MOST foals are weaned in the late summer or autumn of their first year, depending on how early in the spring they were born. By the time a foal reaches four months of age or so, their nutritional needs have outstripped the mare’s milk supply and their diet has diversified to include forage and grains or concentrates.

An important step before weaning is to ensure the foal is comfortable eating good quality hay and a well-balanced ration that is specifically formulated for rapidly developing youngsters. Most foals will begin sampling the mare’s feed within a few weeks of birth. Foals that are already accustomed to eating nuts or coarse mix are less likely to go off their feed or lose significant weight during weaning. Creep feeders, that allow the foal access the feed but not the mare, can be helpful to allow the youngster to accept and adapt to a foal and yearling ration while still with its dam. Some mares will go to a lot of effort to try to dismantle a creep feeder, so make sure that it is sturdy and in good repair!

Vital for digestion

Immediately after birth the foal’s gut is completely devoid of microbes – the bacteria that will become vital for the digestion of plant material in the mature animal. During the first few months of life the foal’s immature gut becomes naturally colonised with microbes from their environment, in particular from the mare’s skin, haircoat and droppings. By the time the foal is ready to be weaned it should have a diverse and healthy population of gut bacteria, ready to help release the essential nutrients and energy present in the diet.

While sick foals absolutely should be administered antibiotics if they develop a significant bacterial infection, it’s worthwhile thinking about the impact an unnecessary course of treatment could have in reducing the gut bacterial population. The microbes will recover with time, but the foal’s growth rate and digestive processes may receive a bit of a setback in the interim.

For this reason, antibiotic treatment should be guided by sensitivity testing to help ensure only the most effective medication is administered for the shortest possible period. Pre- and probiotics, which contain gut-friendly bacteria, may also be helpful in supporting the gut microbes and ensuring that the foal’s digestive system handles the transition to a milk-free diet with minimal disruption.

Minimum fuss

Weanlings should be used to wearing a head collar, being led and having their feet picked up, etc. Basic handling will mean that any scrapes, knocks or sniffles that develop during the weaning process can be managed more safely and with the minimum of fuss. Regardless of whether weaning takes place in a paddock or stable, the area should be as secure and injury-proofed as possible. Any sharp edges, gaps, protruding nails, etc. should be dealt with in advance.

Once the mare is removed, she should be kept out of range of the foal’s sight and hearing. Mares are best turned out after weaning to allow them to exercise, and their concentrate intake should be restricted for 7-10 days to avoid weight gain and help their milk to dry up. Some udder filling is normal for the first few days – avoid the temptation to strip out the milk as this just encourages further production. As long as the mare doesn’t develop soreness or a temperature, problems are unlikely. Weaning in the autumn as opposed to the height of the summer insect season will also reduce the risk of mastitis.

Foals will find weaning a lot less stressful if they have a companion throughout the process. If you have two or more foals that already know one another they should be kept together, ideally in familiar surroundings. The presence of one or more calm and tolerant adults may also lessen the stress – many retired or elderly riding horses make excellent nursemaids and may help to keep exuberant youngsters in check. There is some evidence that aggressive behaviour is less common in mixed age groups than juvenile-only batches.

Protective antibodies

Vaccinations against tetanus and respiratory viruses should be administered at least two weeks before weaning, giving the immune system adequate time to make protective antibodies before the foal undergoes the stress of weaning and adapting to life without its dam. The foal should also be enrolled in an effective parasite control programme developed in consultation with your vet.

Sick foals should not be weaned – wait until they have recovered to reduce the risk of a relapse. Weaning is a significant milestone in the life of a foal and a good start at this stage will hopefully result in a healthy and confident youngster.