One of the most dreaded times for owners, mares and foals is upon us. It's called WEANING!!
Few owners can be completely unmoved by the heart tugging task of separating a mare from her foal. However, with proper preparation and planning it can be done smoothly and safely, with little stress for all concerned.
One of the most common questions is, "What is the best age to wean?" The foal can be safely weaned anytime from 3 - 6 months, depending on a variety of factors.
The first factor to consider is the nutritional needs of the foal. Hopefully, your foal has been receiving hay and grain independently of the mare's feed, via a creep feeder. Creep feeding is best started when the foal is two to three weeks of age. If the foal has had a diet consisting primarily of mare's milk and suddenly eats a diet of high protein grains after weaning, he could experience a rapid growth spurt. This could trigger developmental orthopedic disease. It is advised to feed good quality hay and a premium commercial grain that is specifically formulated for weanlings.
It is also important to consider the foal's health. Never wean a sick or convalescing foal. Weaning is stressful and can lead to worsening or recurrence of symptoms. Moderate symptoms can become severe when the foal is subjected to the stress of weaning. Deworm and vaccinate at least two weeks prior to weaning to allow antibody levels to become protective. This should give the foal time to recover from any potential adverse effects from deworming and vaccinations.
The next consideration is whether to wean abruptly or gradually. The abrupt method will separate the mares out of sight and earshot from their foals suddenly. Frequently two mares with foals in adjacent stalls will be kept in this configuration over night, and in the morning, the mares will be suddenly moved. It is best to keep the foals in smaller stalls until they have adjusted. Foals that are weaned abruptly in large paddocks or pastures endure more panic and are more likely to injure or fatigue themselves than those left in stalls or small pens during the initial adjustment. Be sure to inspect the stall to make sure there is nothing the foal can hurt himself on.
The gradual weaning process typically consists of keeping mares and foals in adjacent pens that don't allow nursing, but allow companionship. Eventually, the foal is weaned from nursing and then the mare is removed.
At RVSW we utilize a gradual process. Foals are kept in one stall together with a mare stalled on each side. This promotes companionship between the foals while they are still kept next to, but separated from their mother. After several days, the mares are removed from the area and the foals remain in their shared stall. The foals will remain in the stall together for several more days before being turned out into a small paddock with other pairs. We have found this to be least stressful situation for the foals.
Whichever method is chosen, it is always preferential to wean two or more foals together. The companionship will reduce the stress of weaning quicker than when a foal is left alone after weaning.
Weaning is a necessary task that certainly no one enjoys, but with good facilities, early nutritional preparation and socialization of the foal, it can be done safely and successful with minimal stress for everyone.