5 Things You Need to Consider Before Weaning
It's always great when research is applicable right away. This is certainly the case when it comes to investigating the best weaning practices for mares and foals. The main goal of most breeders is to minimize stress and many have their preferred methods based on their mares, facilities, schedule, and past experiences, but it never hurts to see what's out there and join the conversation!
Gradual vs. Abrupt
Do you wean your foals gradually over a period of time or prefer immediate separation? Research tends to back a gradual approach, separating mares from their foals for increments of time each day*. A good compromise between the two (which also works well with varying ages and space requirements) is gradual group weaning. Removing a few mares at a time, leaving their foals in the herd with the remaining mares appears to reduce levels of insecurity and keeps foals from feeding off the panic of other foals, escalating their response. Of course, for this to work, the mares left behind need to be tolerant of other foals as they will likely be approached. Once all the mares have been removed, consider leaving another adult horse with your group of weanlings to act as a "babysitter", providing direction and security for the herd.
During times of stress, cortisol is produced, effectively decreasing the body's inflammatory and immune responses. To lessen the risk of respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses' it is important to make sure your foal is in optimal health before you begin weaning. It is also important to tighten up your biosecurity practices in order to minimize the introduction of new pathogens to newly weaned and now vulnerable foals.
The age of your foal is often one of your first thoughts when it comes to weaning. It is common practice to avoid weaning foals before 4 months of age in order to mitigate some of the other areas that make foals vulnerable. But how old is too old? A 2019 study found that 6 month old foals displayed fewer signs of stress when compared to 7 and 8 month of foals, indicating that 6 months of age is the optimal time to wean**. Foals around this age are likely already seeking independence and have begun to self wean.
With most foals being ready to wean late summer, it is wise to take climate and weather into account. Weaning is stressful and can often distract foals from maintaining sufficient fluid intake, seeking proper shelter from the elements, and conserving energy. Plan ahead and make sure you aren't scheduling to wean on the hottest days of the year!
It doesn't take long for foals to dehydrate. Make sure you catch them drinking post-weaning.