There are two general methods of weaning foals: gradual and abrupt. As with most things horse-related, you will have a hard time finding two people who do things exactly the same way. I prefer the abrupt method, which simply means separating the mare and the foal all at once. You may prefer a more gradual approach, such as fence-line weaning or keeping the mare and foal apart for longer periods of time each day for several weeks.
Regardless of the method you choose, however, there are some simple things you can do to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible for you, the mare and the foal, with the focus being on the health and well-being of the animals you have invested so much time, energy and money in. The following suggestions are based on an abrupt weaning, but can easily be adapted to a gradual weaning method.
When to wean. Foals can be weaned as early as 4 months old, with most people choosing to wean in the 4 to 6 month range. There are several reason for doing this. They include the ability to begin working with the foal individually as part of its early training, making sure the health of the mare is not compromised by nursing too long, or getting the mare back into show or work condition. Regardless of the reason, you should make sure that the foal you are preparing to wean is healthy, eating forage well, is in good body condition and showing some independence from its dam.
Prior to weaning. Before you separate the foal and mare, the foal should receive appropriate vaccinations and worming. By the time the foal has reached weaning age, it needs to begin to develop its own immunity to diseases, hence the need for vaccinations. In addition, most foals will have been exposed to parasites, so will require worming. The other reason to do this at least a few weeks prior to weaning is so you are not compounding the stress of weaning with the physiological and psychological stress that can come with such treatments. Weaning by itself is stressful enough. You will want to eliminate as many other stress factors as possible during the weaning period. Always consult your veterinarian for appropriate vaccination and worming treatments.
Weaning time. When you are ready to wean the foal, make sure the area it is being kept in is safe and free from dangers. A foal can be quite nervous when away from the mare for the first few days, so make sure all your fencing, gates and other possible hazards are taken care of beforehand. I believe it is always best to take the mare away from the foal, not vice-versa. This insures that the foal stays in familiar surroundings – another stress removed. It is also best, when using the abrupt method, to make sure the mare is out of sight and hearing distance of the weanling. As many of us have experienced, if the two can see or even hear each other, the process can be longer and more stressful (and noisier!) for everybody involved. Lastly, I like to keep a dry mare, a young filly, or even an older gelding with my broodmares and foals. This way, even if I only have one foal to wean, it will have a companion to stay with once mom is gone. Of everything I have done over the years when it comes to weaning, I think this has been the most helpful. This year I have only one foal to wean, and she is already good friends with a two-year-old filly who will stay in the paddock with her when I take the mare away in a few weeks.
As mentioned above, there is no “one way” to wean. If you are new to weaning, ask a trusted friend, trainer or veterinarian for advice and help. Don’t get too worried. Lay out a plan and follow it. As it relates to weaning, remember that reducing the stress on the foal should be the focus of everything you do. By following a plan and focusing on the health and safety of the foal, weaning can be a relatively easy process that, within just a few weeks, will leave you with a happy and independent weanling ready for its first important steps in handling and training.
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