Time to Grow Up: Weaning your foal

Published on Mon, 09/22/2014 - 1:45pm

If you’ve been following my column since January, you should be well-equipped in the handling and early-training of a foal, no matter the breed. If your foal was born in winter, this is the time of year that can be the toughest: Weaning time.

Why do it?
I get this question frequently from new horse owners, and it’s a reasonable one. There’s no doubt that weaning can cause stress in foals and mares (though this does vary by personality—I’ve known a few who mostly adjusted within a few hours), and ultimately it comes down to the type of operation you have and your goals with your young horse. I often wean my Thoroughbreds because I sell them when they’re yearlings and would rather do a controlled separation well in advance of that time.
Mares and foals will generally go through a weaning process on their own at some point, but, unfortunately, both can become a little aggressive about it. Many people would rather avoid the risk of injury by doing it themselves. Keep in mind that young colts will develop “stud-ish” behaviors and get rowdy as they mature and hormones kick in—fillies generally stay a little more mellow.
Then there’s the issue of competition for feed: Foals will start picking at their mothers’ grain when they’re just a few days old, and as they grow, their nutrition requirements increase. Mares who are in regular production are usually bred back not long after foaling, so they are often pregnant while nursing their current foal. My base feed for mares during this time is a 16-percent protein ration. This need for extra food for growing horses could conflict with the mare’s sizable needs. Watch your horses to determine how they’re interacting and what situation will work best for you.
I typically wean my foals when they are four to five months of age, which is about the time their reliance on mother’s milk tapers off. An undersized or sickly foal can stand to stay on the mare until its health has stabilized.  

Be prepared

I start by reinforcing everything that I taught the foals at a few weeks of age, from loading to tying up beside the mare, bathing, and, if applicable, also learning to walk in the Equi-gym walker, first with the mare and then alone. It’s important to keep their minds active and maintain my relationship with them since their social relationships are about to be changed. I want them to remember that I am their leader and teacher.
Before weaning, I take note of which foals hang out together in the field and try to wean them in pairs so they can take comfort in their buddies. On the day of weaning, I start by placing the mare in one stall and the colt or filly next to her so they can see each other. The next morning I will milk out the mare maybe three quarters of the way and then let the foal in to nurse. I repeat the process after the next night’s turnout. I may do this for two to three days before removing the mare to a more remote location to complete the process.
This gradual approach lessens the risk of mastitis, which can form when a mare in lactation is suddenly not milked anymore. I put my Stableizer headstall on the mares while milking them out to keep us both safe for the milking process—when adjusted properly, the headstall works with acupressure in the horse to release calming brain chemicals without injections or drugs. Weaning gradually will also reduce stress on the mare, lessening the chance that she will abort her next foal.
I expect the horses to be vocal and animated for the first couple of hours, which is why it’s important not to leave them alone until they’ve calmed down.
Also keep in mind that you can help your mare take down her milk production by tapering off her grain in the weeks before weaning. I’ve developed a hand-powered pump milker that works for horses as well as cattle called the Udderly EZ. This is a good way to help animals with mastitis or to milk out dairy animals, but it’s also handy for horse owners to have on hand in case a mare loses her foal but is still producing colostrum that you’d like to store for later use.
Monitor mares and foals closely in the days after weaning, taking foals’ temperatures daily to make sure stress associated with weaning has not compromised their immune systems. Many horses will not clean up their grain for the first day or two after the separation, but get back to normal pretty quickly. If you suspect the stress has become more serious, call your veterinarian.
I have had success with this system for a number of years and really believe it’s the least stressful way to handle the practice—for the horses, and for you.