Foal weaning - does it need to be stressful?

Feral foal Weaning is generally considered to be one of the most stressful events in a foal's life. In the wild a foal would be weaned by the mare preventing the foal from feeding shortly before the mare produces her next foal. By this time the foal would be well developed and fairly independent of the mother - both emotionally and nutritionally. The foal would also be in a herd, probably spending most of its time with other foals but not completely separated from the mother.

By contrast domestic horses are usually abruptly separated from the mare at a much younger age (usually around 6 months) making the experience much more stressful. Even hardened stud men can find the calling of the mares and foals at this time distressing.

Whilst the mental stress of separation is fairly obvious the physical stress should also be considered. The foal's digestive system has to cope with the sudden removal of milk from the diet. Milk is mainly digested in the small intestine whereas forage is fermented in the hind gut - so this is a major diet change. As well as eating grass or hay the foal should be eating hard feed for at least a month before weaning so that the gut flora have time to develop.

As the immune system takes about a year to fully develop and it is affected by stress, a foal is prone to illness. Respiratory disease and gastrointestinal infections are the main concerns. Adding probiotics or yeast to the foal's feed is thought to help boost the immune system.

Clearly, stress should be avoided as much as possible. The main factors which affect the level of stress felt by a foal at weaning are:

  • age and independence of the foal
  • foal's condition and temperament
  • method of weaning

When to wean

The decision to wean may be to allow the mare to come back into work or to concentrate on the next foal, or due to the condition of the mare and/or foal (too fat or too thin).

Mare and foal being shown in hand Before weaning the foal should be healthy, obtaining most of its nutrition from forage and hard feed, and be used to the company of other horses. A timid foal which is very dependent on the mother should be weaned later if possible. Ideally the foal should also be halter trained to make subsequent handling easier and less stressful. If the foal can be accustomed to short periods of separation from the mare (e.g. while the mare is attended by the farrier or vet) it should make weaning easier. Entering the mare and foal in and in-hand showing class is also a good way to get the foal used to being handled and to get experience of the wider world whilst still being able to depend on the mother.

Weaning should not be done when the weather is very hot as a distressed foal running about can soon suffer from heat exhaustion.

Methods of weaning

The method of weaning is often dictated by what is practical for the owner or manager but may also be personal preference. Whatever method is used it is important that the foal is familiar with environment it is to be left in and that the environment is carefully checked to remove anything on which a distressed foal could injure himself. There are 3 main methods of weaning - paddock, box and fence.

Paddock weaning
This is a popular method on stud farms. A group of mares and foals are separated by gradually removing the mares to a paddock some distance away (out of earshot if possible). Foals may be initially distracted by grazing and playing with other foals but can become distressed once they realise their mother is missing.

Box weaning

Foals pairing up Another method often used on stud farms. A pair of mares and foals are taken from a paddock to a stable. The foals are put in the stable and the mares returned to the paddock. Both mares and foals are likely to be distressed and call to one another. By the following day the foals should be settled and can be turned out. It is important to match foals by size and temperament to avoid the additional stress of a smaller or timid foal being bullied. Foals tend to pair up, so observing them in the field should give a good idea of which foals to put together.

Fence weaning

Similar to paddock weaning except the mares are moved to an adjacent paddock. The fence prevents the foal from nursing but allows mare and foal to stay close together. The fence must be strong and in good condition so that the foal cannot be injured if he tries to reach the mare through or over the fence. Another option is to split the paddock with electric tape. The fence must be high enough that the shortest foal cannot nurse from the tallest mare as, occasionally, a mare with a full udder will allow a foal which isn't her own to nurse. Foals do not usually seem to mind being separate by a fence and after about a week the mare can be taken away without the foal becoming distressed.

Mare with foal feeding Fence weaning seems to be the least stressful method and tests have shown that foals weaned in this way have lower levels of cortisol (an indicator of stress) in the blood than those weaned by other methods. It is often also the most practical method for the single foal owner. A foal needs a companion during weaning so, if there are no other foals, a quiet older horse or pony should be used. In this case the foal should be allowed several weeks to become familiar with the companion before weaning.

After weaning

Once the mare and foal are separated the foal should be carefully monitored for any signs of injuries, illness or weight loss. Avoid placing any additional stress on the foal at this time e.g. worming, vaccination, gelding, training.

The mare needs to be considered too. With the foal no longer sucking, it will take a while for her milk to dry up. Keeping her at grass so that she is moving about, and cutting down on hard feed will speed up the process and reduce the risk of mastitis developing. Her udder should be checked twice daily for heat and lumps - the vet should be called if mastitis is suspected.

Take home message

Weaning can be a stressful time for a foal, potentially resulting in health problems. By preparing the foal and taking care with how weaning is carried out can significantly reduce the stress, resulting in a happier, healthier foal.

More information

Posted on 29 September, 2011

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