When my first foal arrived, I was overjoyed. It was pure bliss to watch this tiny gangly creature shape into a miniature version of her mom. Soon, I realized I would have to start weaning my foal.
While I’d always had adult horses under my care, I hadn’t had to wean a foal before, so I was a little at a loss. Luckily, I have strong ties to my horse community, and some of the older ranchers were very helpful in their suggestions and explanations.
How do you know a foal is ready to wean? A foal can be weaned as soon as large enough and independent enough to survive grazing alone and no longer need its mother’s milk. Traditionally, a foal is ready to wean at six to eight months of age.
The weaning process needs to gradually help the foal adjust and support the mare to stop producing milk. Sudden weaning by removing the colt or filly from the mare is not advisable. If the foal is very young still (under four to five months of age), this can lead to a sick and stressed foal and potential mastitis in the mare.
As a cattle farmer will tell you, weaning time is never a pleasant experience. The calves call for their mothers almost non-stop until they accept their independence. The same is valid for horses.
Fortunately, with horses, we can make the weaning process a lot less traumatic for the mare and foal by doing it incrementally.
6 Steps to Stress-Free Weaning a Foal
With this step-by-step process, you’ll be ready in a few days or a week or two. Each case of weaning a foal with this step-by-step process will be different. You will need to assess the progress day by day. It’s not an arbitrary process of just putting the mother in one pasture and the foal in another.
1. Decide If the Foal Is Old Enough for Weaning
Not all foals mature at the same age or the same growth rate. A foal needs to be physically mature enough to wean. If the foal is weak or underweight, it is advisable to let them suckle a bit longer to get extra nourishment from their dam.
Should the mare not have enough milk to sustain the foal, you may need to supplement a milk mixture to help the foal grow. Either way, the foal will not be ready for weaning in the complete sense of the word.
Weaning a foal refers to the process of taking them away from their mother and reducing the amount of milk they consume. It includes eventually stopping their access to milk entirely. This process aims to get the foal to be independent and more grazing-based in their diet.
A foal is ready for weaning when:
- They only occasionally drink from their mother.
- They graze confidently for most of the day.
- They drink water when their mother drinks from the water trough.
- They happily play with the other horses, only returning to their mother when they need reassurance.
- They are at least five to six months of age.
2. Prepare for Weaning the Mare and Foal
If you prepare for the weaning process, it will go a lot smoother and less stressful for both the owner and the horses.
Prepare two separate areas where you can place the mare and foal out of sight of each other. I like to use two stables, but you could close the foal in the barn and leave the mare in the pasture. Whichever facilities you use, be sure they are secure and safe.
Both the mare and foal will be pacing and agitated during the weaning process. Check that there are no dangerous objects such as rakes or hay forks in the barn. Ensure the fencing of your pasture is secure too. If you use two stables, be sure that you have a top door to close the stables off. The two horses will probably want to get to each other and may jump their doors.
Remove water buckets from the stables during the initial weaning stages as the horses can knock them over and slip in the resulting mess. While you can provide some hay as a distraction, it’s best to place it on the floor and not hang it in a hay net.
An important step is to start your foal halter training before weaning them. This may seem like such a small thing. But, excellent halter training sets the foal up for successful weaning. It helps ensure they develop a wonderful disposition for their ridden work as an adult horse.
With halter training, you will be better able to control the foal when you move them away from their mom to another enclosure during weaning. Halter training also teaches the young foal to be patient and not panic.
3. Initial Separation of Mare and Foal
With everything ready, it’s time to separate the horses. While some horse owners separate the mother and foal by moving them apart for several months, I prefer a more gentle and gradual process. This is less stressful and traumatic to both horses.
To start, I like to separate the mother and foal for 10-15 minutes in the afternoon. The afternoon is usually a lazy time of the day for my horses. They are used to being confined in their stables.
If the foal is very needy, I keep the foal in the large box where the mare and foal can stable together. I then move the mare to a regular box as far from the foal as I can manage, or I leave the mare in the round pen for that period.
The idea is for the foal and mare to get used to not being together.
4. Returning the Mare to the Foal
After the short separation period, I return the mare to the foal.
A very protective mare can become somewhat aggressive during the initial weaning process. Be wary and use a good quality halter to control her. Fit the foal with a strong foal halter to manage it effectively.
When the foal rejoins the mare, they may be excessively exuberant. Be prepared to handle them. Having a human helper hold one of the horses for you may be a great idea.
With a mare that is well trained, the simple option is to tie her securely to a hitching post and fetch the foal. However, avoid tying the foal at all costs as they will not be trained to being tied up yet and could injure themselves.
5. Repeat and Extend the Separation of Mare and Foal
Repeat the separation of mare and foal several times a day and over several days. You will notice the mare and foal will not call to each other so much as they realize they will be reunited again after separation.
