September 5, 2011
WEANING YOUR FOAL by: Jane Beall
WEANING YOUR FOAL
By Jane Beall
Now that the nights are getting longer, the days shorter, and the foals bigger, it’s time to consider the many views on when and how to wean. After reading numerous websites, texts and academic studies, I can see that although there is difference of opinion on the correct age for weaning, there is consensus on other aspects of weaning management.
In the wild, under normal circumstances, mares allow their foals to nurse until a few weeks before their next foal is due. This can mean the occasional foal nurses for almost two years if the mare has a barren year. Since even a year long nursing period doesn’t fit into most present day farm management plans, this does not happen today.
However, there are veterinarians and trainers who feel that from a behavioural standpoint, late weaning is better. They feel when foals are weaned too young, and many now feel four months is too young, they don’t get their sucking needs fulfilled, even though the weaning is successful.
Sylvia Scott, founder of the Whispering Way, Natural Horsemanship Training Program, finds she can tell when working with horses, which were weaned too early. They tend to be “mouthy”, too “oral-fixated”, she says, even nibbling on people way past the age when foals stop doing this behaviour. She also finds many are insecure. Other trainers are also seeing this and are speaking out, she states, advocating waiting six months, even eight months, before weaning. She is in favour of weaning gradually, not cold turkey the way it’s most often done.
Another name in the horse world, Dr. Jim McCall of McCalls Horse World, says, “If you want a horse to be self-confident and not dependent on humans, one of the best things you can do is late wean him.”
There are as many issues surrounding how to wean as there are ideas about when to wean. One very important concern is the stress level of the foal. There are several techniques that allow the foal to experience less stress, whether you wean cold turkey or gradually.
If you wean cold turkey, make sure the stress of separation is the only stress. Don’t add the stress of a strange place. If your foal cannot be left in his familiar field after weaning but must be indoors, make sure he’s there for a period of time with his mother before weaning, so the place feels like home. Also, better the mare is out of sight and sound, and the foal is left in a field with other horses he knows.
As an aside here, I discovered from a Virginia Tech and Rutgers research study that the worst cold turkey scenario is to leave two foals to be weaned in a single box stall. Being together with nothing to take their minds off their loss, their stress is doubled.
Researchers at Virginia Tech’s M.A.R.E. Center developed a method of group weaning. They had a collection of mares and foals who were field mates. When weaning time began, they removed a few of the mares and then waited three or four days before removing more mares. Eventually after two weeks, they left only one mare as babysitter, and in that situation, a familiar field with familiar horses, they found the stress level of the foals low.
A gradual method that works on small farms, and the method Pat used here for our single foal last summer, is to move the mare to an adjoining field for an increasing amount of time every day, leaving the foal in the company of horse friends.
We moved our mare into a field close by for four hours a day for the first week, then the second week for eight hours a day, but left them together in the evenings in the foaling stall. Finally, after two weeks the filly was with other horses she knew in the daytime and at night alone in her familiar foaling box with her mother in the next stall, a standing stall which the filly could see from her box. The whole operation went smoothly. The foal became more and more independent, the mare’s milk dried gradually, and everyone was happy. I have to admit the weaning took place when the foal was ten months old.
Another significant point is to be sure the weaning area is totally safe for the foal: the fencing and gates safe, walls free from loose boards and nails, halters removed et cetera. Foals are notorious at hurting themselves. Also remember to worm ahead of weaning; one stress at a time is enough.
The next weaning issue, again related to stress, is the weanling’s health when he suddenly finds himself without his mother.
Those foals used to eating before they are weaned cope better. They don’t lose as much weight during this time as those not creep fed. Later, foals that have only discovered the feed trough for the first time after weaning, are more likely to put on too much weight too fast, perhaps leading to DOD, developmental orthopaedic disease.
Creep feeding should begin at three or four weeks. The amount of feed suggested during months one, two and three is one pound per day per month of age, and 1.5% of the foal’s weight after age three months until weaning.
In the case of our foal, creep feeding didn’t work because Mother discovered how to feed herself from the creep feeder and I’ve heard, Fjords are notorious at this. However, our mare was quite happy to share, so we did, in fact, feed the foal for many months before weaning. Also remember that hay is important too at weaning time, for roughage, even if your foal is on grass.
Finally, now is the time to handle and play with your foal, to enjoy him and to take his mind off his troubles.