This year’s first foals are appearing in the roadside fields with their mothers; grazing, sleeping and playing happily in the sunshine, blissfully unaware of the trauma they are going to experience in a few months’ time.
Weaning can be one of the most stressful experiences in a horse’s life. In the wild, weaning takes place gradually. The mare will be covered by the stallion as soon as she comes into season again after giving birth. When the new foal is born, the previous one teams up with other youngstock within the herd so the breakaway is natural, rather than artificially and abruptly forced.
So, how can you make weaning as stress-free as possible for your foal?
When to wean and preparation
As long as the foal is healthy and well grown, weaning can take place from six months onward. Weaning before this can cause physiological problems as the foal will not be mature enough and still needs his mother’s milk for correct development.
At least a month prior to weaning, the foal must be accustomed to eating the appropriate quality and quantity of feed from a foal creep in the field. Always feed the foal using this method so that you can keep an eye on how much he eats. Just allowing him to eat from the mare’s manger leaves you with no control over his intake.
During this period it’s also important to get the foal used to being handled. He should allow you to take a foal slip on and off and can be taught to lead alongside his mother. Teach him to stand while you groom him and pick up his feet too. The more he becomes used to human company, the better.
Separating mare and foal
Remember that horses are herd animals; it is not appropriate to keep a foal on its own during weaning, or at all. Make sure you either have a contact with a mare and foal you can team yours up with or take on a quiet companion pony to keep the foal company. The best option is an old pony mare that has already had a few foals; she’ll not only be good company but will also teach the foal what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.
The ideal scenario is to have a group of mares and foals of weaning age. Take one mare out of the field at a time and allow the group to settle down again before taking the next mare away, leaving the calmest until last.
The stress of weaning
Foals are all individuals and will react differently when their mothers are taken away. Some don’t even appear to notice whilst others will run up and down for days. Make sure your fencing is sturdy and safe and try to keep the mare out of earshot to help her milk dry up.
Stress compromises the foal’s immune system which can lead to problems including recurrent respiratory disease and even gastric ulcers so it’s important to keep things as relaxed as possible. Some stud farms like to have colts gelded whilst they are still with their mother as this can help to keep them more relaxed when they are weaned, but this is a matter for personal preference and every foal varies.
Making that break is a really big step but thought and planning ahead will give your mare and foal every chance of a stress-free separation and the best start in life.
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