Weaning is the most stressful part of a foal’s life. There’s a high risk of injury and the change of diet can affect growth and bone density. Weaning can also cause permanent behavioural problems, such as windsucking and separation anxiety, which can remain with the horse for the rest of its life. There are two schools of thought – abrupt weaning, where mares and foals are separated instantly and forever – and gradual weaning.
In large studs, particularly Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, where the brood mares are not ridden, abrupt weaning is the method of choice. Mares and foals run in paddocks as a herd. The mares are always kept together and often foal out in the paddock, rather than in a stable. On weaning day, the foals are all moved to another paddock, out of earshot of the mares on the other side of the farm.
An old mare or two is usually run with the brood mare band. Known as ‘nurse mares’, they are left with the foals to settle down the youngsters. The foals are usually ‘creep fed’ from birth and are used to eating concentrates, as well as hay and grazing. At weaning, a slightly higher protein ration is introduced to compensate for the lack of mare’s milk.
Foals are weaned any time from four-and-a-half to six months. The weanling herd stays together until yearling stage, when they are all halter-broken together.
This is used with show horses, which may only take two months out of their schedule to have a foal. They are ridden up to about five months of pregnancy, then worked or ridden lightly to maintain muscle up to the eighth month. They are put back under saddle a month after foaling, and are frequently in the show ring, with foal at foot, five months after the birth.
The foal is shown at five or six months old, and so is handled and halter-trained from birth. It is unlikely to show the separation anxiety typical of a Thoroughbred as it is accustomed to staying in the stable while its mother is taken out for exercise. The foal is left here for longer and longer periods and at eight months is finally separated from its mother completely, with each in its own stable.
A modified form of gradual weaning that can be used by small breeders is to keep each mare and foal in a stable at night and let them run in a herd during the day. The mare is taken out of the stable sporadically, for an hour or so, then returned, so the foal grows used to being on its own. Foals are weaned at seven to eight months, as they grow out better and more cheaply on mare’s milk than concentrate.
Start weaning gradually, taking the mare out for two hours, then four, then, after about 10 days, take the mare out to the paddock to graze during the day, but leave it with the foal at night. Its milk will decrease and it will start weaning the foal itself as well. While the mare is in the paddock, feed the foal a weaner concentrate at lunch-time. Towards the end of the process, keep the mare or mares in the stable for two days, while the foals go out together during the day.