When and how to wean your foal is often a difficult question for many owners. There is no general agreement on when to wean foals, which typically occurs between 3 to 8 months of age, nor is there any general agreement on how best to wean a foal.

The correct answers are typically based on what is feasible for you and your operation. However, there are some important considerations, regardless of the method used. 
 
Weaning is the process of the foal detaching from its mother. Over time, the foal becomes less dependent on the mare for many of their social and nutritional needs. The weaning process is complete when the foal is completely independent from its mother, even though they will maintain tight social bonds if they are kept together. In a natural setting, this typically occurs around the 9 to 10-month mark in a foal’s life. 
 
Artificial weaning is the most common method used today to wean foals from their dams. This is because most foals begin training for their intended use or are prepared for sale at an early age. These young horses need to become more habituated to humans and associate them with their caretaking rather than their dam. Additionally, the foal's nutritional needs are high and it is much easier to feed a growing foal without mare interference, as well as many other considerations. 
 
When to wean will usually be dictated by your operation. Yet, the mare stops being able to meet a foal’s nutritional needs beginning around the 4 month of age mark. This is a time period when the foal's nutrient needs are no longer fully supported by the mare’s milk due to their high growth rate. Thus, this is a period when feed should be introduced and is the time many consider optimal to wean their foals. 
 
The two strategies on artificial weaning a foal involve either abrupt or gradual weaning. 
 
Abrupt Weaning: 

  • The process of immediately separating the mare and foal.  
  • The mare is moved to a location out of sight and hearing from the foal. This is important to lessen the stress placed on both horses. 
  • Often viewed as the most stressful for both the mare and foal, however, this strategy can work well if two or more foals are weaned together in this manner. 
  • Foals are often kept in stalls or very small paddocks during abrupt weaning. This is important to protect them from running and harming themselves when they become stressed. 
  • There are multiple methods suggested to lessen the stress to the foal, such as introducing a companion animal or other horse. Conversely, others suggest foals should be weaned by themselves so they do not develop strong bonds with other animals they will eventually need to be weaned from. 

Gradual Weaning:    

  • Research into weaning has demonstrated gradual weaning to be less stressful on foals when compared to abrupt weaning. 
  • There are multiple methods on how to gradually wean, but generally it involves short and then longer-term separation of the mare and foal. This can be done over many days (7 to 10) or even weeks (3 to 4). 
  • Some methods involve initially removing the mare from the stall for 5 minutes, then gradually increasing the time each day until the day decided for the foal to be fully weaned. There are multiple methods to do this; some suggest placing the mare on the other side of a fence next to the foal.
  • With gradual weaning, it is important to allow the foal to see, hear, touch, and smell its mother but not to allow it to nurse. 
  • Regardless of the particular method used, gradual weaning allows the foal to slowly become more independent.

A recent study has even suggested the best method is to allow foals to spontaneously wean off their dams. This method has proven to be the least stressful to the foal and mare. However, in many horse farm operations, allowing spontaneous weaning is just not feasible. 
 
When weaning, it is important to understand that the foal and mare will both be stressed. So, it is important in not only ensuring the foal is kept in a safe environment, but that they are physically healthy to withstand the stress they will be placed under. Tips to help them include:

  • Foals are more susceptible to parasites as compared to adult horses. Thus, ensure foals are wormed around 2 months of age and then every two months after. 
  • Ensure your foals are vaccinated prior to weaning. Discuss with your veterinarian for which vaccines your foals will need for your area of the country. 
  • Ensure your foal is receiving adequate nutrition. You can review our Feeding the Weanling and Yearling article for more details. 

All in all, there are many methods for weaning a foal, as well as many opinions on how to do it. However, the goal of any horse owner should be to support both your foals and mares through this stressful period as best as you can. If you have any questions, please contact us!
 

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.