Nature for the most part is a marvelous thing. There seems to be a workable plan for almost everything. When it comes to horses nature has stood them in good stead. How else could they have become one of the most successful mammals on the planet?

In nature when a mare foals she raises that foal to maturity. The foals nurse and stay near the mare for protection until they are close to a year old and sometimes longer. When the mare is close to having her next foal she weans her foal from the udder but not from her nurturing influence. Colt foals are driven out of the herd when they begin to sexually mature, but filly foals are kept close. Often times family groups will be seen peacefully living together with foals from one year helping to guard the foal from the new year.

One of the most telling photos of family life of wild horses is a charming scene of a wild mare standing in the middle of a road nursing her daughter who is nursing her own daughter at the same time! Obviously the family bond is much stronger than a few month relationship expected of modern day, domestic equines.

While it is simply not practical in most applications for a mare to bear and nurse her foal for a year in domestic life, it seems with each passing generation we humans get in a bigger and bigger hurry to separate foals from their dams. We are not willing once committed to the breeding process to forgo the time required for that mare to bring the foal rightfully to the weaning stage.

A few decades ago it was common place to wean domestic foals around the age of nine months. This allowed the mare two months to recharge her body and develop needed colostrum for the next foal to come. IF the mare was not to be bred back and was not needed specifically for some demanding activity, the foal was allowed to remain on the mare until SHE saw fit to wean it unless the mare lost too much weight or condition. In most instances the mare would wean the foal from nursing around the nine month timetable even though it may from time to time sneak a suckle just for reassurance.

It is very interesting that in those times there was far less incident of ulcers and other digestive problems associated with foals and young horses. There were fewer reports of injury due to foals getting into situations they were not yet ready to cope with on their own. Foals grew up with a better grasp of what was or was not good for them and how to behave. Why? Because they learned from their dams.

Today it is quite common to hear of foals being weaned at three months time and anyone can find articles spouting how weaning young is perfectly all right. Those articles are reporting basically that the foals continued to live, grow and develop physically. They do not illustrate the mental or emotional well being of that foal and they do not track future habits or physical or behavioral problems of those foals.

A few years back there was an article published by a breeding establishment in Kentucky that weans at 12 weeks and puts all the foals in a "foal nursery" where they are all fed and pumped up with artificial nutrition by way of milk replacers and concentrates. The gist of the article was that at a year these foals out weighed the foals left on their dams longer.

Intrigued we decided at our farm to conduct our own test. For the first year of the test we weaned our foals at three months. The foals were very unhappy and upset at weaning far more than what was common to expect of our foals and the upset and stress of weaning did not abate for several weeks.

During this time the mares also had a difficult time drying up and were fretful and upset for the space of several weeks. They vocalized their unhappiness and paced the fence lines. Some of them attempted to reach their foals and many of the foals looked for ways back to mom even after they were placed out of view. In short the farm was a very unhappy, loud place for a number of weeks.

This group of foals developed behavioral patterns unlike any we had raised before. They began to chew wood even though they were fed minerals and vitamins on a daily basis. They began trying to suckle on each other and they began to paw and dig. They were often seen looking depressed.

As to weight gain, they did not thrive even though they were fed more than any weaning group we had separated before.

The end result of that trial was total dissatisfaction.

The next year we waited and weaned the foals at 4 months of age. This lot was a bit easier to distract from their separation anxiety. They did not settle down and get over their anxiousness however for several weeks. They too began chewing wood and though they gained better than the first lot, they simply did not bloom. Emotionally they were insecure and not focused on learning. They were too immature to be expected to manage on their own in our opinion.

The mares from this group filled udders to immense size and did not slacken for as much as a week. To dry up took them several weeks and even then a couple of them were producing milk enough so that to be nursed would have started their milk production again.

The end of that trial left us dissatisfied nearly as much as the first year.

The next year we waited and weaned the foals at 5 months. This group was fairly easy to deal with though at night they had problems settling. They were better at eating and gaining but they still lacked the bloom we wanted to see in our foals. They got over the weaning stress in approximately two weeks.

The dams in this test group slacked off in approximately 5 days and dried up a few days sooner than the first two groups. They did not seem to stress so much over the foals being taken from them though they were still constantly looking for the foals.

The end of that trial left us thinking that in a pinch this age might work for weaning but they were still not ready emotionally or mentally to be on their own this young.

Following those trials we went back to weaning our foals at six months. By this time the mares are slacking off on their milk production naturally. The foals spend much more time on their own and do not need the mares to comfort and protect them so much. The mares are far more ready to relinquish the foals and the foals are by now eating enough so they don't slip backward in development at weaning. The progress is much more uniform and the foals seem much more well adjusted.

With this group the mares slacked off milking at three days and were dry in two weeks. Actually they were dry in a week but by two weeks they were dry to the point the glands had subsided and the udder had shrunken to pre-foaling status.

The foals from this group didn't spend time pining for their dams. They went out and played. If they saw the mare they may stop and call to her but they didn't rush fences or stand at the fence calling and calling. The mares would raise their heads to check on the foals then quietly resume grazing.

At issue here are many more things than whether the foal needs milk. However even that is something to consider. Some of the things that are important to understand are as follows.

1. Foals in pasture nurse not only for food value. They consume milk because they are thirsty but they will not leave the herd or mom to trek out to a water tank unless the other horses are also going. So if they need fluid intake they nurse. Mom then becomes not only the snack bar, but the water fountain as well. In warm seasons and especially in warmer climates this is a vital point. In winter time the warmth of the mare's milk helps keep the foal warm and adds calories to the diet that generating body heat uses up.

