Let's talk about foals and especially the natural weaning process. Weaning can be a very stressful time for both the foal and the mare. If done correctly, it is possible to minimize that stress. How does it happen in wild herds and is rapid weaning safe for foals? We certainly don't think so.
Weaning off a youngster is a difficult issue. Take a child away from his mother too early, and you have to face the consequences. It's the same in horses, and weaning a foal prematurely can lead to behavioural problems.
So, what do you usually do if you don't know how to approach a natural issue? You have a look at how mother nature does it.
So: How do "wild" mares wean their youngsters off?
Whilst doing the research for this article, I came across this blog report of a wild horse reserve in Canada. Parts of it I will summarise here, because their experiences are - to some extent - identical with my own, as you will read later on.
In the wild, horses live in solid social structures, consisting of a stallion with several mares and their foals. When it's time to say goodbye, the strong bond between mother and foal has already been loosened over a long period of time.
I read: "At Ravenseyrie we do not, ourselves, wean the foals from their dams but allow this rite of passage to happen naturally, as determined by the family band's own dynamics. "
Interesting. The managers observe how the weaning process simply "happens," whether induced by the stallion or the foal itself. Sometimes the stallion chases the foals away with threatening gestures and aggressive behaviour; and if the foals try to return to their family, he will attack them, sometimes violently. So sooner than later, they accept their fate.
Not all natural weaning has to happen aggressively. The time varies from animal to animal but usually occurs around the time the colt is one year old, or before the mother gives birth to a new foal. But there are also exceptions. Sometimes, young horses are accepted within the herd up until they are almost two years old. That happens only when the mother is not in foal again.
In contrast to that, we find that nowadays in most studs it is common practice to separate mares and foals when they are between four and nine or ten months old.
What is the goal of the "forced eviction" and what happens after that? Expelled foals join or form another herd within the same territory, and they avoid coming too close to their former family. Which is a good thing, considering that the alpha male would continue to harass his offspring.
The author explains that they have a theory about this behaviour: These attacks on male offspring only occur during the breeding season and are triggered by hormones. The alpha male wants to impress the younger generation and make a clear statement that he does not tolerate any competition.
The father treats the female offspring differently. It is interesting that at times the stallion chases the young mares away from their new flock, most likely this is an attempt to prevent inbreeding. That would also be a successful undertaking if the territory were large enough. But even a wild reserve in Canada the pastures are not large enough to let the weaning process occur completely natural. According to the authors, limited space is an issue and causes tension among the horses.
This all sounds reasonable, right? What do you think, how the "business as usual" weaning process affects the foal?
Weaning is a traumatic experience
Many studs still separate mother and foal cold turkey, and when they are only 4 - 7 months old. All of a sudden they have to deal with a new environment, new food sources, a bunch of other scared foals and the separation from the mother. Sounds awful, right?
Science is proving that this is indeed the case. A recent study by the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna states that the sudden separation from the mare is especially burdensome.
They also found that the separation process is somewhat less traumatic, if the animals are separated gradually, or if they are accompanied by an assistance animal, such as geldings or mares who weren't in foal.
The risks of sudden separation are:
Panic attacks: the foals are easily scared since they all of a sudden lack the safety of their mother.
This results in a higher risk of injury.
The immune system can be weakened and is more sensitive to infections.
The foals lose significant amounts of weight.
It can lead to a temporary growth depression (due to stress hormones).
Risk of developing behavioural disorders
Natural weaning: Can it happen more naturally?
Many breeders are understandably concerned with the practical side of things, and they want to involve the least amount of costly human effort in weaning. The feeding of the foal can also be burdensome for the mother mare. However, since science proves that the process can indeed be traumatic for the foals, more and more breeders are looking for an alternative, more natural ways of separation of mother and foal.
My experience shows that natural weaning can happen, even in a "normal" barn.
My foal is now 1.5 years old, and I can hardly notice the weaning. Nowadays, she maybe sucks 2-3 times a day, and I notice that the udder of my mare gets smaller and smaller. It feels like the times the foal does run to her mother is more about seeking reassurance instead of the actual feeding process.
What I find interesting and important is that there definitely are situations where I clearly notice that the foal still needs reassurance from her mother.
Recently, we built a new trail of 300 meters around one of our pastures. Once finished, I watched the mare strolling along, patiently waiting for her foal to come with her. But the foal wouldn't set a foot on the path, and after a long waiting time, the mare would go and get the foal. The little one gained confidence and followed her mother. How exciting! It says a lot, no?
The separation of mare and foal is always a traumatic experience, whether in the wild or in the stable. However, the gravity of the stress reaction definitely depends on the separation method. More gentle and gradual withdrawal or the use of assistance animals can provide social security, which in turn compensates the loss of the mother.
If you can't wean foals naturally and gradually, you should accustom the young animals to human interaction and different type of horse feeds as early as possible.
If you are interested in further reading, we recommend this article.
Talk to you soon