Weaning has a significant lifetime impact on a horse s well-being because of the nutritional, emotional, mental, physical, and social changes that occur at that time.
Foals are very dependent on their mother s milk at four months of age, after which they gradually become nutritionally independent. Ideally by six months they will have made the transition from milk to forage. Foals that eat increasing amounts of grain and hay alongside their dams during this two-month time frame make this nutritional transition in diet slowly and smoothly.
However, foals weaned prior to this dietary transition experience symptoms of nutritional stress. They may develop rotund bellies, which indicates their digestive tract was ill-prepared for the abrupt change to forage. Due to the digestive tract s stifled ability to assimilate nutrients, a foal s growth is often temporarily stunted. Once the digestive tract does accommodate the new diet, these foals often spike a non-productive growth spurt that lacks a stable foundation. Foals weaned closer to six months of age experience less nutritional stress.
Protein-rich, processed and grain diets can also be nutritionally stressful for weaned foals. These feeds, when fed in surplus, fuel growth of body mass at the expense of skeletal development, which stages developmental bone diseases such as OCD (osteochondrosis dissecans) and angular limb deformities. Optimal steady growth is preferred to rapid growth. Strong skeletal frameworks are seemingly invisible in comparison to muscle mass growth, yet are the foundation for a sound horse.
This time frame between four and six months also coincides with the emotional maturation of foals as they become less dependent upon their dam s presence and begin exploring their environment on their own. Foals left alongside their dams for six months develop an emotional maturity and stability that benefits them their entire lives in social situations amongst horses and humans.
Separation of the mare from the foal can occur in the number of ways. Fenceline contact does seem to have its advantages with the foals becoming gradually independent over time and finally electing separation on their own. Removing the mares from the foals in a familiar environment minimizes stressors since these foals will be already accustomed to water and feed locations. Providing companionship during weaning reduces separation anxiety, whether that companion is other foals, or babysitting geldings.
Foals will search for and call to their dams, eat and drink irregularly, and rest infrequently for days following the weaning event. Their eating, drinking, and resting patterns become more consistent after four to five days, as does their eagerness to explore their environment and their companions. Access to good-quality grass hays, abundant fresh water, salt and a free-choice mineral supplement is important at this time. As time progresses, a large pasture with a shelter will ensure adequate exercise and protection from the winter elements. Accommodating a young horse s natural urge to play and move will aid in the development of sound bone structures.
Weanlings adopt a lean growthy appearance and may look unbalanced in conformation. This is how young horses grow and it is best to reserve judgment on conformation for three to four years as the youngster s body shape changes continually. Many ugly ducklings at nine months of age become stunningly sound five-year- old horses.
It is best if weaning occurs separate from other events, such as deworming and vaccinating, so as to reduce added stress.
Well-managed weaning programs care and support the nutritional, emotional, mental, physical and social dynamics of a young horse.