Weaning is a heartbreaking display of separation anxiety that seems to affect everyone on the farm. Mares fret and foals scream constantly, while horsemen watch them closely so they don't hurt themselves in a desperate attempt to reunite.
Turns out, the process doesn't have to result in so much panicked energy for weanlings. A combination of a diet high in fat and fiber and a low-stress weaning method can calm those weaning woes and have a positive influence on the weanling's behavior as it matures.
Researchers at the University of Bristol tested the theory by feeding one group of foals a diet high in fat and fiber and a second group a diet high in sugar and starch. Suckling foals were creep-fed twice a day beginning at two weeks of age while they were with their mothers at pasture 24/7. Then they were weaned at six months and fed individually for the duration of the 40-week study.
Foals fed the fat-and-fiber diet were more settled immediately after weaning, running around less frequently and for a shorter duration. They appeared to be calmer and more inquisitive when exposed to new people and unfamiliar objects than the foals fed a diet high in sugar and starch.
For the first two months after weaning, the foals were handled normally and subjected to typical training appropriate to their age. At two months, pairs of foals were allowed to settle down in an oversized stall. A handler, hiding behind the bottom of a split door, raised a closed umbrella so the foals could see it through the open top of the door, then he opened the umbrella and twirled it around for two minutes.
The weanlings on the fat-and-fiber diet spent more time investigating the umbrella, poking it with their noses, licking it, and chewing it than those on the sugar-and-starch diet, who tended to spend more time looking anxiously at it before approaching it. The inquisitive behavior of the foals on the fat-and-fiber diet evolved into less flightiness and more sensitivity to their environment when the weanlings were nine or ten months of age.
When exposed to a new person entering their enclosure, weanlings on the fat-and-fiber diet were less likely to back away from the individual.
To test their willingness to perform, the weanlings were led across a bridge and a ground tarp. Those on the fat-and-fiber diet were less fearful of the obstacles and were significantly quicker to cross them than those on the sugar-and-starch diet.
Typical handling and training continued throughout the duration of the study, with the horses' behavioral responses retested intermittently. At ten months of age, the horses on the fat-and-fiber diet continued to be inquisitive, calm, and tractable as they were prepared for the sales ring.
The low-stress weaning method used in the Bristol study is one most commonly employed on large Thoroughbred farms. Dams and foals are grouped together in the same pasture, and then weaning is accomplished by removing one or two mares at a time. Prior to weaning, this enables the foals to establish friendships among themselves while their mothers are still part of the group. This camaraderie helps to ease separation anxiety when a mare is removed from her foal.
Because this method is less stressful on the foals, the separated mares fret less. They typically will walk the fence and whinny for a few hours, then settle down.
Gradual or “fence-line” weaning, developed by Texas A&M University, is a low-stress approach for small farms that may have just one or two foaling mares. It allows a mare and foal on opposite sides of a fence to remain close to one another and maintain contact and communication, but it prevents the foal from nursing. After seven to nine days, the mare and foal can be separated completely with no additional stress.
The fence between the mare and foal needs to be sturdy, safe, and of the type that will not allow a foal to stick its head through to nurse. Typically, woven-wire horse fencing is the best for fence-line weaning. Wooden fence, with its expansive gap between rails, is unsuitable because it affords the foal plenty of room to crane its neck through the fence to nurse.
Don't Forget Mom
During weaning, the mare's udder typically will become swollen with milk, feverish, and uncomfortable for three days or more until the absence of suckling triggers her body to stop producing milk. To help dry up the mare's udder, some horsemen prefer temporarily to substitute grass hay for alfalfa and withhold grain, two items that encourage milk production.
Don't milk mares by hand during weaning, because this will stimulate milk production and interfere with the drying-up process. Soothing salves such as Vicks VapoRub or Bag Balm applied to the udder will help alleviate soreness until lactation stops.
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