Here’s how to help your weanling transition to adulthood as smooth as possible.
Weaning can be an exciting time for you to introduce your young horse to new things without his dam by his side. You get to watch his personality and intellect develop, while catching a glimpse of his potential for future athletic endeavors. But for the weanling, it might just be one of the most stressful times in his life.
When and how to wean
Selecting the appropriate weaning time for each foal is very important; you can’t just pick a convenient date on the calendar for the split. Our sources suggest weaning no earlier than four months of age, to allow the foal ample time to grow and develop a strong immune system before leaving mum’s side. “Based on research conducted in swine/bovine, early weaning has deleterious effects on weight gain and immune function and this is likely the case if foals are weaned too early”.
Likewise, how you wean your foal impacts his stress level.Gradual weaning or removing one broodmare from a mare and foal herd at a time is less stressful for the foal than abrupt weaning, or separating the entire herd of mares from the foals cold turkey.
Another method involves turning non related mares or a well-behaved gelding out with foals at the time they are weaned. This approach reduces behavioural and physiological stress, with foals exhibiting less vocalization and aggression and better social cohesion.
Weaning is great time to emphasize good ground manners, such as leading well, picking up feet readily and standing for grooming and baths.
Properly preparing a foal for his independence from mum isn’t just about timing, herd dynamics and handling. “Before you wean, be sure that you have introduced foals to the new diet they will be eating after they are weaned. Introduce new dietary factors around a month prior to weaning”.
Primary advice for selecting weanling’s diet is to keep it simple. Weanlings need a steady nutritional plane and should not be undernourished or overfed as either extreme can lead to developmental issues.
Too much energy promotes rapid development at a time when foals are already growing like weeds (particularly from 4 to 6 months old). If their nutrition is imbalanced (i.e. too much energy and not enough protein or minerals), problems such as epiphysitis (growth plate inflammation), poor bone growth and flexural deformities will show up and progress very quickly.So if you start to see issues, don’t wait – reassess your feeding program or call in a nutrition specialist.
The bottom line with nutrition is to reach a happy medium, you don’t want foals to be too fat or too thin. You don’t want to see their ribs but you do want to be able to feel them. If they are getting adequate nutrition their coats will have a natural shine to them and they should be active, playful and alert.
Managing exercise and monitoring changes
Weanlings thrive on as much turnout as possible. Don’t keep them in a stall all the time, they need the exercise. But keep in mind, If they can find trouble, they will.The ability to run around is much more important for their development. And again an older horse can keep them company and serve as a role model.
Watch for any abnormal swelling around a weanling’s joints, changes to fetlock or knee angles, upright hooves, club foot, abnormal leg contours or signs of being over at the knee, lame or lethargic. These are warning signs (of musculoskeletal issues) and you need to get help as soon as possible.
Stress causes the immune system to become suppressed during weaning. The immune response remains compromised for a pretty long window – 21 days. This likely makes them more vulnerable and more susceptible to respiratory and GI infections.For this reason monitor your foals closely throughout the 21-days period. Look for signs that something’s wrong: foals that are off feed, appear lethargic or dull or that develop a snotty nose or diarrhoea require veterinary attention.
Take home message
Although the process can be stressful, weaning can be managed successfully with advance planning, good nutrition and close observation. Work with your veterinarian and equine nutritionist to develop an individualized weaning plan for your foal.