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The Weaning Debate - How Do You Separate Mares from Foals?
 By mosquito   •   6th Jul 2010   •   7,728 views   •   1 comments
Every horse was once a foal, stuck like glue to its mother’s side. Yet every horse, sooner or later, has to break that bond and grow up, to become an independent horse. Even in the wild, mares have to push their foals away so they can raise the next foal. For breeders of domesticated horses, how best to handle that process has become the subject of much debate.

How Do You Separate Mares from FoalsFor centuries it was believed that the best way to separate a mare and foal was to just take one of them away. Usually the mare would be removed to another farm, or a distant part of the same farm where she couldn’t hear the calls of her foal. There’s no doubt that this is a traumatic time for the foal, especially when the foal is the only one on a farm and has no other foals to share its fear with and to help it settle down. When several foals could be weaned together, there is usually a period of collective panic, but there’s no doubt that if weaned foals are put together that they settle down more quickly, especially if they’ve been pastured together with their mothers before.

Mares too would find this transition difficult, although experience shows that older broodmares, who’ve been through the process a few times, seem to find it less upsetting than young mares. If the mare is pregnant again, natural hormone balances also seem to help, and if weaning is timed right, these hormones help to calm the mare because it is time for her to concentrate on her pregnancy and the next foal.

But why put mares and foals through this trauma? Part of it comes down to efficiency. When horses were essential working animals – and in parts of the world where they still are – the mare would need to get back to work quickly, pregnant or not. Weanlings too would often be put into training quickly, and in some areas yearling are expected to carry packs and contribute to the workload, although usually ‘sharp’ weaning was done to enable the mare to go back to work without the distractions of the foal.

How Do You Separate Mares from FoalsIt used to be believed that sharp weaning improved the health of a broodmare. Separation from the foal quickly could trigger important physiological reactions that were important for the next pregnancy, and certainly as winter approaches many mares need to use all their forage to make the next baby and not to feed that last one. Sharp weaning seemed to encourage the mare’s milk supplies to dry up faster, preserving valuable nutrients for the pregnant mare. However, the medical evidence for this is limited, and wild mares don’t usually wean their foals so quickly and traumatically.

With the increasing popularity of natural horsemanship, gentler approaches to weaning have become more popular. ‘Soft’ weaning involves gradually separating the mare and foal, and encouraging the foal to bond with other horses (either other weanlings or even older horses) before separation from its mother is final. For example, once the foal is eating mainly grasses or grains and not showing as much interest in milk, the mare can be pastured in a field adjacent to the foal, and other foals or trusted companion horses put out with the weanling. Eventually, the foal forms bonds with its new peers, and begins to lose interest in its mother.

Net, the mare will be taken out of the pasture, and out or eyesight of the foal for increasingly long periods. Usually, after a week or two of this, the foal no longer even notices that its mother is gone. After another couple of weeks, it is often possible to pasture the mare and foal together again. This method reflects what mares do in the wild, where they gradually push their foals away more and more, and it is certainly less traumatic for both mare and foal.
So which way is best? If the mare really does have to get back to work or if forage is in short supply for pregnant mares – and in many primitive or very remote parts of the world this is the case – then sharp weaning has a purpose.

On large breeding farms, where many mares and foals are kept together, sharp weaning can be done with less distress because the foals already have strong social bonds. Here too, experienced older mares can help to settle younger mares who haven’t been through a weaning process before. If the weaning is timed right, the foals are probably already starting to enjoy each other’s company more than that of their mothers anyway, and the weaning process settles down quickly.

However, on smaller farms producing only one or two foals a year, where there is no urgency to train the foal or return the mare to work, and where there is plenty of forage, soft weaning has clear benefits. It will be less traumatic for everyone – including the owner! Again, if timed right, when the foal and mare are already showing signs of growing apart, then the entire process can be very calm and relaxing for both mare and foal. Some small farms may not have the facilities for sharp weaning anyway – if you can’t get the mare out of earshot of her foal, then soft weaning may be your only option. If you are using other techniques like imprinting to train your foal, soft weaning allows you to replace the mare in your foal’s attention at a critical time it’s much harder to do this with sharp weaning where the foals can be so upset and distracted that they cannot pay attention to you for several days.

There is no doubt that if done sensitively, and in the right circumstances, sharp weaning is not much more distressing for the foal than soft weaning, but timing is critical – the foals must be weaned when they are ready. Much of the trauma associated with sharp weaning is because it isn’t done at the right time for the foal, but rather when the needs of the owner required it, or where there are no other suitable horses for the foal to bond with. Fortunately, for horses in much of the world today, whether they experience sharp or soft weaning, most breeders are much more aware of the need to be empathetic to the needs of mares and foals, and to make the weaning process as gentle and happy one.
The Weaning Debate - How Do You Separate Mares from Foals?
The Weaning Debate - How Do You Separate Mares from Foals?
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