Weaning is the process of taking a foal away from its mother and transitioning its core nutrient source from milk over to concentrated feeds and forage. Horse weaning age on most farms is typically somewhere between 4-6 months of age, but in some cases, may be as late as 8 months of age.
According to Dr. Rob Franklin of FullBucket Health, weaning foals is necessary because after three months, the mare’s milk supply begins to wane. But no matter the exact age, weaning is a stressful event in the life of the foal, both mentally and physiologically. However, Dr. Franklin and Dr. Amanda Bradbery, Fullbucket’s equine nutritionist, have some tips for weaning foals to make this transition easier for everyone involved.
When to wean a foal
Before the process of weaning is begun, there are several things that need to be done to ensure that the foal is healthy and therefore, better able to deal with the stress induced by the weaning process itself. Dr. Franklin relayed that foals need to be dewormed by 30 days of age and then every 45 days after that in order to manage roundworms, which tend to be a problem in foals, especially those in high-density stocked farms.
Dr. Franklin also noted that at 4-5 months of age, the maternally derived antibodies within the foal are starting to wane, but their own natural antibodies are beginning to increase. Foals should be vaccinated around 4 months of age, receiving their core vaccines, including rhino, tetanus, sleeping sickness, and West Nile. They will need three boosters of the core vaccines before they can gain the proper immune response to these diseases. Ideally, the second booster should be given before weaning begins.
It’s also important for horse owners to understand that the foal’s gastrointestinal system is still maturing when weaning time comes around. Because the hindgut isn’t fully mature, foals will need some type of concentrated feed in order to get their main nutrients. However, in a month or two, they can slowly transition to a more forage-centered diet.
Problems that may occur during the weaning process
Dr. Franklin relayed that due to the stress incurred during the weaning process, foals are often more susceptible to illness. Gastrointestinal disease and respiratory infection are both common occurrences during this time period. Owners should watch for teeth grinding, a sign of abdominal pain usually induced by stomach ulcers, as well as diarrhea. In severe cases, foals may have gastric reflux coming from the nose.
Foals may also be more prone to high parasite loads during weaning, and as a result, may develop edema along the throat latch, midline of the belly, or sheath area.
Tips to reduce stress while weaning horses
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Bradbery agree on the following tips:
- Remove the mare from the foal’s environment rather than vice versa, as this can reduce the amount of stress placed on the foal during weaning.
- To avoid risk of injury, carefully check the foal’s environment to make sure it is safe before beginning the weaning process.
- The foal should have access to the same type of feed both before and after weaning. Keep the diet consistent for at least a week and then you can gradually make changes if you want to.
Add probiotics during the mare and foal transition
Dr. Franklin and Dr. Bradbery also stressed that adding Fullbucket’s Probiotic Pellets during this transition time can help to support optimal GI health in the foal. Since 60-70% of the immune system resides within the gut, supplementing with probiotics can help to support foal immunity as well. Dr. Franklin suggests adding a probiotic supplement early on, preferably around 28 days before weaning, and continuing to feed the product throughout the entire transition time.
Weaning will be a stressful time for the foal no matter what, but by heeding the above advice, you can help to reduce that stress and keep your foal healthy. Dr. Franklin also recommends “ripping the band-aid off” all at once. That is, weaning the foal completely instead of making it a gradual process.