Driving the scenic roads of the Bluegrass Region, thoroughbred horse farms flank both sides. With field upon field housing the mainstay of Kentucky’s breeding operations, you start to notice a disparity between the number of mares and foals; the weaning process has begun.
Weaning is the separation of a foal from its dam, which can be a very stressful process if not navigated correctly. As with all mammals, it is natural and necessary for a foal and mare to separate. Deciding when to wean a foal depends on the temperament and health of the mare and foal, but generally takes place when the foal is between four and six months old.
There are many methods for weaning a foal, including abrupt and gradual separation. Abrupt separation is completed by removing all the mares from a herd, leaving just weanlings. Alternately, two or more mares are removed from the herd at a time leaving a few mares to act as nannies to all foals. This latter approach, referred to as interval weaning, is less stressful for both the mare and the foal.
Gradual separation is started by separating a mare and foal for minutes at a time and then moving up to the eventual permanent separation with the idea the foal will become more and more accustomed to being without their dam. With either weaning method, it is important to have the mare ultimately removed from the foal’s surroundings completely so that they will not be able to smell or hear each other.
To reduce stress, it is always important to separate a mare and foal for the first time in a familiar environment, such as their stall or field. At weaning age, foals are familiar with the routine of turn out and the majority share a large field with other mares and foals of the same age making up their herd.
Preparation is key: It is important to have the foal familiar with the feed they will receive after they are weaned when nursing will not be an option. Every foal has a unique personality and therefore a unique response to weaning. While some foals may continue on with no reaction, others may be anxious and pace in their stall or field. Weaning is completed in the mornings on a preferably cooler day to reduce stress.
At Stonestreet, two to four foals are weaned at a time so that there will not be a single foal or mare alone in the weaning experience. The mare and foal are led from their stall and out of the barn like they do regularly for morning turn out, but the foal is led to the field while the mare is led to an awaiting trailer.
The mare is taken to one of our other farms where she will live until returning for the next breeding season. The new “weanling”, a term used to describe a foal under one year of age that has been weaned, will continue with their regular routine.
Mares have unique personalities and this is taken into account when deciding which mares will be removed last from the herd. Mares with calm, even temperaments are best left with the herd until last, as they will take on a “nanny” mare role. These nanny mares help guide the weanlings as they are used to following their dam’s lead throughout the day. They also aid in reducing stress during the one to three week period where a weanling will miss their dam.
It is important to take the stress level of weaning seriously because of stress’ effect on a foal’s immune system. At this age, the immune system is still developing and will continue to do so until they are over a year old. Extreme stress weakens the immune system leaving a foal susceptible to illness.
Eventually each foal will be weaned and settled into their new life. Turn out will be a time with friends to play and enjoy to the fresh air. As these young horses test the parameters of their new freedom, by maybe hanging out in the farthest stretch of their paddock at feed time instead of making their way to the gate for the handlers like mom used to do, they learn and mature. Before they know it, they will be yearlings and on to a whole new adventure.