Weaning time can be stressful, not only for the foal, but for the owners who have to listen to the heart-rending whinnies as the young horse calls frantically for his dam.
But weaning is both natural and necessary. In the wild, a mare who has become pregnant again will wean her own foal in order to be able to provide the nutrients needed for the new life growing inside her. In a domestic situation, it's up to you, the owner, to initiate the weaning process.
In order to lessen the physical, if not the emotional stress, these steps should be taken prior to weaning to prepare the foal for his upcoming independence:
- The foal should be accustomed to being out with other horses. He should know about "being a horse" and what behavior is acceptable in a herd situation. This usually comes naturally to foals whose mothers are turned out in herds, but foals who have been raised with just their mother may need some adjustment time in a herd before weaning commences.
- The foal should no longer be dependent on his dam for his nutritional needs. He should be eating grass, hay and grain prior to being weaned.
- The foal should be introduced and accustomed to the paddock or stall where he will be weaned. It goes without saying that this area should be checked carefully for potential dangers, such as loose boards, sticking out nails etc and those dangers removed.
Foals are usually weaned at approximately four months of age. Foals which spend a lot of their time exploring away from the mare and playing with other pasture mates will probably have little trouble during the weaning process. Sometimes, in the case of orphaned foals, weaning has to happen much earlier.
Weaning can be done in more than one way, depending on the facilities you have available. One way is to remove the mare to another location, leaving the foal in his familiar surroundings and with the company of other weanlings or an older "babysitter." If you can't move the mare off the property, she should be moved to a location out of sight and sound of the foal. There's no doubt that this method of weaning is stressful and usually involves lots of running around and calling on the part of both mare and foal. Some breeders separate the mare and foal during the day and stall them together at night, but evidence shows that this approach renews the stress factor each day and actually lengthens the weaning process.
Some breeders prefer to avoid the "cold-turkey" method and turn mares and foals out in adjoining pastures. This allows them to see, smell and touch each other, but prevents nursing. While both mares and foals will probably stand at the fence line for the first week, eventually they lose interest and wander away.
This last approach would seem to me to be the more natural and less stressful to both mare and foal if the facilities are available, but not all breeders have the luxury of two pastures separated by suitable fencing.
Whichever way you choose to wean your foal, human interaction can lessen the stress factor and also go a long way in the future training of the foal.