Weaning: Stress Can be Minimized by Management

by Kentucky Equine Research

Every foal has to go through it; every owner admits to some worries about it; and almost everyone survives it. For something that happens every year, weaning never seems to take on the status of "just another day's work." Separating a foal from its dam is guaranteed to produce some anxiety in both animals. Managers can minimize problems by weaning at the optimum time and by implementing a set of management steps for both mares and foals.

Early Months

A newborn foal nurses frequently, gaining weight quickly in the first days and weeks of life. Soon, however, the foal begins to nibble grass or hay and to sample grain from the mare’s ration. By four months of age, pasture provides a significant portion of the diet, and the foal spends less time with its dam and more hours in the company of other foals. Managers can encourage this move toward independence by briefly taking the foal out of sight of the mare for hoof trimming, weighing, and other routine care.

Although mare and foal may become quite agitated at first, calling loudly to each other until they are reunited, these brief separations become less stressful with repetition.

The Day Approaches 

Foals are generally weaned when they are somewhere between four and six months of age. Well before this time, young horses need to be eating grain regularly, deriving the majority of their nutrition from pasture and concentrates. A study by the Japan Racing Association concluded that creep feeding of a nursing foal should begin as soon as the foal shows an interest in consuming grain. A commonly used guideline is to provide a pound of grain for each month of a foal’s age. One way to do this is by providing an enclosed feeding area in the pasture that allows foals to enter while excluding mares.

This method gives foals free-choice access to grain many times a day, but makes it difficult to monitor intake by an individual foal. For this reason, farms may choose to provide an individual bucket of grain for each foal when the mares are fed. A word of caution: studies at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) have shown that foals with unlimited access to concentrated feeds may become too heavy, increasing their risk of developing skeletal problems as they continue to mature. KER also showed that foals consuming reduced-glycemic feeds had a lower incidence of skeletal problems. Glycemic response (the amount of glucose produced from a grain meal) may be reduced in feeds which have added fat, reduced carbohydrate content or which have slower rates of intake than their alternatives.

Methods Can Vary 

The actual method of weaning depends to some extent on the number of foals, their ages, and the facilities that are available. In every case, the goal is the same: to accomplish the separation of mares and foals while minimizing stress and avoiding injuries.

A traditional method is to remove all mares at the same time, moving them far enough away that neither group can see or hear the other. Foals are left with their peers in a familiar pasture. There will be a period of running and whinnying that may last a day or two, after which the foals realize they can get along fine without their moms. Another practice is to remove a couple of mares each day, starting with the dams of the oldest and most independent foals and continuing until only foals are left. Foals seem to feel less stress as long as there are still adult horses in sight, but there is a chance of injury if foals pester irritable mares while searching for their mothers.

Fence-line weaning is an option in which mares are moved to one side of a strong fence while foals are left on the other side. The fence must be constructed to prevent nursing, but each group can see, hear, and smell the other group. After a week or so, the mares can be taken away with very little effect on the foals. A study at Texas A&M University showed that foals weaned in this manner showed less whinnying and running than foals separated by other methods. Levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates level of stress, were lower in fence-weaned foals than in foals suddenly separated completely from their mothers.

Some farms choose to confine newly weaned foals to a stall for a day or two before letting them out to pasture. Like pastured foals, stalled foals will whinny and become agitated when the mare is removed. Regardless of the facilities used–open pasture, fenced pen, or stall–safety should be the first consideration for both foals and mares. Managers need to inspect fences, gates, doors, and partitions to be sure foals can’t get legs or heads stuck as they search frantically for their mothers.

When the Time is Right

Managers of large farms generally wean over a several-month period when groups of foals reach the desired age. Thus, foals born in February and March would be weaned well before those that arrived in May or June. However, while general parameters apply to most horses, each foal grows at its own rate. Individual evaluation might show that a foal needs to be weaned early, possibly because it is growing too fast. Conversely, a foal that is small or sick may be left with its dam somewhat longer than usual, although nursing seems to be triggered more by emotional than nutritional needs in older foals. Other reasons to wean a foal early might be to get a show mare back into performance condition, or because the mare or foal is to be sold or moved to another farm.

Cool It! 

Every effort should be made to keep mares and foals healthy during the adjustment period that follows weaning. Consider these points:

• Avoid additional stress such as halter-breaking, vaccinations, or deworming foals within a few weeks of weaning.

• If possible, don’t wean during extremely hot, humid weather. Some foals may run themselves to exhaustion, and heat stress can be life-threatening.

• Be sure foals have become familiar with feed products before weaning.

• Watch foals for injury and also for signs of respiratory or digestive disease, as stress has a depressing effect on the immune system.

A product like Bag Balm can be applied to keep udders in good condition. Check mares’ udders several times a day for heat or tenderness that may be signs of mastitis, and consult a veterinarian for treatment of the infection.

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