After a foal has been allowed a few carefree first months at their mother’s shoulder, there comes a time when they must learn to stand on their own feet. Weaning is often not the nicest time in the whole breeding process. Although you cannot prevent stress for both mother and foal, there are a number of measures you can take to ensure that the weaning process goes as smoothly and safely as possible.
Weaning is the moment or process by which the foal is separated from their mother. In nature, this happens as well. The foal stays with the mare until she is close to giving birth to her next foal, at which point the first foal is around 9-10 months old (40 weeks). If the mare is not in foal, the foal can stay with their mother for another year. Between the age of 1,5 and 3 years the foals will leave the group. Colts sometimes do this voluntarily, but it may also be that the lead stallion ‘politely requests’ them to leave the group. Fillies are allowed to stay in the group more often because they pose less of a threat to the lead stallion.
In nature, weaning is a gradual process over an extended period of time. In domestication, it is often chosen to wean the foal between 4 to 6 months of age. The prerequisite for this is that the foal is able to eat roughage and concentrates. The reason foals are weaned earlier than their natural weaning age is often due to a number of practical issues. In breeding, around the natural weaning age, the mare is usually already several months pregnant with a new foal. It is considered (too) heavy a task to ask the mare to care for herself, a lactating foal and an unborn foal as well. If the mare is used in sport, the nursing foal can be at the expense of the (sport) performance and the mare’s health. Not only the foal, but the training as well will cost a lot of energy in this case.
There are no ready-made rules regarding the timing and method of weaning; each breeder has their own policy. The timing of weaning is determined by a number of factors:
- The foal’s health: the foal must be healthy to handle this stressful time
- Independent nutrition: the foal must be able to eat roughage and concentrates properly
- The mare’s health: if the mare is ill or in serious declined condition, it may be necessary to wean her earlier than normal
- The mare’s character: aggressive behaviour towards the foal may mean that the foal has to be weaned off sooner
The methods of weaning can be roughly divided into two methods: abrupt and gradual. The names really say it all. With abrupt weaning, the foal is taken away and the foal (or mare) is put out of sight and hearing distance. This method involves a lot of (acute) stress, which can lead to injuries and stereotypical behaviour. However, research shows that foals that are weaned abruptly and brought to a rearing barn grow more than foals that were gradually weaned. Click here to read more.
Gradual weaning involves separating mare and foal step by step. You can build this up, for example, by taking the mare out of the stable for five minutes. It is important that the foal cannot hurt themselves in the stable. For example, do not hang up any hay nets and preferably put them in a closed stable (no open double doors). If possible, it would be great to pair foals with each other so that they have some support during the weaning process. You can extend the time that the mother is away from her foal until the point where, for example, they are separated at night (separately in a stall) and still turned out together in the field during the day. Eventually you can separate mare and foal completely. In addition to separating them in the stall, you could also separate mare and foal in a field. It is important here that the fence is safe and high enough so that the foal cannot get caught in it. Research has shown that the advantage of gradual weaning is that it is much less stressful for both mare and foal. In addition, it reduces the risk of udder infection in the mare because milk production decreases gradually.
Regardless of the method you choose, it is important for foals to grow up in a social environment. Therefore, after weaning, preferably place them in a mixed herd, with both younger and older horses. You sometimes see that foals are placed together, with no older horses in the group. The disadvantage of this is that the foals are not corrected for inappropriate behaviour, they are not receiving any real education. You could compare it to a kindergarten class without a teacher. In addition to social contact, free movement and proper nutrition are also important for your foal to grow up to be a healthy, mature horse.