Breeding and weaning.

Horses and People Editor Cristina Wilkins talks with veterinarian and pony breeder Tom Davis about his experiences managing a breeding herd as a single family group and his reasons for not weaning. 

A passionate advocate of welfare for both horses and people, Tom explains the all-round benefits of allowing horses to express their social nature and social habits, and details his approach to solving any logistical challenges. In Part 1, Tom spoke about general husbandry, feed and pasture management, in this final part he covers breeding and weaning.

How do you introduce new horses into the group? 

As long as there are no health issues, especially any possibility of a transmissible infection or, for the new member, a need to become accustomed to new food, I just put them together and let them all work out the new hierarchic order.

Sometimes, my neighbour turns his horses out into my pastures with the ponies. No orientation, no trial periods, just watching them a little while at first to make sure none are unusually aggressive. The ponies – at all ages – do fine in the presence of these strangers.

When we mix whole groups together all at once, we only do it in a pasture so they have enough room to get away from each other if they want to. If the getting-acquainted arguments become heated, the animals should have plenty of room to separate if they need to cool off for a while or to show submission.

The animals argue and push each other around for a while, but quickly work out the hierarchy and let peace reign. Mental, not physical, power is the key in these encounters. My original, now 10-year-old pony mare always turns out to be the boss, however large the other horses are.

If I get a new pony who will be a permanent addition to the group, it must first be acclimated to the food the group is receiving. Once that is done, I just turn it out with the rest of them, but always into a large space. If you turn a new pony into a confined area with an established group, some injury could result because the ponies don’t have room to yield and separate from one another.

Always remember that horses are social animals. They must live in groups to be safe, so their behaviour is designed for group compatibility. Certainly, there is competition, but it’s not allowed to disrupt the group; it’s designed only to decide the leader.

Deciding on a leader actually lessens the amount of conflict within the group. If the group does not know who the leader is, the members argue over every little thing. They may also become skittish because, when they sense danger, they do not have a known leader who will give direction. What so many people call dangerous fighting is just discussion between horses. Leave them alone. They know how to settle things without getting hurt.

Do you manage the group’s breeding? 

I currently have four mares of breeding age and one stallion. I use the stallion, but also breed to outside stallions by natural or artificial insemination methods. This requires some management of the group in the Spring months, because I’m unwilling to keep my stallion alone and segregated from all the others.

In early Spring, before the mares begin cycling, I split the group into two parts – separating the stallion from the mares that I don’t want him to breed that year. I have always left him with at least one mare, plus some young ponies. The mares that are to be bred to other stallions, plus some young ponies, make up the second group. The groups go into separate pastures.

Fortunately, I have enough land to set the pastures at sufficient distance from one another, so the two groups are not always trying to get through the fences and back together. I try to breed mares in mid May to early June, so that the foals are not born before the weather begins to moderate the next April.

As the mares are confirmed to be pregnant, they can go back into the main group. Usually by early to mid July, the entire group is back together. I have not had any problem with the stallion attacking or trying to breed re-introduced mares that have already been impregnated by another stallion.

As my group continues to grow in number, I will face the problem of too many males and too much potential for close in-breeding. I will geld some of the colts to lessen those problems and I may also establish a bachelor group where several males, gelded or intact, can run together. The one thing I have decided not to do is keep any pony – male or female – alone and isolated from companionship.

Do you wean your foals? 

I do not wean young animals – that is their mother’s task. Weaning by human intervention is commonly practiced for almost all domestic species. The usual reasons are phrased as biologic necessities, but if you ever stop to think about it seriously, none of those reasons stand scrutiny.

There are a few thousand mammalian species, but only about 15 of them are domesticated and subject to weaning by humans. How is it that the mothers and young of the non-domesticated mammals manage to survive the birth and nursing process without human help with weaning?

The question answers itself: human intervention is unnecessary. The real reason for weaning is human convenience.

Why do you think most horse breeders insist on weaning? 

In my experience, people accept weaning as necessary for one of three reasons:

1. Weaning is one of those things that is generally taught to be necessary. This doctrine is so pervasive that most horse owners do not question it.

2. The mare must be put back to work, requiring she must be free to come and go as necessary without worrying about the nutritional needs of the foal. I agree work is good for the mare, but owners should try to manage this transition so the psychological and educational needs of the foal are also satisfied. Temporary separation without weaning, such as for daily rides or work-outs around the farm, can easily be tolerated by an unweaned foal, especially if it lives in a group, or the foal can be allowed to tag along.

Prolonged separation, such as extensive and regular training sessions or attendance at shows where the foal cannot go along, may require weaning, but weaning should not also involve separation of the foal from other adult and young horses, because interaction with a diverse group of other horses is necessary to the social education of foals.

