by Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, DACT • courtesy of AAEP
Weaning is usually done somewhere between 4 and 7 months of age, although some ranches leave their foals on the mares a bit longer.
After 4 months of age, the foal’s nutritional requirements exceed that provided by the mare’s milk, and most foals are eating grain and forage on their own. Therefore, the first step in the weaning process should include ensuring the foal is eating a good quality hay and comfortable eating a well-balanced ration containing 14-16 percent protein, 0.7 percent calcium, 0.4 percent phosphorous and a 0.5 percent trace mineralized salt to support the rapid muscle and skeletal growth.
The foals should be healthy and on a good parasite control program that including first deworming with a “white” dewormer at 2 months. That should be followed by deworming every 60 days to prevent round worms that migrate through the foal’s intestinal wall, liver and lungs, predisposing them to pneumonia and other disease.
Vaccination with tetanus, Eastern and Western encephalomyelitis and West Nile virus should take place at around 3 months of age and again three to four weeks later to ensure they are protected from disease during the weaning process. Based on location of the facility and exposure to show horses that are coming and going, foals might also benefit from vaccination against influenza, rhinopneumonitis and strangles. Your veterinarian is your best source of advice on which vaccines your foals should receive, and for deworming recommendations.
There are two weaning methods that are commonly used – the abrupt method and the gradual method. If there are multiple foals to be weaned and they have been pastured together so they are familiar with each other, the abrupt form of weaning seems to work well, as they will have their herd mates to console them.
An example of an abrupt weaning method would be:
• Place at least two mares with foals in adjacent stalls overnight.
• The following morning, remove buckets from the stall, then remove the mares to a place out of sight and earshot of the foals and place the foals in the stall or paddock together. After the foals have calmed down, replace the buckets and leave the foals alone the rest of the day.
• The following day, begin working and bonding with the foals by placing halters on them with soft cotton lead ropes that are at least 5 feet long so the foals will step on them and begin learning to give to a rope. It also makes it easier to catch them.
• After some time of adjustment, begin calmly handling the foals but no more than 15 minutes at a time, as they have a short attention span. Again, having a buddy in the stall or paddock makes the process much less stressful.
An example of a gradual weaning method would be:
• Keep mares and foals in stalls or paddocks for several days.
• Take mares into an adjacent stall or injury-proof paddock. The fence should not allow nursing and must be sturdy, free of nails, sharp edges, etc.
• Make food and water available on the side of the stall or paddock near the mare.
• Again, placing them with a buddy, older gentle gelding, etc. will calm them and make the process easier for all concerned.
Following weaning, the mares should be turned out in an area where they can be freely exercised, and their grain ration should be decreased for seven to 10 days to facilitate drying up and to prevent weight gain, as they are no longer producing milk for their foal.