Making the break
Wendy Findlay gives advice on how best to wean your foal
Foals are usually weaned from their mothers at about six months. By this age, the foal should be eating grass or hay and a concentrate ration (a special foal/young-stock mix) and be less reliant on the mother’s milk for nutrition. The foal will be increasingly independent of its mother, often spending long periods grazing at the far end of the field in the company of other foals or horses and ponies in the field. However, the bond between the mother and foal is still very strong, and the process of weaning, or separation, can be very traumatic for them if handled in an unsympathetic manner.Broadly, there are two approaches: quick and complete separation where the mare and foal are divided so they can’t hear or see each other, or gradual separation, where the mare is removed from the foal for short periods at a time. Gradually, the mare is kept away for longer and longer intervals until eventually she’s not returned at all.My interest in finding out the best way to wean was motivated by the knowledge that I would have to wean our little Connemara colt foal, Storm, from his dam, Holly. I planned to do this around the end of October and the beginning of November. During the summer, I spoke to everyone I could think of who had ever weaned a foal. Here is some of their advice.Slowly does itOne friend had weaned her foal using the gradual approach. The mare and foal were kept in a field with a gelding. The ponies were all stabled at night in two stables adjacent to each other. At first, the foal was always in with the mare. However, as it got older, it was popped in the stable with the gelding at night. It could still see and touch the mare through the bars and so never panicked. The three were turned out in the field together during the day. Then the mare was put out a little later, or brought in a little earlier in the day so the foal became used to being in the field with just the gelding. Then, as my friend said, they just took the mare away one day instead of putting her out, and the foal never even noticed.The short, sharp, shockAnother person described how they had bought a six-month-old foal: “It was supposed to have been weaned, but the lorry arrived with both mare and foal in it, and they clearly hadn’t been separated before. We were told to put the foal in a stable and shut all the doors and leave him there for several days with food and water. The mare was put back in the lorry and taken away. The foal was distraught and dashed round the stable neighing and neighing for his mother. He didn’t stop calling, even if we went in and tried to calm him. On the second day, we could stand it no longer and put him in the field with a couple of yearlings. This seemed to work, for he calmed down immediately.”Safety in numbersI spoke to Mr Watters of Forestview Stud near Omagh. He has over 40 horses and ponies in total and this year he had 17 mares and foals to be weaned.“We would usually wean late October or early November, when the foals are around six to eight months old. The mare and foals are brought in and the foals are corralled in a secure barn/yard and the mares taken away out of earshot. On the first day, the mare’s udders may fill, but by day three, the udder has dried up. At this time of year, the milk is very dilute and not as rich or nutritious as in the summer. The foals aren’t taking much. The foals are kept in groups for company and within a week, they’ve forgotten their mothers. In fact, if you were to bring them together again, the mares wouldn’t have them. They lay their ears back and swish their tails, and won’t let the foals near.”Mostly, the mares are in foal again, and the Connemaras and some half breeds winter out, and the thoroughbreds are kept under cover. On stud farms, where many mares and foals may be kept together in a large field, weaning can also be facilitated by removing one mare at a time over a period of weeks until all the mares are taken away. The foals stay together for company with a few older mares or geldings to act as nursemaids.Holly and StormWe don’t have stables as such and my ponies all live outside. However, I thought I’d try to use the ‘slowly, slowly’ approach to wean Storm, using almost adjacent fields. Our foal Storm and mum Holly were in a field with Snowy, an ancient white donkey. I was keen to start riding Holly again so I reasoned that I could take Holly out for half an hour or so and ride her in a paddock just across the lane. Storm would still be able to see and hear her, and having Snowy for company, he wouldn’t become too upset.We tried this a few times but it wasn’t a resounding success. Storm cantered up and down the hedge line neighing at Holly, who was so distracted by her foal, she couldn’t pay any attention to me. Eventually, I decided this method wasn’t working, and rode Holly in the field with Storm and Snowy. Storm trotted round everywhere behind us and both mare and foal relaxed again.Even when Holly was put into the paddock to graze for a short period, and Storm and Snowy were left in their field nearby, Storm became upset, whinnying and shouting for Holly. This was certainly not stress-free and I was worried that Storm might hurt himself trying to jump out. It seemed that Snowy was no substitute for Holly, even for short periods of time, and even when Holly was still easily within sight and earshot.I abandoned weaning for a few weeks while I worked out another approach. In the meantime, I continued riding Holly with Storm trotting along loose after us. A neighbour had 20 hilly acres of stubble fields I could access without going on the road and this allowed me to start getting Holly fit, and the exercise was good for Storm also.
I toyed with the idea of letting Holly and Storm run together for the winter, but this would limit the amount of work I could do with Holly if she couldn’t be taken anywhere without her foal in tow. Our neighbour has left his mare and foal together for the winter, but he had no real need to separate them as his mare isn’t in foal again and he has no plans to bring her into work.Eventually a solution was found: my mother has two pony mares that could act as a nanny to Storm after weaning. First of all we brought Holly and Storm over and put them in the field with the two mares so they could all get aquainted. They all ran together for a couple of weeks, and then we simply caught Holly one day, put her in the horse box and took her back to my place. Storm whinnied a bit but was seen later on indulging in a bit of mutual grooming with one of the other mares, and so wasn’t overly distressed. Holly, it has to be said, didn’t even appear to notice that Storm wasn’t with her in the box. She went back in the field with Snowy happily. I kept a close eye on her udder to ensure that she didn’t develop mastitis. Exercise and a slight reduction in her feed helped the milk supply dry up, which it did very quickly.So, having thought I would go for the gradual approach to weaning, it ended up being just complete separation in one go. However, I feel this worked well for two reasons. First, we provided Storm some comrades to reassure him after Holly had left, and second, Storm was nearly eight months old when he was finally weaned and was already becoming increasingly independent of Holly.After weaningProviding company for the foal after it has been separated from the mare is crucial. As a herd animal, a foal is going to feel more secure in a group, even if it’s only some other weanlings. A few older horses and ponies in the group are of benefit as they keep the foals in place and teach them a few social graces.Most native breeds of foal should be able to winter out, especially if their field has some shelter and you continue to feed them properly. Good quality forage, such as hay or haylage, and a foal mix to ensure all his vitamin and nutrient requirements are met. More highly bred foals may need more cosseting – they will fare better if they can get under cover, either in a field shelter or in an open yard/barn system. Try not to stand a foal in a stable for long periods alone. This would be very unnatural for them and most likely encourage stable vices such as weaving and crib biting. Ideally, you should try to provide your growing foal as much space and freedom as possible so there’s plenty of opportunity for him to exercise himself. Worm him, feed him well (but not too well – over-feeding a foal with concentrates can lead to developmental abnormalities), attend to his feet, handle him regularly and enjoy watching him grow into a gangly yearling.Finally, remember to apply for a horse passport which all horses, ponies and donkeys are now legally required to have. I was able to apply for a passport from the Connemara Breeders’ Society. A vet came to complete an identification chart, insert a microchip and take a blood sample for testing to confirm parentage.
This article is from the April 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine. << To order back issues click the link to the left.