There are many ways to wean foals and some ways are less stressful than others. The least stressful ways include various methods in which the foal can make a gradual adjustment to being apart from his dam or other adult herd members. The most stressful methods usually include abrupt separation from the mare and other adults. There is no “best” way to wean, however, because many factors enter this equation, including the age, health, and temperament of the individual foal (and dam) and your own situation—your facilities, conditions and management time. There are some generalizations and rules of thumb, however, and these can often be tweaked to fit your own (or the foal’s) situation.
The trauma of separation is emotional (for both the mare and foal) as well as physical, especially for a very young or insecure foal. A 5 to 6 month old foal is more independent emotionally, and able to handle the stress better than a 3 month old foal. Some foals must be weaned early, however, due to drought/poor pasture and lack of good feed for the mare, or health of the mare (or if she’s old or thin) or to keep a fast-growing foal from developing skeletal problems due to too much milk. If care is taken to make the transition as smooth as possible, it’s not so hard on the mare and foal. Age at weaning should be determined, if possible, by what’s best for the mare and/or foal. If you have to wean a foal early, keep in mind that foals are most vulnerable to disease at 2 to 4 months of age when their passive immunity from colostrum is waning and their own immune system is just starting to take over the job of producing antibodies. Thus it is crucial to minimize stress.
The traditional way to wean, and often the most stressful, is to completely and abruptly separate mares and foals, putting a foal all by itself, or a group of foals in a pen and taking the mares away. If weaning this way, it’s usually best to take the mares clear away, to another farm if possible, so the foals can’t hear them. It’s always better to take the mares and leave the foals in a familiar place—such as a pen or box stall they’ve lived in before. They are less likely to injure themselves, and also won’t have contact with new pathogens in a strange environment.
Some horsemen do a gradual weaning, separating the mare and foal during the day and putting them back together at night for a few days, or removing the mares for an increasingly longer period each day, taking 5 to 10 days for weaning. But this can be stressful for some foals, prolonging the ordeal. It can also cause udder problems in the mare and digestive problems in the foal.
About 30 years ago some horsemen began fence line weaning, with mares and foals in separate but adjacent pens where they can still be near one another. This type of weaning was inspired by a study at Texas A&M, which showed that foals with fence line contact with their dams during the first week of weaning had fewer signs of stress (less whinnying, pacing, running, and lower cortisol levels in their blood) than foals abruptly and completely separated from their mothers. Foals weaned in pens next to their mothers had behavioral and physiological responses very similar to foals not being weaned. Most mares and foals accept fenceline weaning with very little protest and after 5 to 9 days can be completely separated with no additional stress.
Data from that research study showed that physical separation with continued visual, smell and hearing contact—but no nursing—was less stressful than sudden complete separation. A foal at 5 to 6 months of age doesn’t need milk anymore, but is still emotionally dependent on his mother. To suddenly take her away usually leaves him insecure and frantic. Horses are herd animals, happiest with other horses. Foals with an adult companion are least stressed during weaning.
EXAMPLES OF VARIOUS WAYS TO WEAN
Lynda McCall (Mount Holly, Arkansas) who with her husband, Jim, has raised and worked with hundreds of young horses over the years, has weaned foals many different ways. “It can work well in various ways, depending on how many horses you have and the level of training the foals have had prior to being weaned. For instance, if you have a large group of mares and foals at pasture, you can take another mare out every few days,” she says.
The foal whose mother is taken away still has his herd mates for company and is not stressed. The foal may whinny for a few minutes after you take the mare, but his buddies are busy playing and having fun; he doesn’t want to be left out of his peer group and soon rejoins their play. As the weeks go by there are less mares in the pasture and more babies, until finally you take the last mare out. “At that time you can put in an older, mellow mare as a babysitter, or even a gelding who likes babies, and you have a weanling herd with a caretaker,” says Lynda.
“We did that when we had large groups of Thoroughbred babies, but now we have smaller groups. We wean our Quarter Horse foals in stalls next to their mothers. But one thing you want to do when weaning high-energy babies is get them out of the stalls as quickly as possible. It’s all about energy management. You have to keep their energy at a place where the mind can continue to function.” You don’t want the young horse confined too much, too long or this adds to his stress level.
“The way we wean now is to use a big foaling stall. It’s built in such a way that you can pull a divider across it, but the divider is a heavy-duty screen, so the horses can see through it. We put the mare and foal together at first in the big foaling stall where he was born.” He was pretty comfortable in that stall, and probably remembers it.
There are two buckets, one on each end, so the mare teaches the baby where the food is, and the water. They are both together in the big stall and the mare teaches him that this is a nice place to be. “We may let them spend a couple days in there together before we separate them by pulling the divider across, so the foal becomes very comfortable with this routine and environment—adjusting from being out at pasture all summer. Then we take the mare and put her on the other side of the screen and leave the baby on his side,” says Lynda.
