How to Wean a Foal

Four Parts:Preparing to Wean the FoalDeciding Between Abrupt or Gradual SeparationSeparating the FoalMonitoring the Foal's Progress and the Mare’s Health

Weaning is the process whereby a foal learns to depend on solid food rather than his mother's milk. In the wild this happens naturally when the foal is around 6 to 12 months old. At a stable, you will have to make the weaning decisions to keep your foal, and your breeding mare, on track. To do this, you will have to choose when to wean, whether you will use abrupt or gradual weaning, and will have to know how to care for the foal once he is weaned.

Part 1
Preparing to Wean the Foal

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    Watch your foal for signs that he is ready to be weaned. A good indication that a foal could cope with weaning is if he shows signs of independence such as wandering away from the dam and spending time playing with other foals. If you see your foal doing these things, he is most likely ready to be weaned.
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    Consider the health of the mare when deciding when to wean your foal. The natural weaning process generally begins when the foal is around six months old. If the mare has a health issue that makes it difficult for her to produce milk or care for her foal, weaning can be started from four months of age. However, before five months, the foal's digestive system is not fully developed so he may have a hard time processing solid food.
    • If the foal is weaned at this very young age, the foal risks not getting all the nutrition he needs, and his growth may be checked. This means he may grow slowly, fail to gain weight, and not reach his full physical potential at maturity. However, if the mother is sick, this may be a necessary risk.
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    Wait to avoid weaning a sick foal until he is healthy. A foal that is ill needs the nutritional support offered by his dam's milk. A sick foal is also less likely to eat solid food, and thus deprives himself of much needed energy, minerals, and vitamins.
    • In addition, the stress of weaning can weaken the immune system at a time when it is needed to fight infection.
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    Understand that regardless of whether you abruptly or gradually wean the foal, preparation will need to be done. Adequate preparatory groundwork will help to acclimatize the foal's digestive tract and decrease his stress while he is weaned from his mother’s milk.
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    Watch for signs that your foal is consuming other things besides his mother’s milk. By around 10 to 12 weeks of age, the foal's nutritional needs for growth will most likely go beyond the amount of milk the mare can produce. Because of this, the foal will most likely start looking for alternative food such as hay, grass, or grain. This behavior indicates that the foals digestive system is changing to allow him to break down things other than milk.[1]
    • This may be delayed if the mare is producing lots of the milk, keeping the foal's stomach constantly full. He may not feel the need to explore other foods.
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    Buy foal feed. Just as there are puppy and kitten foods, so there is creep feed for foals. This dry concentrate is designed to be easily digested and meet the nutritional needs of growing foals. The general recommendation is to feed half to three-quarters of creep feed per day for every 100-lbs of foal body weight.
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    Introduce your foal to creep feed one month before you plan to wean him. A common time to introduce creep feed is one month before weaning. Ideally the food is offered in a creep pen so that the amount consumed can be measured. A creep pen is a corral with a narrow entrance so that the foal can enter but the mare cannot; this allows you to know with certainty that any food that has been eaten has been eaten by the foal.
    • If you place the creep feed in the field or stable, you will have no idea which horse has eaten the feed and it can be difficult to know if the foal is taking in sufficient feed for his needs.
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    Introduce the foal to other young horses a month before the weaning process begins. Horses are social animals and if the foal is removed from his mother and has no companion, his stress will be magnified, making him less likely to eat.
    • The time to introduce him to new pals is about a month ahead of weaning, so that he is familiar with their presence when his mother disappears.
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    Find a ‘nanny’ for your foal. One ideal companion a gentle horse that is unlikely to kick out and injure the foal (to this end it is a good idea to remove the horse's shoes).
    • Some horses make better "nannies" than others. A gentle gelding, an elderly mare, or miniature horses are less likely to be physically intimidating to the young horse.
    • The temperament of the nanny is also important—you want a gentle, accepting animal, rather than a strongly territorial animal that may see a foal as competition for resources and bully him.
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    Find your foal a friend. A foal of a similar age is also an ideal companion because the two animals may play together and learn social skills from one another. Also, they can be weaned at the same time and may turn to one another for mutual support at this stressful time.

