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, weaned in pairs, and weaned singly. The foals weaned in pairs displayed signs of stress, measured through an increased plasma cortisol level and cell-mediated immune response.

Researchers concluded that increased stress in the weaned pairs may be due to aggressive behaviour by the dominant foal. [8]

Monitoring Newly Weaned Foals

During the weaning process, foals should be carefully monitored to ensure their safety. They should also be observed for signs of stress and the development of abnormal behavioural patterns.

Signs of Stress and Behavioral Changes

Foals weaned under domestic conditions are subject to various stressors due to separation from their dams and changes in their diet and physical and social environments. Each of these factors has the potential to induce stress.

Behavioural signs of stress include: [2]

  • Increased vocalization
  • Abnormal movements such as weaving (swaying the neck back and forth in a repetitive manner)
  • Aggressiveness
  • Cribbing (biting on a solid object and sucking in air)
  • Redirected suckling
  • Cessation of playing
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

Physiological indications of stress include: [2]

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased cortisol concentrations

Increased stress hormones during weaning can lower the immune response in foals. [2]

Stress responses due to weaning may be strongest during the first post-weaning days and diminish with time.

Safety Considerations

Housing areas should be inspected to ensure foals are safe in their environment.

Protruding feed troughs are a risk for causing injury. Openings in fences or stalls that are a larger size than a foal’s hoof pose the risk of trapping a leg.

Preweaning Diet and Creep Feeding

Prior to weaning, it is beneficial for most foals to consume small amounts of solid feed (referred to as creep feeds) to reduce weaning stress.

Many horse owners introduce feeds by allowing the foal access to the dam’s feed. When provided access to grain, foals start consuming small amounts of feed within weeks after birth and will readily eat it at two to three months old.

Creep feeding ensures an additional feed source other than milk is available for nursing foals and is particularly valuable for those that are weaned later than four months of age.

By two months old, the nutritional needs of foals may be greater than what is supplied by their mother’s milk. [9] Creep feeds provide additional vitamins, minerals, protein and energy for developing foals to support healthy weight gain.

Foals that creep feed are believed to experience less stress during the weaning process as they transition from drinking milk to eating solid feeds. Creep feeding also helps foals to maintain their weight after weaning. [9]

Creep feeds can be introduced to foals between one and two months of age. Orphaned foals can be introduced to creep feeding during their first week of life. [9]

Do all Foals Require Creep Feeding?

All foals eventually need to be weaned. However, not all foals require creep feeds in their diet.

Key reasons for creep feeding include:

  • Providing extra calories to foals that are not growing normally.
  • Supplying balanced levels of vitamins and minerals in the diet.
  • Reducing stress in foals during the weaning process.

Foals maintained on pasture or provided free-choice hay may not need creep feeds. However, they should be fed a vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure their nutritional requirements are met.

Nutritional deficiencies or imbalances in foals’ diets increase the risk of developmental orthopedic diseases, such as osteochondrosis and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).

Strategies for Creep Feeding

Various tools are available to facilitate creep feeding of foals, including specific types of feeders and structures.

Separating Mare and Foal

Foals can be briefly separated from their mothers during feeding time to allow foals to engage in creep feeding. However, mares and foals should remain near each other and within visual contact.

Sharing a Regular Feeder

Most foals will readily eat from the same feeder or trough as their mother. If both foal and mare are allowed to eat together from the same feeder, it is important to ensure the nutritional needs of the foal are being met.

Using a Creep Feeder

Foals can be fed alongside their mothers using commercial creep feeders. These feeders are designed with adjustable slotted bars to permit a foal-sized nose to fit into the feeder, but not that of an adult horse.

Feeding Structures Only Accessible to the Foal

Structures that only allow access to feed by the foal can be used for creep feeding. This type of creep feeding structure enables foals to enter through openings that are not large enough for a full-sized adult horse to enter.

Creep feeder structures must be designed to prevent mares from accessing feed by reaching their head and neck over barriers or through openings. These structures must also be sturdy, as mares may try to force their way into them.

Structures used as creep feeders can be designed and constructed in various sizes to accommodate one or multiple foals entering it to access feed.

