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Preparing Your Foal For Weaning

By Jeffrey Rolo

The horse-weaning period can be a highly stressful ordeal for you, the dam and the foal, but luckily there are steps you can take to make the period safe and less traumatic for all involved. It could actually be argued that proper preparation is actually more important than the actual execution.

One of the most common questions among first-time breeders is, "what is the best age to wean my foal?" The average weaning period begins anywhere from three to six months, depending on a variety of factors such as:

Nutritional Needs

You should not initiate the weaning unless your foal is already comfortable with eating grass, grain and hay. This is rarely a problem since most foals will learn by their dam's example and start experimenting with solids within a few weeks of being born. Your job will not really be to teach your foal to eat solids, but rather to ensure he eats enough at an early age.

Picture of foal restingOnce a foal reaches around three to four months of age his dam's milk will not be enough to sustain his nutritional needs, which is probably the prime reason most choose this period for weaning. This can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how advanced your foal's feeding schedule was prior to the weaning.

You do not want your foal to live on a diet primarily consisting of his mother's milk and then suddenly toss him into a diet consisting of high protein grains and feed, because the sudden influx of protein can cause rapid growth. As great as such growth may initially sound, it could actually trigger developmental orthopedic disease (potentially causing your foal to become lame).

The key to safe growth rates and weaning is a gradual introduction of grains and roughage as early as possible, such that the foal's tastes and system are very acclimated to these types of feed by the time he is separated from his mother. This is generally done through "creep feeding," which is where you install a feeder designed so that a full-grown mare cannot access it. The foal's small size will permit him from eating the grain within while the dam's size will prohibit her from doing so.

Socialization

Ideally before you wean your foal you will already have provided him the opportunity to learn how to behave properly within a herd. In other words, your foal should have learned how to be a horse, developing the proper mannerisms, body language and instincts. These lessons can be learned from an alpha mare, older herd members, or most-often the foal's dam.

Nature nearly always ensures this requirement is met, but two factors can potentially lead to the development of a foal that behaves more like a human than a horse:

bulletThe dam is too passive and thus does not discipline the foal adequately. This is generally a factor with first-time dams, not experienced mares.
bulletThe owner has imprinted the foal improperly, or has not imbued the foal with the necessary discipline and respect needed to form a proper horse-human relationship. In other words, the foal has become so comfortable with the owner that he now relates with humans more than horses.

Bad Role Model

Due to the influence a dam will have on her foal, sometimes it is necessary to accelerate the weaning process in order to minimize the chances of a bad habit or disposition from becoming ingrained in the foal. For example, if the dam is a cribber or shows hostility to humans this isn't the type of behavior we would like her to pass on to the foal, so our goal will be to transfer him to solid food and wean him as early as the third month in hopes it will not become deeply ingrained.

Familiarity With Surroundings

Since the weaning period can be pretty stressful for your foal, any step you can take to lessen his anxiety is a step in the right direction. One such step is ensuring your foal is familiar with the spot you will choose to place him in during the weaning period. Your foal should not have to fret about the separation and his foreign surroundings.

Development

As with people, every foal is an individual and some will develop quicker than others, both physically and mentally. Once your foal has reached the stage where he often exercises his independence by wandering away from "mom" to explore, he's probably ready to be weaned. Just keep in mind that independence alone is not enough of an indicator for a foal's preparedness; consider it one indicator in the grand scheme, not the end-all, be-all.

Good Health

You should never wean a foal that isn't at full health since his already stressed body will not react well to an additional onslaught of stress. Separation anxiety is enough; there is no need to compound this with an illness. Wait until your foal has returned to full health before weaning him.

Basic Training

It will help you greatly if you have already taught your foal some of the basics of groundwork, such as accepting a halter and leading. Try to provide a solid foundation in these basics before the separation; this way you will have an easier time of moving or interacting with your foal as he's being weaned.

Clearly when all the above factors are taken into consideration we can see that there really isn't a "right" month to wean a foal it's dependent on your foal's maturity and development. If you absolutely wanted to have a planned month in mind, four months is generally a good target to meet.

Preparing a foal for a successful weaning is just the first stage. In Safely Weaning A Horse you will learn how to conduct the weaning itself.



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