By Eleanor Richards
I bought a broodmare at auction.
Nothing odd about the purchase, but this mare was due to foal in two months and still had her yearling colt at her side. The colt was not part of the sale.
I guess that's one way to wean a foal.
Wean means to accustom a mammal to take nutrition from a source other than nursing. Another definition is to detach a mammal from a source of dependence.
When weaning a foal, both definitions are used. In addition to having the source of nursing removed, the foal is separated from a source of comfort. Weaning is traumatic for foals…and sometimes for the mare.
Before weaning begins, the mare and foal must be healthy. Stress can trigger illness.
The best age for weaning is between four and six months. The foal should be nutritionally independent from the mare by this age - eating a feed mix designed for young growing horses, plus good quality forage. The mare's milk will not be providing adequate nutrition for the growing foal after four months.
The age when to wean a particular foal depends on several factors. If the mare is nasty you want to remove that detrimental influence as soon as possible. On the other hand, if the mare has a good mind and will be a good influence, leave him with her until you determine it is time.
The foal should be emotionally independent. Each foal is an individual and some mature sooner than others. Weaning a shy timid foal too soon will create stress.
I have discovered waiting until a foal is six months of age is less stressful. The mare is ready to get rid of the foal and the foal is pretty independent.
There are several methods of weaning foals.
Cold Turkey - This method is probably the most traumatic, but the quickest. A day is picked to wean the foal; the dam and foal are separated.
If using the "cold turkey" method it is usually best to take the mare from the foal. This allows the foal to stay in a familiar area.
That familiar area must be safe…free from dangerous objects. The walls should be smooth and high. Buckets and feeders should be removed. If there is a window it should be covered with unbreakable material. Any openings, such as a feed door, should be secure.
Large breeding stables generally use the "cold turkey" method. They usually have a group of foals that have been raised together and will offer comfort to each other when weaning day occurs. Many times an older barren mare or good natured gelding is a "baby sitter" for these foals.
The total separation works best if the mare is taken out of sight and hearing range. If the dam and foal can't see or hear each other, the frantic behavior ends sooner. But be prepared for several days of stress.
Gradual Weaning - This method is slower and maybe more stressful. It prolongs the agony of being separated.
There are two types of gradual weaning methods.
The mare is taken away from the foal for short periods of time each day. As days pass the duration of the separation is increased. This is probably the most stressful method. Some breeders liken it to taking a band aid off very slowly.
The second variation of the gradual weaning method is to stable the dam next to the foal. They can see each other, but nursing is impossible. This method may be best for the breeder with one mare and nowhere to take the mare out of eyesight or hearing.
So which method is best? Many experienced horse breeders agree the "cold turkey" or total separation method is best. It offers a chance to start working with the foal and establishing a trainer/student atmosphere. The foal learns to look at the handler for security, guidance and comfort.
The cold turkey method also lays the ground work for a horse that can be independent from other horses. Some breeders believe foals that are weaned abruptly and learn to be independent will not become "buddy sour" as an adult. Not permitting a horse to learn at an early age that life is not over when separated from a familiar supporting partner may be a mistake.
Do not allow the mare and foal back together until the dam is totally dry - not producing milk. This may take several weeks.
Monitor the mare's udder. Do not milk her out, as she will continue to produce milk. If it becomes feverish and sore to the touch call the veterinarian.
If the mare is eating a diet for milk production this diet should be gradually changed to one designed for her current status.
Weaning can be a traumatic time. But with forethought and planning it's tolerable.