“Mares will usually tell you when they are ready to wean their foal, especially mares that have had foals before. I try not to wean until the mare is ready. Once we separate them in the big stall we usually leave the mare there a few days. We don’t turn her out during the day because this just gets most babies too upset,” she says.
The big stall is at the end of the barn and there are other stalls that run down both sides of the barn so there is another stall on each side of the big one. “We’ll have a horse in the stall next to the baby that’s being weaned, and we always put a horse there that’s very baby-friendly. It might be another foal that was weaned earlier, or a friendly young horse that’s a familiar buddy, or maybe a kind old gelding or mare that loves babies. We’ve even used a stallion that loves babies. He’ll nicker at that foal and say, ‘come over here; you’re my baby and I’ll take care of you since your mama’s gone.’” That distracts the baby from being upset at weaning, and gives the foal another focus for attention, to socialize with this other horse.
“As long as mama is comfortable and happy about which horses are on the other side of the wall (she’s been able to meet them when she and the foal were both together in the big stall for a couple of days), this works fine. If she fights over the fence at any of those horses on either side, we put in a different horse that she’s more comfortable with,” explains Lynda.
“Then one day after the foal is at ease with having mama on the other side of the screen, we take the mare away. If the baby is having a really hard time with weaning, we might take the mare and move her down one stall. Then there is no one there right next to the foal on that side, but the foal is just a short ways (on a diagonal) away from his mom. We’ve even taken mares that were really kind, who will buddy up with that baby, and put that mare in the space right next to the foal after we take his dam out of it. We have 6 stalls on that side, and we’ll just move the mare down another stall each day, and at some point when baby is not paying attention, the next time we move her down we just take her clear out of the barn and out in the field with the rest of the mares,” she says.
This weaning method sometimes takes 3 or 4 days and sometimes it might take 8 days, depending on the foal and his security and confidence level. This is a very stress-free weaning system. “It’s all about stress. Our lives are defined by stress, and theirs is too. The amount of stress they have as youngsters influences their self-confidence as they get to be older horses. We want to raise a self-confident, secure horse. We start this process when they are born and try to make weaning an easy, non-stressful process,” explains Lynda.
Dave and Brenda Kellerman raise and train show horses near Versailles, Kentucky. They wean their foals at 3 to 4 months of age and try to pick cool weather for weaning. “We just leave the baby in the stall where it’s been with its mother, and take the mare away,” says Brenda. “The foal is in a familiar place where it can see other horses, but is not weaned with any other foals; we wean them all individually. The foals can always look across the aisle and see other horses. We take the mare to another barn so they can’t see or hear each other squall back and forth.”
They don’t wean foals together because they don’t want them to get attached to a buddy. “We give them a few days to adjust to being alone in their stall, then we get a halter on them and start working with them. Since most of our babies will be going into halter futurities by late August or early September, they stay inside after being weaned, and are not turned out,” says Brenda.
Jimmie Hardin raises Paints in Texas to show at halter. She tries to make weaning as easy as possible for her babies with minimal stress. The foals are wormed, trimmed, etc. while still on their mothers. “These things are already done so we don’t have to stress them at weaning,” she says.
“I feed them what they’ll be getting after weaning, so they are used to that. I have them halter broke and leading before they ever get weaned. I don’t mess with them much during the first few days except to maybe go in the stall and pet them a little. I don’t make them do anything until they are settled down more,” says Hardin.
“I don’t move them from the stall they are used to; I just take the mother away and leave the baby. I don’t put babies together. They just stay in their familiar stall. I’ve found that when you put some together, it’s like weaning them all over again when you eventually separate them,” she says. They become dependent on the buddy. Sometimes one foal will bully the other one. They may also chew on one another’s manes and tails, so she prefers to wean them by themselves.
“A lot of people wean by putting the mare in a pen or stall next to the baby, but that never worked very well for me. The foal still frets when you take the mother away. It works better for me, especially where I take care of a lot of other people’s horses, to just have them come get the mare and take her away. The foal can’t hear the mother and within a couple of days is fine with it,” says Hardin.
Age at weaning will vary depending on the foals. “You can tell how soon you can wean one, or whether you need to wait longer. If the foal is a real mama’s baby and insecure, it stays right with mama all the time. You know that foal will be stressed a lot by weaning. The ones that are more independent and go running off to play and don’t look for their mother for a long time are more ready to wean. They usually don’t have a problem with it. I just watch the babies and see if they are ready yet to leave their mother. If I have one that doesn’t leave its mother very often, I don’t wean it yet. You are asking for problems if you wean one too early,” she explains.
Some foals she weans as young as 3 months of age, while others are closer to 5 months. “I like to wean them at about 4 months, if it works out that you can leave them with mama that long,” says Hardin. Some must be weaned early if they are growing too fast. The attitude of the mare will also make a difference.
“I weaned one this past summer that was only 3 months old because her mother would just knock her out of the feed trough and didn’t care much about letting her nurse. We could put that foal in a stall by herself and she didn’t even fret. I weaned her one day and the next morning she was standing at the feed trough eating and not at all worried about where mama was,” says Hardin.
