Weaning is one of the most stressful times in a young horse’s life. The combination of being separated from its mother, undergoing changes in the diet, receiving more handling by humans and possibly a change in environment can stress a foal. Most foals are weaned between four to six months, with some being weaned as early as three months. Because this stress can make the foal more susceptible to illness, equine scientists are looking at ways to reduce stress at weaning.
What method is best
There are several methods to wean foals, but not everyone agrees on a method that works best. Owners must take several factors into consideration: their horses, facilities they have available, the environment, nutrition, and labor when selecting a method that works best for their farm or ranch.
Research has shown two of the best methods to wean foals with as little stress as possible are fenceline weaning, and nanny-mare weaning. Fenceline weaning a foal is accomplished by placing the foal on one side of the fence or in a separate pen. Then placing the mother on the other side of the fence or in the next pen. This type of weaning allows the mother and baby to have fenceline contact, this results in less pacing, running and whinnying during the first week. Pairs typically accept this method with little protest, and can be completely separated five to nine days later.
Another method with proven success is adding “nanny mares” to the herd. Nanny mares are adult mares unrelated to the mare or foal. Typically, these mares don’t have a foal of their own and are part of the herd from the time the foal is born. Their purpose is to serve as baby-sitters, which is proven to be a less stressful method of weaning foals once the mothers are taken away. Research showed foals weaned with this method whinnied and paced less, and ate and slept more.
Other ways to wean foals include abrupt weaning where the mares or foals are moved out of sight and out of hearing range from one another. Owners who use this method recommend moving the mares, for best results. If the foal is left in familiar surroundings and knows where its feed and water is located, it will experience less stress. However, if the foal is moved to new surroundings, it has multiple stress factors: not only did it lose its mother, but it’s exposed to a new environment and has to learn to locate food and water.
Some owners also like to use a gradual method of weaning, if they have a more than just a couple mares with foals, which involves removing a few mares or foals at a time, until all the foals are weaned. One owner commented that when using this method she would remove mares a few at a time, leaving her most gentle, nurturing mares as the last to have their foals weaned because they were best baby-sitters.
Preparing the foal nutritionally
“Foals start eating some of its mother’s concentrate diet within days of birth,” Dr. Carey Williams, equine extension specialist and associate director of extension at the Equine Science Center with Rutger’s University, said. “Many people don’t realize that foals will eat their mother’s feed, as well as their own.”
Due to this, Williams encourages owners to hold off creep feeding the foal until it’s eight weeks old. By then the mare’s milk quality and production begins to decrease, so the foal won’t be able to meet its nutritional requirements through nursing alone. By offering creep feed at that point, the foal may not only have a higher average daily weight gain, but should experience less stress at weaning because it’s used to eating a concentrate diet. As the foal grows older, it will also start to consume hay and pasture.
Before four months of age, it’s recommended the foal be fed 0.5-1 kilogram of feed per 100 kilograms of body weight per day. The creep feed concentrate should be formulated for a growing horse with a correct balance of vitamins and minerals. It should contain 14-16 percent crude protein, 0.7-0.9 percent calcium, 0.5-0.6 percent phosphorus, 50-90 parts per million (ppm) copper, and 120-240 parts per million zinc.
Once the foal is weaned, free-choice, good quality grass or a mixed grass legume hay can be added to the diet. The concentrate portion of the diet can then be increased to 1-1.5 percent of the foal’s body weight, containing 14-16 percent crude protein, 0.8 percent calcium, 0.5 percent phosphorus, 50-80 parts per million copper, and 100-200 parts per million zinc.