To reduce the risk of injuries, foals should be able to turn around easily while inside the creep feeding structure and remain in visual contact with their mothers to prevent nervousness.

Ideally, creep-feeding structures should have multiple entrance and exit spots. Initially, foals may need to be shown how to use a creep-feeding structure by placing them inside and introducing them to the feed source.

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How Much Creep Feed to Offer

The amount of feed consumed by foals varies considerably between individual horses. However, most foals will consume small amounts of feed often.

Providing small quantities of feed throughout the day is preferable to one large serving of concentrates per day. [9]

Creep feeders should be checked at least daily so that any leftover wet or moldy feed can be replaced.

To ensure foals are growing at a steady rate, their body weight and body condition score (BCS) should be assessed every two weeks. The feed ration can be adjusted to maintain an ideal body condition score of five on the nine-point scale.

Weight gain between 1.25 to 2 pounds a day is typically appropriate for weanlings expected to mature to an adult body weight of 1,100 to 1,200 pounds. [2]

Nutrition for Foals

When feeding foals, it is important to meet their nutrition and energy requirements without significantly exceeding them. Avoid over-feeding macronutrients, such as protein or non-structural carbohydrates.

A balanced feeding program aims to maintain a steady growth rate and avoid rapid growth spurts. [9]

Creep feeding can support consistent growth in foals. A study of 30 nursing foals over 120 days found that providing the nutrient levels recommended by the National Research Council (NRC) increased the skeletal growth rate with minimal effects on bone quality. [10]

Commercially developed weanling feeds are designed to balance energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins and can be used as creep feeds. A typical creep feed will be highly palatable and provide approximately 14% to 16% crude protein and proper ratios of vitamins and minerals.

Fibre-based feeds rather than cereal creep feeds may offer more benefits to foals. A study of eight foals over eight weeks found that those fed an all-fibre creep feed had similar growth rates to those fed a cereal-based stud cube.

Based on testing the feeds under artificial (in vitro) foregut and hindgut conditions, the fibre-based feed may result in better digestive health as indicated by higher pH and lower lactate levels. [11]

Summary

  • Domesticated foals are typically weaned between four and seven months of age.
  • Ensure foals are healthy before weaning.
  • Weaning by progressive separation is considered less stressful than abrupt separation.
  • If possible, foals should be weaned in groups and with non-related adults in a familiar environment.
  • Creep feeding is beneficial for ensuring foals receive adequate nutrients and reduces stress during weaning.
  • Creep feeders and structures with restricted access can prevent mares from consuming concentrates intended for foals.
  • After weaning, monitor foals for signs of stress and healthy weight gain.
  • Consult with an equine nutritionist to ensure your foal is receiving a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Henry, S. et al. Domestic Foal Weaning: Need for Re-Thinking Breeding Practices? Animals (Basel). 2020. View Summary
  2. Honey, K. Weaning and Management of Weanling Horses. Oklahoma State University. 2020.
  3. McCall, C.A. et al. Physiological responses in foals weaned by abrupt or gradual methods. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 1987.
  4. Lansade L. et al. Progressive habituation to separation alleviates the negative effects of weaning in the mother and foal. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018. View Summary
  5. Waran, N.K. et al. The effects of weaning on the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2008.
  6. da Silva, AH. Influence of weaning management on gastritis incidence in foals. J Equine Vet Sci. 2022. View Summary
  7. Zanella, H.S. Adults may be used to alleviate weaning stress in domestic foals (Equus caballus). Physiol Behav. 2012. View Summary
  8. Malinowski, K. et al. Effect of different separation protocols between mares and foals on plasma cortisol and cell-mediated immune response. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 1990.
  9. Becvarova, I. et al. Feeding the foal for immediate and long-term health. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2012. View Summary
  10. Thompson, KN. et al. The influence of supplemental feed on growth and bone development of nursing foals. J Anim Sci. 1988. View Summary
  11. Moore-Colyer, M. et al. Growth Rates of Thoroughbred Foals and In Vitro Gut Health Parameters When Fed a Cereal or an All-Fiber Creep Feed. J Equine Vet Sci. 2020. View Summary