Weaning babies from their mamas is a stressful time for everyone: the foals, the mares, and the owners! So let’s take a moment and talk about safe weaning practices, since we’re getting to the time of year when weaning becomes necessary.
A common misconception that new horse owners have is that mares will wean the baby themselves, because that is what they do in the wild. As you can see from the pictures above, this is not always true. The reason a mare weans her baby in the wild is because she has a new baby to take care of, and she knows the older one needs her less than the newborn. Mares in captivity, especially those that don’t have another baby to take care of, can let their colt nurse for years without self-weaning. Imagine a 4-year-old horse that is still nursing off of its mama!
So when is the best time to wean? Most horse people will say the best time for weaning is between four and six months of age. By this time, many of the danger periods have passed for the foal.
Of course, the ideal age is dependent on several factors. First and foremost, we must consider the health of both the mare and the foal. Earlier weaning is called for when the mare isn’t able to keep up with the nutrition plane to maintain her own weight while feeding a growing colt. Mares that are consistently losing weight or consistently thin (if you see ribs, she’s thin) can benefit from weaning their colts earlier so they don’t lose more weight than they can gain back before winter comes. This is especially true if she’s a broodmare and already has another colt on the way. She needs to have fat stores in reserve not only for winter, but for the following spring as well after the new baby’s arrival. Horses don’t tend to put on weight in the winter, so summer and fall is the only chance she’ll have to get to a healthy plane of nutrition.
Nutritional status of the weaning-age colt is also very important. Some colts will develop a disorder called physitis, which is inflammation of the growth plates. This is caused by too much nutrition, and is noticed when the growth plates start to get big and sometimes painful. You may or may not see lameness when this happens. Look for large, swollen, painful “bumps” just above the fetlocks, knees, or hocks. The best way to stop physitis is to wean as it lowers their nutrition level.
With the arrival of summer, it’s also important to consider the weather. Undergoing a period of high stress when the temperatures outside are hot and humid. Weaning during this time is less than ideal as potential issues can arise such as the mare or foal getting sick or colicking from dehydration.
If the mare and colt are both healthy, they may benefit from weaning a bit later. This puts most of the hot weather behind us, and allows for the colt to be a bit more psychologically mature. Weaning when the colt is a bit older puts less stress on both the mare and the colt as the mare is usually ready to say goodbye to her colt at 5 to 6 months, even if the colt isn’t ready to say goodbye.
The next consideration to keep in mind is the safety of your mare and colt’s surroundings. One shallow fence line between the mare and foal will NOT be enough. Fencing needs to be tall enough that the mare or the colt can’t jump it and sturdy enough that they can’t push through it. Slick wire, barbed wire, or any fencing secured with T-posts (unless it’s electric with a good zing) really isn’t adequate, nor is it safe. Many mares and foals have had trips to the vet because they tore themselves open on fencing trying to reach each other. And remember, there needs to be at least TWO fencelines between the mare and foal! Ideally, they should not even be able to see or hear each other. The safest option is to put the colt in a stall and take the mare off property.
Keep in mind that mares and colts will do anything to reach each other so extra precautions must be taken. If the colt is in a stall, don’t leave the wheelbarrow in the stall door when cleaning and assume that it will be enough of a deterrent. Colts have been known to jump wheelbarrows, jump out trailer windows, and clear fence lines just to look for their mothers. Obviously, foals can get very hurt trying to find mama, so keeping them in an enclosed, safe environment is paramount to everything else.
When weaning, don’t be surprised if your colt doesn’t eat for a few days. Stressed out colts don’t want to eat or drink much. This is why it’s important to try not to wean during the hot months. Their behavior may change as well. Your once sweet, docile colt may turn into a fire-breathing dragon for a few weeks or months during weaning.
Be sure to do anything that stresses the immune system at least two weeks before or two weeks after weaning. Since the colts are already stressed, vaccinating or worming during this month interval around weaning can cause problems such as a decreased immune response, or worse, the colt getting sick after receiving the vaccine. Colts should be vaccinated at six months if their mothers were given their pre-foaling shots, and can be started as early as 4 months for those where the mares were not given their pre-foaling shots.
Mama and baby need to be kept separate for at LEAST three months. Many horse owners make the mistake of keeping the mare and colt separate for only a month and thinking that is adequate. However, a month is not enough time for the mare and colt to forget about each other and for the mare’s milk to dry up. If they are re-introduced too soon, the colt will go right back to nursing and the mare will go right back to producing milk. If necessary, move either the mare or colt off site to allow for adequate time to pass between weaning and re-introducing.
Occasionally, mares and colts may need sedation to keep them safe during weaning and to reduce the stress level. Talk to your veterinarian about obtaining oral sedation for them to have on hand if things start to look dicey.
Yes, weaning can be a stressful time for everyone, but by taking precautions, everyone usually makes it through unscathed. As always, contact your veterinarian if you have questions or concerns regarding weaning.