Part 2
Deciding Between Abrupt or Gradual Separation

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    Understand the difference between abrupt and gradual weaning. There are two methods of weaning: abrupt and gradual. Abrupt weaning refers to the sudden removal of the foal from the dam.[2]
    • The gradual weaning process more closely mimics weaning in the wild. During this process the foal is prepared for the final separation by experiencing periods of separation over a certain amount of time before he is actually separated.
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    Consider gradual versus abrupt weaning. Gradual weaning requires a considerable investment in time, however, the process is closer to what happens in nature and therefore less stressful for all involved.
    • Abrupt weaning, on the other hand, is potentially more stressful for the dam, foal, and you. Stress causes the production of adrenaline and cortisol. This suppresses the immune system and lowers the foal's natural immunity to infection. The foal's immune system does not fully mature until he is 12 months of age, and therefore the stress of weaning can predispose a foal to problems such as gastric ulcers or a chest infection.
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    Consider how much space you have for the weaning process. The first factor is how much space is available to you. Abrupt weaning requires you to keep the dam out of the sight and earshot of her foal. This requires tens of acres of land and possibly stabling well away from the fields. If you do not have this facility then you either need to consider sending the dam off site to another yard, or a different method of weaning.
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    Think about whether the foal is used to being handled. Another factor is if the foal is used to being handled or not. If the answer is no, then abrupt weaning may be best. Once the dam is removed the human influence replaces her presence, and is established as the source of leadership for the foal.
    • However, if the foal is used to being handled then removing him from the dam's presence for short walks around the paddock prior to weaning greatly facilities gradual weaning.
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    Understand that abrupt weaning can lead to the foal developing obsessive-compulsive behavior disorder if the separation is done in an insensitive manner. If abrupt weaning is handled in an insensitive manner, (such as not providing a companion for the foal within 24 hours, and keeping the foal isolated in a stable without any company company) foals are more likely to develop obsessive-compulsive behavioural disorders such as crib-biting or weaving.
    • These behaviors are akin to a child sucking their thumb. The repetitive nature of the rocking from side to side releases endorphins (morphine like chemicals) which gives the foal a natural high. He becomes addicted to the sensation and if the weaving becomes established, it is a very difficult, if not impossible, habit to break.

Part 3
Separating the Foal

Abrupt Separation

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    Remove the mare from the foals sight. In order to properly perform an abrupt separation, you must remove the mare from the foal’s sight and ear shot. You can do this by putting her in a holding stall, or by removing her to a different field or barn.
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    Reintroduce the foals playmates after he calms down from being abruptly separated. As soon as the foal calms (this may take a few hours to a day, depending on the individual) re-introduce his playmates. The presence of other animals will help reassure and settle him. Horses are herd creatures. Being alone for long periods will only add to the foal’s stress so when he is calm put him back with animals he knows.
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    Be prepared for your foal to react negatively to an abrupt separation. Foals react differently. Some may settle quite quickly, but the majority cry and call for their mother—sometimes for hours. Some become very agitated and may try to escape and follow her.
    • When the dam is removed there is a greater risk of the foal hurting himself in a field or paddock. There are more potential places to injure himself such as fences, ditches, hedges, and water troughs, thus the safety of a stable is the preferred option. Remove anything that the foal might hurt himself on, such as a water bucket.

Gradual Separation

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    Ride the mare near the foal to gradually wean him from his mother. One option to decrease the chances of your foal reacting badly to the separation is to ride the mare in the same field as the foal weeks before the separation. He then has the choice to run behind, or stop and graze with her in eyesight. This gives him the idea that his mother cannot constantly be at his side but it is nothing to worry about.
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    Repeat this riding process on a daily basis. Do this four to six weeks before the final weaning. Exercising the dam also helps the mare’s body to stop making milk. This makes her more likely to rebuff the attempts of an older foal (6 months plus) to suckle by giving him a gentle nip and sending him away. This can help make the gradual separation easier.
    • While riding the mare, you can also consider introducing the foal to a friend. If he is distracted with his new playmate, he will be less likely to panic when his mother leaves.
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    Understand that some foals will still react badly to gradual separation. If the foal is adequately prepared for the mare’s departure, then most foals are more relaxed and not worried by her absence. Even those that are upset make the adjustment, and accept she is no longer available for snacks, in the space of a few hours.
    • Some foals, on the other hand, may react badly and attempt to charge the fence, escape, or cry.

Part 4
Monitoring the Foal's Progress and the Mare’s Health

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    Keep track of your foal’s growth. Monitor the foal's growth before, during, and after weaning. This can be done by recording the foal's height and weight (or if you do not have the facilities to weigh the foal, use a tape measure around his girth to record the gain in body mass) on a weekly basis. Feed companies provide charts as to the expected gain over time in order to check the foal's progress.
    • If he is putting on too much weight then a decrease in his ration is appropriate, if he is not gaining sufficient weight then consider getting him checked by a veterinarian in case health issues are interfering with his appetite.
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    Check the mare’s mammary glands every day to make sure she does not develop mastitis. When the foal is removed from the mare, the dam’s milk takes time to dry up. Abrupt weaning gives the mare’s body less time to do this. If the mammary glands get overly full, the mare runs the risk of developing mastitis, a bacterial infection. To keep your mare healthy[3]:
    • Check for signs of mastitis every day. Signs include hot, painful, swollen mammary glands. If you notice any of these signs, contact the vet right away.
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    Reduce the amount of food the mare gets for seven to ten days after she is separated from the foal. Lowering the mare’s calorie count can help to keep her from developing mastitis. This is because a lower calorie count gives the mare less energy for milk production.
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    Keep the dam out of earshot of the foal. It also helps to keep the dam out of earshot of the foal because his cries trigger prolactin release which tells her body to produce milk.

Sources and Citations

  1. Veterinary Guide to Horse Breeding: Giffin and Darling. Wiley and sons. 1st edition.
  2. Veterinary Guide to Horse Breeding: Giffin and Darling. Wiley and sons. 1st edition.
  3. Veterinary Guide to Horse Breeding: Giffin and Darling. Wiley and sons. 1st edition.

Article Info

Categories: Horse Breeding