Weaning foals refers to separating the foal from their mother so they no longer consume milk by nursing. Once weaned, foals must obtain nutrients from forage and other feeds.

Domesticated foals are typically weaned four to seven months after birth. Various weaning strategies can be used, including progressive and abrupt separation of the foal and dam.

Progressive separation is believed to be less stressful for foals. Housing newly weaned foals in a natural environment and with unrelated adult horses and or their peers may also reduce stress.

Introducing foals to creep feeding (eating small amounts of concentrates) before weaning provides a range of benefits. Creep feeds provide additional nutrients to nursing foals, reduce weaning stress, and enable the developing foal to gradually become accustomed to eating solid foods.

Foals can engage in creep feeding by providing specific feeders that only allow foals to access feeds. Alternatively, a structure that only enables foals to enter it can be constructed to facilitate creep feeding.

The Weaning Process

In the early months of their lives, foals depend on their mothers for nutrition, protection, and security. However, they must be weaned from their mother’s milk as their nutritional needs eventually increase beyond what milk can supply.

Milk production in mares decreases significantly after the third month of lactation. By the time foals are three to four months old, they may benefit from consuming milk and solid feed or solely solid feed to support consistent growth. [1]

The weaning process can be stressful for both mares and foals and should be carried out with careful consideration.

When to Wean Foals

In wild horses, foals are typically weaned when they are between nine and eleven months old. In contrast, domesticated foals are usually weaned between four and seven months of age. [1]

Choosing when to wean your foal depends on multiple factors, including the maturity of the foal and the health status and temperament of the mare and foal. The amount of involvement horse owners have in the operation and design of their equine facility may also influence weanling management.

Although foals can be weaned within a few days after birth, this scenario is not ideal as they will require colostrum and milk replacers. Weaning foals too early can have negative nutrition and behavioural effects. [2]

Weaning Considerations

The following factors should be considered when determining how and when to wean your foal.

Health of the Foal

Because weaning can be stressful for both mare and foal, the foal should be healthy before being separated from its mother.

Foals should be up to date with vaccinations and deworming before being weaned.

Mare Behavior

The behavioural characteristics of mares can be passed on to their foals, although it is unclear if this occurs due to genetic or environmental factors. If a mare is demonstrating negative behaviours, some breeders believe it is beneficial to initiate the weaning process sooner than later. [2]

Mare and Foal Bond

When choosing when and how to wean, it’s important to consider the strength of the bond between mare and foal, which varies between individuals. [2]

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Strategies Used to Wean Foals

No specific weaning protocol is recommended in research studies. Common strategies used to wean foals include: [1][2]

Abrupt Separation

An abrupt separation between mare and foal requires moving each horse to different locations on the property where they cannot see, smell, or contact each other.

If using an abrupt separation strategy for weaning, it is best not to isolate the foal from all other horses.

Research indicates that foals weaned through an abrupt process experience more stress (indicated by higher cortisol levels) than foals weaned through progressive separation. [3][4]

Progressive Separation

Various strategies can be used for progressively separating mares and foals during weaning. [1][2]

One method involves separating the mare and foal from one another by placing each of them in different enclosures with one common side shared between them. This form of separation prevents nursing, but the mare and her foal still have visual contact with each other.

Allowing the mare and foal to remain in visual contact for several days provides security and comfort for the foal. After being housed next to each other, they are separated and moved to different locations.

Another method of progressive separation involves keeping a mare and her foal out of visual sight and contact for a specific amount of time each day. The time and frequency of separations can be increased until, eventually the mare and foal are not housed together again.

Effects of Weaning on Foals

Researchers have investigated the effects of different weaning methods on the physical and psychological health of foals.

Improper weaning can contribute to stereotypic behaviours, including cribbing or windsucking.

Environmental Influence

The environment in which weaning is carried out may affect the stress level of foals, although further research is needed.

Weaning foals in as natural an environment as possible is ideal. Allowing foals to remain in the environment they have become familiar with before weaning may reduce weaning stress. [1][2]

Foals being weaned should have constant access to clean water and free-choice access to forage. [5]

Research shows that foals weaned in groups in a pasture environment are less likely to develop abnormal behaviours than foals weaned in stalls or barns. [5]

Group Weaning

Multiple studies show that foals experience less stress when weaned with other horses than alone.

A study of 16 foals concluded that weaning foals in a group promotes positive feeding behaviour . This study found that those weaned in a group pen consumed hay and concentrated feeds seven hours after separation from their mothers. [6]

Foals weaned in individual pens did not consume feed during the first 48 hours of separation from their mothers. [6]

A study on pairs of foals weaned in stalls found that foals exhibited less vocalization (a sign of stress) than foals weaned alone. [9]

Contact with Adult Horses

Another study of 32 domestic foals found it beneficial for them to have contact with unrelated adult horses during the weaning process.

This study noted that foals weaned without unrelated adult horses present displayed increased aggressiveness toward other foals and abnormal behaviours, including excessive wood-chewing and redirected sucking. [7]

Additional research indicates that foals housed with unrelated adults have lower cortisol, less vocalization, and lower aggression than foals weaned with only their peers. [5]

Disadvantages of Weaning in Pairs

In a study comparing foals weaned in isolation or in pairs, the pairs displayed more aggressive behaviours towards each other than those weaned singly. [5]

Another study of 20 foals assigned the horses to one of three groups, including non-weaned, wean