Next, increase the length of separation. Eventually, the foal should happily munch on some hay in their stable for at least half an hour per weaning session. Soon the mare and foal can be kept separate for 40 minutes to an hour without excessive calling. Let them sleep in individual stables at night or keep them in adjacent pastures.
6. Adjusting the Weaning Foal
When separating the mare and foal over a long period, keeping a friend with the foal is a good idea. This could be another foal or an older and gentle horse. The presence of another horse will help reassure the foal that the mother isn’t going to abandon them.
If you have an outstanding older gelding or a motherly mare, it will help to pasture the foal with these horses while the mother grazes further away from the foal. Be sure to keep an eye on the older horses and the foal as there may be in-fighting among them. This can happen if one or more of the older horses are possessive. If one of the older horses is dominant and argumentative with the foal, it may be better to remove that horse.
After as little as ten days, the foal should be quite comfortable without its mother. At this point, it is helpful to have a smaller herd of younger horses that the foal can enter. If you don’t have a smaller herd and can’t keep the mare and foal separated long term, then your next weaning marker will be when the mare’s milk dries up.
Mares usually start reducing milk production as soon as the foal isn’t suckling on them permanently. Once the foal is adjusted to separate all day and night from the mare, you can keep them separate longer. Wait two weeks before you return the foal to the mare. This helps solidify weaning and allows the mare to dry up. If you return the foal to the mare before then, suckling will start again.
Weaning and Stopping the Mare’s Milk Production
When the foal suckles, it triggers the production of the hormones responsible for making milk. If there’s no foal suckling, the milk hormones will dry up, and the mare will go dry. This is why removing the foal from the mare for about two weeks will usually stop milk production.
At this point, when you return the foal, it will hurt if they suckle. As a result, the mare will instinctively kick at them. This concludes the weaning process for you.
In theory, this is how weaning works.
A few overly motherly mares will even start producing milk if an orphaned foal happens to suckle on them. This is excellent news for fostering a wayward foal but not so great when weaning their foals. For these mares, the weaning process is less about weaning the foal and more about weaning the mare. You may have to remove their foals for several months to stop these mares’ milk production entirely.
Weaning and Mastitis: Keep Your Mare Healthy During Weaning Process
All mammals that suckle their young long term, like cows and horses, run the risk of developing mastitis. Mastitis is the inflammation of the intra-mammary tissues that results from excessive milk production.
When the foal is no longer suckling, the milk production will continue for several days before it starts to dry up. You may notice milk dripping from the mare’s udder.
During the weaning of my foal, I noticed my mare looked really uncomfortable. Within days, she had a massive udder, and her udder was also warm to the touch. (Warmth is a sign of inflammation or infection) To help her discomfort, I cold-hosed her udder twice a day. I also applied mastitis cream (on Amazon) to her udder to help combat infection. Luckily, she quickly began to dry up, and the swelling reduced within a day or two.
If your mare doesn’t respond to the mastitis cream and the cold hosing, or if her udder swelling increases, you will need to consult a vet. She may need a stronger and long-acting antibiotic injection. If left untreated, mastitis can become septic, and in the worst-case scenario, you could lose your mare.
Mare and Foal Care Post-Weaning
Both the mare and foal will require extra feeding and necessary vitamins and minerals during and after the weaning process. Feeding legume-rich hay such as lucerne is a great choice. However, feed lucerne in small quantities as it can lead to colic and laminitis.
Lucerne is rich in calcium and is a high protein source, with 20% per pound of hay being protein. Feeding lucerne is ideal for helping your mare gain weight and your foal to grow strong.
Weaning Wild Horses Is Much Different
When I described the weaning process to some of my city-dwelling relatives, they were pretty surprised. After all, they believed that wild horses weaned on their own, so why would I need to be so hands-on with weaning my foal?
In the wild, the weaning process works a little differently and more violently. In natural herds, the stallion will often bite and kick the foal away from the mare so he can cover (breed) the mare again. Often, coverings happen within a few weeks of the mare having foaled. When the mare is heavily in foal, she will automatically begin driving her current foal away as suckling will then be painful.
While the foal will still stick around their mother until the new foal is born, they are weaned since they no longer drink from their mother. In domestic situations, mares aren’t bred as frequently. It’s harder on their long-term health to breed again right away. As a result, the mare gets covered by stallions when the owners decide to breed, not necessarily according to nature’s way.
Weaning a foal can be reasonably straightforward if the foal is well-handled and if you are hands-on. However, there is a point during the process where you have to shut your ears to the calls of a very unhappy foal. Be responsible and ensure your foal and mare are never in harm’s way or at risk of injury.
With a bit of patience and a lot of time, your foal will wean successfully. Weaning opens the door to the other training steps they will undergo on their road to being a healthy and well-mannered horse.
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