Carol Harris (Bo-Bett Farm in Reddick, Florida) weans her foals at 4 months. “We generally use the Farmer’s Almanac to determine when the signs are favorable for weaning, then separate 3 or 4 mares and foals at a time from the pasture herd, according to their birth dates,” says Harris.
By this time the foals are eating grain and fairly familiar with people, since they’ve been brought into the barn with their mothers occasionally. “The first day of weaning, we give the foal a little help with the emotional stress, using a minimum amount of tranquilizer, just to take the edge off his worry,” says Harris. “We put the foal in a stall with a halter on, dragging a long rope, and turn on a radio quite loud in the barn—so the foal can’t hear the mare nickering and the mares don’t hear the foals. We take the mare away and turn the radio up, and we may keep it loud for about a week.” This seems to help distract the foals and makes sure they never hear their mothers.
Don McDuffee (Ocala, Florida) weans foals in pairs. He feels this eliminates a lot of the stress if the foal has a buddy he knows, and it also helps keep them eating well because foals are competitive eaters. If one goes to the feed, the other one will also.
“When we get ready to wean, we do it as we have stalls available. A lot of people wean by the signs, and that’s wonderful if you can do it, but I have to wait until I have a stall to put a couple foals in,” says McDuffee. He weans pairs that are close together in age, that get along well together. Since he foals out a lot of outside mares, many of the mares go home when their babies are weaned. If the mares will be staying on the farm, he weans the foals at one end of the farm and takes the mares to the other end, keeping them as far away as possible so they don’t hear or see their babies again until they are over the weaning.
“I wean the babies in solid stalls. I also have a small paddock with a one-stall barn in it, 16 by 12 feet. I often put 2 or 3 babies in that stall and leave the door wide open, letting them come and go. We put feed inside and outside the stall. We always put at least 2 foals together and they buddy up very quickly. The important thing to me is that they have some competition for eating, since eating is very crucial for these futurity babies,” explains McDuffee.
Gene Parker raises halter and performance horses near Orrum, North Carolina, and usually foals between 40 and 60 mares. Many of these are outside mares, belonging to other people. His weaning methods are somewhat unique in that the foals get weaned and halter-trained by a donkey at the same time—which takes their minds off the weaning. The Parkers wean 2 or 3 foals at a time, in individual stalls in a barn that has small pens behind those stalls, with doors to the pens.
When the foal is ready to be weaned, the mare and foal are put into one of these stalls. “We tranquilize the mare just a little bit, then catch and halter the baby and take the mare away. This is often the first time the foal has had a halter on unless there was some reason we had to handle him earlier. Even though we catch and deworm the foals every 30 days while they’re on the mares, we don’t need to halter them for that,” says Parker.
“When we take the mare away, we have a donkey standing right outside the door of the stall, in the outside pen, and when we open that door we hook the donkey to the baby and push them both into that little paddock. It’s a small pipe pen, about 50 by 50 feet, so there’s not a lot of room for them to run or get into trouble. We’ll stay with them there for a little while to make sure all goes well,” Parker explains.
The necking donkeys are very calm and quiet, and good at their job. “We use a Jenny and a couple of male donkeys that are not aggressive. The 3 donkeys are different sizes. The small Jenny works very well on the younger, daintier foals. The larger donkey is better for a big stout colt. The medium donkey works either way. I usually like to leave foals on their mothers at least 4 months and sometimes longer if a foal is born in January—since we’re not ready to start weaning foals until breeding season is over,” he says.
“Necking the foal to the donkey does a couple things. It teaches him to give to pressure and follow the donkey, and it takes the foal’s mind off his mama. You hardly ever hear one whinny for the mare. And since we’ve taken the mare away to another paddock he doesn’t hear her. The foal is more concerned about the donkey than about mama,” explains Parker.
“We leave them hooked together for a couple hours, then we unhook and bring the baby back to the stall. Usually by then the foal leads very well because he’s learned to follow the donkey. Most of them are kind of worn out and give up fighting. If one of them acts like it isn’t getting along well, we might hook it up to the donkey again the next day for a couple hours, to help quiet the foal.”
The foals seem to go through weaning much better with this immediate distraction. “If you merely put a foal in a stall by itself it will crash around and try to get out. But hooking the foal to the donkey eliminates that. After the donkey session we just put the foal back through the door into the familiar stall he just came out of, and he seems to be more settled. This works very well for us, with the many foals we wean here.”
There are many, many ways to wean, and breeders generally develop ways that work best for their own situation. Foals that wean with the least stress are less vulnerable to illness at weaning time and the least set-back in their eating and growth. Whatever works to minimize stress—distractions, buddies, mom in an adjacent pen or stall, a baby-sitter horse or a mellow miniature donkey out in the pasture with a group of weanlings—makes life easier for both you and the newly weaned babies.