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Abrupt Or Gradual Weaning?

By Jeffrey Rolo

If you haven't already read the articles Preparing Your Foal For Weaning and Safely Weaning A Horse, you might wish to do so as they lay down the foundation for some of what will be touched upon in this article.

There are two predominate weaning techniques adopted by horse breeders:

bulletAbrupt Separation The dam is taken as far away from the foal as possible, such that she is not within eyesight (and preferably earshot) of the foal.
bulletGradual Separation The dam is either kept in a next-door paddock or permitted to visit the foal daily for increasingly shorter periods of time.

Advocates for both schools make strong arguments as to the validity of their preferred method, but as with most debates choosing the "one correct path" may not be so simple.

Abrupt Separation

Breeders that follow the abrupt separation method will either move the dam or foal out of eyesight of their former partner, and preferably out of earshot when possible. They believe separating the foal from the dam "cold turkey" is very stressful at the start, but ultimately is the kinder gesture since you do not prolong the pain by incessant reintroductions to the foal's desire. To form an analogy, gradual separation could be viewed the same way as offering a recovering smoker a cigarette, or worse lighting one up in front of him. Sometimes a clean break is far easier than reoccurring exposure to temptation.

Gradual Separation

Gradual separation can actually be further divided into two sub-methods:

bulletAllowing the foal to visit his dam daily, but limiting the duration of the visitations more each day until eventually they are permanently separated.
bulletSeparating the dam and foal completely, but placing them in adjacent stalls or paddocks such that the foal cannot feed, but he can see and talk to his mother.

I do not like the first type of gradual separation since a one-on-one visit permits the foal to feed and the mother-child pair to continue a physical relationship. Severing the mother-child bond in such a manner will be a prolonged and painful procedure; for every step forward you take towards weaning the foal, you take a step backwards by reintroducing the pair. I strongly believe once a foal is separated from his dam, it should remain that way.

The second type of gradual separation does have some positives worth considering. Advocates claim that by allowing the dam and foal to see and talk with each other, you're allegedly lessening the level of stress for the foal during those first days. Meanwhile the foal is unable to feed from his mother, so he's learning how to live independently and will eventually decide his mother next door is no longer so important. To form an analogy, gradual separation would be akin to teaching a child to swim slowly over time, rather than just toss him into a pool with a "sink or swim" mentality.

So Which Is Correct?

The answer to this will probably depend on the circumstances surrounding your foal, the stable and your availability.

Personally I prefer the abrupt separation style because I do not wish to prolong any pain caused to the foal, nor do I want to encourage any lingering reliance on his mother (or any other horse for that matter). I also view the weaning period to be one of the most potent times to develop a human-horse connection with a foal rather than allow the foals to place their trust in fellow horses, I'd rather that trust be placed in me. So when I'm abruptly separating a foal I'm not just isolating him entirely; instead I'm diverting his source of companionship away from his dam and towards me.

I do want to toss in a quick sidebar and stress the importance of allowing your foal to also interact with other foals during the weaning period if at all possible. A horse should never become so domesticated that its flight and natural horse instincts are completely overwritten by domestication, particularly if that horse will be expected to interact with another horse at any time in the future. There's a balance that must be maintained where you become the foal's new source of security, yet he still understands how to relate with his peers.

Since I have specific goals in mind when I wean a foal, and the weaned foal experiences companionship in the form of humans as well as fellow foals when possible, abrupt separation makes the best sense.

On the other hand if a breeder (or other foals/horses) was not available to provide the stressed weanling some companionship daily, abrupt separation might be too cruel. In this case it might be better to adopt the second style of gradual separation and place the dam in a next-door stall or paddock so that the foal can at least have minimal company during this trying period.

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