When to wean a foal

There is no standard answer to the question of when a foal is ready to be weaned. Normally, weaning can be successfully undertaken from 3 to 8 months of age.

Weaning is a two-way process with both the mare and the foal showing behavioural changes when they are ready to be weaned. Foals become more independent in nature and the mares are less concerned about the foals' whereabouts. Foals should be in good general health and body condition prior to weaning.

Weaning often occurs abruptly and can be a stressful time for both the mare and the foal. The weaning process should be well planned to reduce health and nutritional stresses on the foal.

The method of weaning will depend on the individual situation. Most commonly the mare and foal are separated into paddocks out of eye and ear shot, with the foal kept company by other foals, a sensible old gelding, donkey or similar. Alternatively, older horses can be used as 'babysitters' for recently weaned foals. Foals should be familiar with the person who will care for them, and they should be visited and attended to regularly.

Partial weaning, where the mare is removed for short periods at a time, or interval weaning, where mares are removed periodically based on foal ages until one mare remains, may reduce the stress of weaning.

Nutritional changes at weaning can result in a growth check if the foal is weaned abruptly onto new feeds with no prior exposure. The foal should be eating hay and quality pasture prior to weaning and used to hard feed if that will make up the bulk of its diet. Ensure the foal is drinking out of buckets and can eat off the floor or feed-bin if it is to be weaned and confined in a box.

As horses are social animals, separation distress may occur after the foal is removed from its mother or other companions. As the foal is exposed to new situations, it is likely to be fearful, leading to a natural ‘fight or flight' response. Injuries can occur if the foal is not safely confined. Health issues include traumatic injury and stress-related disease. Immunity may be reduced leading to respiratory disease or gastrointestinal conditions such as salmonellosis. Foals are best vaccinated with sensitiser and booster vaccinations prior to, or at the time of weaning so they are protected in times of a potentially lowered immune system.

Main points

  • Have the mare and foal out of ear range so they cannot call out to each other
  • Use quiet company (eg old gelding) as a paddock ‘babysitter'
  • If using a box ensure it is safe. Remember that boxing requires a significant time commitment.
  • Make sure the foal is familiar with feed and water offered

For tried and tested tips and advice on how to minimise stress at this time, please contact your vet.

 

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