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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
The end result of that trial was total dissatisfaction.
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.
end of that trial left us dissatisfied nearly as much as the first year.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.