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Winning at weaning: 5 steps to a low-stress transition for mare and foal

January 16, 2019

Many foals forge strong bonds with their mothers but separating them at weaning time doesn't have to be a high-stress event.

The start of a new year means a new generation of spindly-legged foals are making their debut. In just a few short months, these youngsters will have grown significantly, and it will be time for them to leave their mothers — and their mothers’ milk supplies — behind. Not surprisingly, this can be an incredibly stressful time for both parties, but it doesn’t have to be so bad.

Here are five suggestions for reducing weaning-related upset:

 

  1. Introduce creep feeding: By the time a foal is two to three months old, its mother’s milk production is often starting to decrease, no longer fulfilling the foal’s nutritional needs. Creep feeding with a fortified feed designed specifically for young, growing horses can ensure that these nutritional needs are being met. In addition, it helps prospective weanlings get used to eating grain, providing for a less stressful feeding experience once they are separated from their mothers. You should also be providing free access to good-quality forage and fresh, clean water during this time.

  2. Plan ahead: Decide which method you are going to use for weaning — abrupt or gradual — and then formulate a strategy for when and how you are going to execute this process. Some prefer abrupt weaning in order to get the experience over with quickly, but, if possible, a gradual method through group pasture weaning is considered the least stressful option. This works best when there are multiple pairs to be weaned and horses have been turned out together long enough to form a bond. Determine which foal will be weaned first and remove its mother, taking her to a distant paddock out of sight and earshot (off-property if necessary), while her foal remains in a comfortable setting with friends. Over the next few weeks, the other mares will gradually be taken to join the other newly-weaned mothers until all foals are successfully weaned. Both mares and foals get to stay with horses they know, thereby reducing any related trauma.

  3. Give your foal some company: Horses are herd animals who thrive on the company of others. Proper socialization is critical to a young horse’s development. As mentioned above, if you have more than one foal, you can turn mares and foals out together prior to removing the mares so they can grow accustomed to one another. However, owners with just one broodmare may wonder how to approach finding a suitable companion. Suggested options include a quiet gelding, a retired pony or even a donkey who can effectively serve as a nanny. Older mares who have previously had foals are often good companions for single foals because they can help teach them acceptable horse manners.

  4. Provide lots of human interaction: Weaning is a great opportunity to build trust with a young horse simply by providing companionship. It is also an ideal time to halter break and extensively handle foals. Visit weanlings often to build a rapport and introduce the halter and lead slowly. Whether or not you consider yourself a trainer, you should remember that you are effectively training your young horse to be properly handled and teaching them what is considered appropriate behavior. Do your best to make these interactions positive.

  5. Practice safety first: Despite your best efforts, mother and offspring may still panic a bit at the prospect of being separated. Prior to weaning, check fences and the general environment of the area where the mare(s) and foal(s) will be moving. Remove anything that could potentially cause injuries and, if necessary, repair fencing. Don’t combine weaning with other stressful situations, such as visits from the farrier or vet, vaccinations, extreme weather or an introduction to a new turnout group. Make sure your schedule will allow enough time for you to check mares and foals often, especially in the first couple of days. It is also recommended that, at least for a time, you monitor body temperatures daily, since stress can weaken a foal’s immunity.

 

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