2. Though foals run off and don't stay next to the mare after they are a few months old, they do run to the mare whenever they are frightened, upset, injured, or don't feel well. They need reassurance and comfort as much as a human child does. It is that security that develops a well-balanced foal from an emotional standpoint.

3. Mares allow their foals to wander but they know where they are and are ready to come to their rescue at the first thought of danger. They teach foals manners and show them which foods are safe to eat and what things not to eat. They teach them what to do when a storm blows up suddenly or what sorts of things to be ready to run from.

4. Foals left without a guardian often panic over things that a grown horse would take in their stride. In a panic they can run into things or get hurt from running blind. More injury accidents happen to foals during the weaning process and in particular to foals who are too emotionally immature to be cut loose on their own than at any other time.

5. Mare's milk production hits it's peak when the foal is about 12 weeks old. You will hear and read that the nutritional value diminishes at that time. Well it BEGINS to loose it's food value as part of the natural weaning process. As the foal grows more able to consume enough foodstuffs on it's own, the mare's milk becomes weaker nutritionally until the foal can be weaned entirely onto solid food. The fluid intake of the milk is still vital to the foal's well being as is the physical contact and bonding that takes place between mare and foal during the suckling process.

6. Happy foals develop fewer unfavorable habits and behavioral problems. As in humans insecurity leads to behaviors and habits that generally take time, effort and money to cure. It is the nature of a horse to be guided into adulthood by a mother, not ripped away as an infant to fend on it's own.

7. Mares who loose condition or weight during lactation either are not getting the nutrition they require to cope with the demands of lactation, or they have some medical problem prohibiting them from maintaining. If a mare gets a little ribby during this time she will gain that back shortly after weaning, if she becomes emaciated then there is an underlying reason that should be identified and dealt with. In rare instances early weaning may be the only solution if a mare looses too much condition, but in the large majority of cases it is simply a management problem or the ready excuse to wean that baby young.

8. The average mare produces 31/2 gallons of milk per day at peak. To produce that amount of milk requires non-stop eating and triple her normal water intake. Rationed diets will generally produce a thin mare during lactation. Mares should have good quality hay around the clock or good pasture during this time. Additives should be adjusted to her specific needs, not a generalized diet.

9. We found that by adding soybean oil at the rate of ½ to 1 cup per day spread over three feedings and by adding 10cc of Probios paste twice a week to the mare's diet, our mares not only sailed through lactation without loosing condition, they actually had to eat less to do so. We cut our grain consumption by the addition of these two products. Probios brand was the only probiotic we were able to find these results with (no I don't get a commission for stating this )

10. We found that the foal growth was more uniform, and they were more well adjusted by being weaned later. The foals get 10 cc of Probios paste once a week.

11. The foals from the first test group were followed up. At the age of four years all were normal in conformation and development however all the foals from that group retained behavioral habits such as wood chewing and have a harder time maintaining condition when worked or bred.

While this was not a scientific study, it was enough to show us that early weaning comes along with some pretty serious side affects. We try to get our mares a bit to the heavy side prior to foaling. Not obese, but with an extra amount of fat on them. We like to see a slight roll over the top of the tail and a thicker layer over the ribs. This gives the mare added reserves to draw from.

We feed our mares free choice quality hay and/or pasture round the clock. They get less than five pounds of 16% concentrates per day split into three feedings. They receive soybean oil, Moorman's Growstrong mineral/vitamin supplement daily and the Probios paste twice per week.

Our oldest broodmare is 23 years of age. This year we added 3lbs of alfalfa pellets to her ration just to give her a little added nutrition. She has held her condition very well so far.

When we are ready to wean the foals we cut the mare's grain consumption in half for one week, then we cut it in half again for a second week. Our barn is set up so that the stalls have solid walls up four feet and then no-climb horse wire from there up to allow for good air flow. Each stall is open free choice to a 12 x 40 foot paddock that is separated by five foot tall horse panels with a 2x6 top board over that.

We put two foals together in one stall and have the dams in the adjoining stalls to either side. The foals can see mom, touch and talk but not nurse. The mares are satisfied because they can see and touch the foal so there is no screaming or wild fretting.

The mare's udders fill tight by the end of the first day ( we wean right at morning feeding) The foals have had all day to adjust to the separation before nightfall and have one another for comfort.

By the end of the third day the mare's udder will slacken. She will then be allowed out to an adjoining turn out where she can come to the fence and check on the foal freely. The foals are left in the paddock for an additional day or two and then they are moved to a larger turn out that adjoins the mare pasture at a corner. They are divided by a 5 foot fence and can see mom only from the corner.

Within a few days the mares go off on their own with very rarely a visit to the fence. The foals go on about their business of being a playful foal and rarely come to the fence to see if mom can be seen.

The next week the foals are put out in a pasture with an older yearling or two year old for companion and to keep them settled. The colts are separated from the fillies at this point.

At the end of a month to six weeks the fillies are brought back to the mare pasture where they go back to the dam's side and continue to be nurtured. They may try to suckle but the mares will walk away from them or gently kick them aside. Mares that are NOT bred back may allow the foals to nurse but by then the mares will not come back into real milk. The foal may bet half a cup of residual milk but they are not actually nursing.

This method has worked very well for us. It does tie the mare up for a longer period of time, however we feel that comes along with the commitment we make when we decide to breed a mare. The eleven months of gestation are only part of that responsibility and commitment.

This article is meant to give the reader something to consider and think about when it comes to weaning foals. It is in no way meant to discredit anyone for using another method. We simply attempt to follow natures ideal as closely as possible. We have never had a horse with ulcers or eating problems and we have never had a horse raised by our method that developed behavioral problems.




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