The weaning season is in full swing now. My neighbour, Stewart Mitchell, who trains racehorses, also handles youngsters and does breaking in for a few fortunate people.Recently, he has been weaning two TB foals for one of his owners, and so, with this article on my mind, I asked if I could observe his methods.
There seem to be two schools of thought about weaning. There are those who like to do it gradually, by separating the mare and foal for increasing periods of time over several days, believing this to be less stressful for mother and baby. Others, like Stewart, prefer to get the actual separation of the mare and foal over with quickly.
Sometimes, the choice of method will depend on what facilities you have available. Stewart, who comes from a horse breeding family, believes that good facilities, by which he means a barn, loose boxes, and preferably a round pen, are essential because they minimize the risk of injury to the foal, and enable the handler to take advantage of this very receptive period in the foal's life to begin serious education.
Most breeders I am sure, will have handled their foal from a young age, enough to be able to put a halter on, lead it with its dam, handle legs and feet for hoof trimming, and administer worming medication. Many foals will have been transported at least once with their mothers. All this is good preparation as long as the foal has not been able to learn any bad habits. Another area to make ready for is feeding. Growing horses have a considerably greater need for protein than mature horses, so you will want to supplement the weanling's ration with a suitable feed as well as added minerals if they are not included in the feed you have chosen. If the foal has already learnt to eat hard feed while with its dam, this is one thing you won't have to teach it.
When to wean
Most breeders seem to agree that between 4-6 months is a good time, but this is only a guideline, as there are a few considerations to look at when making the decision. Try to time it for before the weather gets too cold, and while you still have a good paddock to put the foal into. Be sure the foal is well, and hopefully, somewhat independent of its dam (i.e. will socialize with other foals, without worrying too much about the whereabouts of its mother). If you have more than one foal, weaning them in pairs, or all together, means they will have company when you finally turn them into that good paddock you have saved for them.
Stewart handles horses professionally, so therefore has to cope with youngsters with a variety of backgrounds, from those which have had competent handling as foals and already know about leading, hoof trimming and so on, to those which have been left virtually untouched. The most difficult foals are the ones which have been handled incompetently, and have therefore already learnt that it is possible to escape from the person holding the rope, or have become over-familiar and disrespectful. We all know that horses will learn undesirable stuff as quickly as they can learn what we want them to learn.
The separation process
Regardless of prior handling (or lack of), Stewart's process is to bring the mare and foal into the stable, put a halter with a short rope on the foal and take it into an enclosed box with deep straw. The mare is taken away beyond sight and earshot. There is a varying period of vocal and physical protest from the foal, but sooner or later, it learns that making a fuss is not gaining it anything and settles down. The foal is given food and water and left until the next day.
The following morning, Stewart spends a few minutes getting the "feel" of the foal, putting a lead rope on the halter, and using a bum rope to lead the foal around the box a few times in both directions. He explores the foal's tolerance for contact by stroking and patting it all over, finding where the "touchy" areas are. This session might be repeated once or twice that day, and depending on how respectful of the rope the foal is, Stewart will start leading it out into the enclosed barn and later, progress to leading it outside, initially up and down a race, where it is not tempted to try breaking away sideways.
Once Stewart is confident in the foal's leading, the time comes to tie the foal up. Stewart does this in his round pen, which has a sand surface, so the foals don't slip. While Stewart likes the foal to test for a means of escape (and fail, of course), he finds that because they have learnt already to "give" to pressure, any struggle is generally brief and minimal.
By this time, the foal is able to go out in the paddock during the day. Daily handling will continue for about three weeks, during which time the foal will learn to be groomed, washed, wear a cover, stand for the farrier, load on and off a horse truck/float, tolerate a rope around girth and legs, and be respectful of the handler.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to have the super facilities of a professional trainer. If you do not have adequate facilities, you will have to use a more gradual process.
What about Mum? She needs to go into a fairly sparse paddock, and be fed just good quality meadow hay while her lactation shuts down, no hard feed or lush grass. New mothers will be agitated at first, missing their foals, but the old girls will be more than likely breathing sighs of relief.