Weaning foals naturally
Weaning is a very important stepping stone in a horse life, and it has to be done gradually and carefully. Horses that are not weaned properly may carry the trauma of a brutal separation with their mother for the rest of their life, and might never be happy horses. The brutal practice of taking a foal from his mother, shove it in a trailer and take it away for ever is not acceptable.
There are two aspects to consider when weaning a foal: the nutritional and the emotional impact of the separation from its mother.
The most obvious aspect of weaning is that it entails a change of diet. As the foal will no longer have access to its mother’s milk, nutrients that were supplied by the milk must be made available in its diet. Consequently, foals should not be weaned too early. A foal younger that about four months is getting a very significant part of its nutritional requirements through sucking and therefore shouldn’t be weaned. Only when the foal has started grazing for significant amount of time can weaning be considered. If you are keeping the foal over the winter, it is probably best to wait until there’s not enough grazing and you start feeding the mare (by which time it is more economical to feed the foal).
The first step is to train the foal to eat meal or grain from a bucket. Use high protein feed or oats for this. It is a good time, if you haven’t done so already, to teach the foal to lead. Gently put a head collar on the foal and lead it away from its mother towards a bucket of grain (probably a familiar sight, as you would have fed the mother in the early part of her lactation). In the beginning, make sure the mother is still in sight, may be on the other side of the gate (you don’t want her to get to the grain, as feeding her will produce more milk, the opposite of what you want to do). The foal will soon learn that being led means being fed, and will soon follow you willingly. If you wish, you can gradually increase the distance and the time away from its mother, but make sure that the foal is never left alone, as it is otherwise very likely to panic and may even get hurt. If you take the foal out of sight of all other horses, stay close to it and very alert, and at the first sign of agitation, bring it back towards its mother. This is to be a gradual process, so be patient, watch carefully the foal’s reactions, and don’t ask for to much in the beginning. Eventually, you will be able to lead the foal away from the herd and out of sight of other horses and it will eat his meal happily with only his human handler for company. This may take a couple of weeks, and again, don’t be tempted at this stage to leave him alone at any time. Start with one feed a day, and increase to two and even (if times allows) to three feeds a day. The whole process must not be rushed, so start in plenty of time. At the end of it, you will have a foal leading and eating meal, and thus ready to be weaned. You now have to move phase two, and at that point, the most important, and alas often neglected aspect of weaning a foal is the emotional impact that this will have on it.
We have to remember that horses are herd animals, and that for all horses, but specially for a young one, being left alone is a traumatic experience. When you separate the foal from its mother you MUST provide it with the company of some other horses. It is cruel to do otherwise. Ideally, before you start the weaning process, the mare and foal should be part of a herd with at least two other adult horses, and the foal should be familiar with the other adults. When the time comes to separate the foal from its mother, you just have to take the mother away, if possible without the foal noticing, leaving the foal with at least one other older horse he is already familiar with. (The other older horse goes with the mother, who’s also going through a rough patch, and shouldn’t bee left alone either). If you have more horses, all the better, but in any case, you split the herd in two, with the mother in one half of the herd and the foal in the other half. Take the mother well away, out of sight and hearing of the foal (remember horses have much keener hearing than human, and while you may not hear the mother whinnying, the foal might). Never leave the foal with an other mare in milk, she might let him suck (I have seen it happen). If you are weaning two or more foals at the same time, put them all together with a gelding or a young filly, and put the mares together at the other end of the farm. Continue feeding the foal(s) as before, or increase to three feeds per day to compensate for the lost milk. If you are planning to take the foal to a sale, you might want at this stage to start feeding it inside the horse trailer, so that when the time comes, loading will be easy. If possible, the mother should be put on poor grazing for a few days, so she goes out of milk quickly (as a friend of mine puts it: “Give her hunger”).
Because the separation is traumatic, for the first day or two, I add to the foal’s feed some Bach Flower remedy (walnut, the link breaker) for extra emotional support. But as long as he has good company and good food, the foal will quickly stop calling for his mother, and in fact, it is more likely the mother that will continue calling for her foal well after the foal has stopped whinnying.
If you are keeping both the mare and the foal, do not put them back together for several weeks or the foal will start sucking again.
Don’t forget that the best way to be happy with your horses is to have happy horses. And happy foals grow into happy horses.
Written by Christophe Mouze