It tears at your heartstrings, but if you have a foal around, sooner or later you will need to make some decisions regarding weaning. The main concerns for the timing and method of weaning are stress and an accompanying increased probability for illness or injury. While there is some disagreement among experts just how the deed is to be done, all agree that the foals should be eating comfortably on their own from a creep feeder before weaning and most consider it best to wean between 4 and 5 months of age if possible.
- Is the foal currently ill or has the foal recently recovered from an illness? If the answer is yes to either of these, you should wait until the foal is healthy before proceeding.
- Does the foal remain close to the dam at all times and appear to panic when separated? Before weaning, foals should be showing definite signs of independence by associating freely with other foals without being too concerned about the location of the dam.
- Do you have another foal of similar age? Misery loves company. Regardless of the method used, having company will make things go more smoothly. It is best to group foals that have been raised together in order to reduce the risk of exposing the foal to new diseases during this time.
There are two basic approaches to weaning - abrupt and gradual. Some experts, who would liken weaning to pulling tape from skin, will tell you that short-term stress is better than subjecting foals to the more prolonged stress experienced using a gradual method. For others, the reduced stress offered by gradual weaning methods seems best, regardless of its duration.
One example of an abrupt method:
Step 1. Place at least two mares with foals in adjacent stalls overnight.
Step 2. The following morning, remove any buckets from the stall then remove the mares to a place out of sight and earshot from the foals. After the foals begin to regain some of their composure, replace the buckets and leave the foals alone for the remainder of the day.
Step 3. The following day, if the foals are not broke to halters, it is a common practice to place halters on the foals with leads that are 4- 4.5ft in length (just long enough to be reached by a hind leg). Leads made of ¾ " nylon cord work very well as drag lines. They're big enough to grip, they can be melted on the end to prevent fraying instead of having an end splice or knot that can become snagged. Another plus is that when they get dirty and packed with mud, they become rigid enough to prevent entanglement.
Step 4. After allowing some time for adjustment, calmly begin to handle the foal. However, at this stage a foal’s attention span is very limited so you should keep handling sessions shortened to about 15 minutes or less.
One example of a gradual method for weaning:
Step 1. Retain mares with their foals in stalls or a small corral for several days.
Step 2. Take mares into an adjacent stall or pen for 3-4 days. (Note: the separating fence should not permit nursing, and should be examined closely for sturdiness, loose nails and wire).
Step 3. Make food and water available on the side of the stall near the mare.
The ideal weaning method for you may depend on several factors that pertain to how your facility is laid out, and how much handling your foal has experienced prior to weaning.
- How big is your place? If you cannot remove the mares completely from the foals proximity (out of earshot) abrupt weaning is not an option. To do so would incur more stress over a long time.
- Do you have stalls? If you do not have a safe and confined area such as a stall, abrupt weaning is probably not a good option for you either. Foals which are separated completely from their dams in corrals or pastures will be much more likely to injure themselves regardless of the relative safety of the fencing.
- Has your foal been broken to lead? If not, you'll probably want to use an abrupt weaning method. In the days immediately following weaning the foal will be somewhat insecure. This provides an opportunity for you to become a source of leadership and reassurance (these are properties the foal is accustomed to receiving from the dam). By beginning your new relationship with the foal the following day after weaning, you can often prevent the development of bad habits by establishing yourself as an influence before the foal becomes too "self reliant". Depending on your circumstances, you may want to wean on Friday morning so you can plan several short stall visits over the weekend. This will help the foal to adjust from the relationship he had with his dam to the relationship he will quickly seek to have with you. Foals that are not handled and are weaned using a gradual method will typically require considerably more time and effort in convincing them why they might want to listen to you.
If your foal has been handled regularly, you may wish to wean them in small groups. However, regardless of how gentle your foal may be, keep it in a stall or a small pen. Giving it too much space during this period will promote panic and the foal will be more likely to act in a frantic and dangerous manner.
If you have only a single foal to wean, a gradual method would be best. In addition, if your single foal has not been trained to accept the halter and lead, now would be the best time to start, while still at the mare's side.
What about the mare? Remove grain or other feed concentrates from her diet for a period of 7-10 days after the foal is weaned. If you have grass hay, feed it. If you have only alfalfa, cut the amount fed to 1% of the mares body weight (the minimum roughage requirement). This will aid in slowing lactation and help to guard against founder and colic as her lactation process shuts down. As for which weaning method is best for mares, both are probably about the same. However mares may "dry up" faster when an abrupt method is used. Finally, regardless of the method you plan to use, always wean in the early morning so that it will be cooler during the most stressful period and both the mare and foal will have the entire day to adjust before nightfall. This will also give you the benefit of being able to look in on things from time to time. Good Luck!
(Weaning Your Foal, Bill Day, Ph.D. Logan, Utah. AAHS Vice-President, Equine Education)