month, he turns the group of weaned foals back out together, but by then they are confident and easy to handle.
“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,” notes Oliver. “The best policy is out of sight and sound. You may have to board the mare off the property for a few days.”
If you only have one mare and foal, weaning can be more challenging, especially if you have a small acreage where it’s not possible to keep them from seeing and hearing each other. In this case, your best plan may be to board them at one facility until it’s time to wean, and then have the mare moved to another farm, leaving the foal in his familiar surroundings, preferably with a buddy.
Horses are herd animals and a single foal, newly separated from his mother, may become frantic. You should discuss a plan with your veterinarian or another experienced horseman prior to weaning. A buddy such as a donkey, older pony or even a goat can be a “babysitter” for the foal. Introduce the new buddy to the foal over the fence before weaning and let them get accustomed to each other before putting them together.
When to Wean
There’s no way to just pick a date on the calendar as the perfect time to wean. For weaning to be the least stressful, your foal should meet certain important criteria. He should be at least three months of age, preferably between four to six months old, and in good overall health. He should be healthy, strong, exhibit a good appetite and eating forage and concentrate designed for growing foals. When out with other mares and foals, he should show independence from his dam and regularly interact socially with other foals.
The mare’s milk is at peak nutritional value for the first six weeks after foaling. By the time the foal is three months old, he isn’t getting a great deal of nutrition from his mother’s milk, although he will nurse as long as they are together, more as a comforting habit than anything else.
Some horsemen wean at around three months, while others leave mare and foal together until the baby is four, five, even six months old.
The foal’s precise age isn’t as important as his physical, mental and social development. An older mare or one that is hard to keep weight on can lose condition while nursing her foal, which is why some owners opt to wean at three months.
Don’t combine weaning with any other stressful scenario, such as a visit from the vet or blacksmith. Don’t deworm or vaccinate when you wean and don’t use this time to introduce new horses to the group.
Wait to wean if your foal has recently been ill. Watch the weather, too. If the forecast is for stormy weather, or it’s especially hot and humid, pick another day, so you don’t have this additional stress on the horses.
You’ll want to monitor both mare and foal closely after weaning, so don’t wean on a day when you won’t be around for a length of time.
It’s wise to take temperatures daily during these first few days. An elevated temperature is often the first sign of illness or infection, so contact your veterinarian if this occurs so the foal can be treated, if necessary.
Cutting back on the mare’s grain ration—but not her forage—will help her stop producing milk and “dry up.” Observe the mare’s udder daily and contact your veterinarian if you notice signs of mastitis, such as fever, swelling, and any yellowish, oozing substance.
Weaning time can seem daunting, but done wisely, it will be over soon. Your foal will settle into this new stage of life and you can spend even more time with him, creating a lasting bond.