3. There is a strong commercial advantage to weaning. Biologically, a young horse should not be separated from its parent group until the age of two. However, economics often requires breeders to have the flexibility to sell young horses at a much younger age. Of course, no one wants to admit he drags the little foals from their mothers at four or six months only to make a profit. So, over the din of dams and foals calling for each other, we hear explanations why weaning is good for the horses.

If a mare is bred back and is pregnant shortly after the birth of a foal, she will wean that foal by about nine to 10 months of age. This gives her enough time to prepare for the birth of the next foal. She weans gradually and there is very little drama involved.

I have observed mares who are left open after giving birth to allow their foals to nurse for two years or more. For the first four to six months of the foal’s life, the mare is at the foal’s beck and call. By about six months of age, the foal is eating plenty of other food, and the mare is looking bored and impatient with the nursing ritual, but she still has a feeling of duty.

As time goes on, the duty is performed more and more reluctantly. By the second Summer, the foal uses the teat as a security blanket, but what little milk it gets has no nutritional significance. The mare is completely disinterested. At some point, the mare says “enough”, the foal gets a good kick or bite to tell it to “grow up”, and the nursing process ends for that pair. The final weaning was a long time coming, so the end is no surprise, or particular trauma, to the foal when it occurs.

When a foal is weaned naturally by its mother, they both remain as members of the same horse group. This should apply also to foals that are forcibly weaned. There is no need to permanently separate foal and dam after weaning. (Separation may later become appropriate for other reasons, particularly for colts who are left as stallions).

If a foal is left on the mare for a year or two, it is advisable to check the mare’s udder periodically for signs of possible infection (mastitis). And, if the mare has some health problem that does not allow her to maintain good condition while still producing milk, the foal should be weaned and the problem addressed. Otherwise, I’m not aware of any biological or health reason why humans should interfere in the nursing and weaning process.

Why do you think two years should be the earliest age to sell young horses? 

In natural, free range groups, the age of two years is the time when young horses are separated from their parent families.

The colts will begin to challenge their sires and the sire will drive them off. The colts will then get together with others of similar age and run for a year or two in bachelor groups until each decides to pair up with a mare. The two-year-old fillies will be driven from their parental group when they begin to have oestrus cycles, and they will be incorporated into the family of an established stallion or will be picked up by a bachelor to start a new family group.

So, two years of age is the most natural time for young horses to separate from their parental group. By this time they have been fully socialised. In contrast, if a foal is separated from other horses when it is very young, it is deprived of the opportunity to be properly educated by its parents, siblings, aunts and uncles.

Transfer into another horse group can substitute for the parental group if the new group is diversified by age and sex, and if the horses in the new group truly live together. Living in separate stalls is not the same as running freely with a group, no matter how many horses live in that barn. Horses can be considered to be living in a group only if they can freely interact with one another – whether that interaction be just standing around together, playing with one another or fighting with one another.

Proper education and socialisation by other horses is an important step toward proper socialisation with humans. Allowing a young horse to grow up as part of a group of horses will pay great dividends when the time comes to train that horse for its life with humans.

Does free living make them harder to handle or a little ‘wild’? 

No, I think it does the opposite. The freedom my ponies have does not make them difficult to catch or handle. I think it makes such things easier. When I appear in the pasture, they all come without being called. One or two require a little catching, but the effort is minimal. The others just stand while I put the halter on them. The stallion is the easiest to catch and halter. I do not recall ever having to “train” him to be that way.

My ponies are meant to be mounts for children. As such, they must be safe to handle (as should all horses). I believe the manner in which they live – free and in a close social equine group – helps make them and keep them safe animals for anyone, including children, to be around. For instance, though my stallion requires a little extra control when around strange horses, he otherwise acts like, and is treated like, just another one of the ponies. Young children can handle him with ease.

Proper behaviour is a simple lesson for these animals because, in their ordinary daily interactions with each other, they have learned to behave within reasonable limits. However, safe and respectful behaviour toward humans will not necessarily follow automatically. The ponies must be also taught that aggressive or unsafe actions toward humans will not be tolerated.

Horse owners who wish to keep horses or ponies in free running groups must learn the skills necessary to teach and enforce this rule. Those skills are not difficult to understand or acquire, but safety requires some attention be paid to them. The same rules apply to horses kept under all conditions, including stalls. In the case of ponies that will be handled by children, some adult attention is usually necessary; not because ponies are more difficult than horses, but because children may be unwilling or unable to adequately enforce the rules without some help.

Do you find the ponies easier or more difficult to train as a result of living in a family group? 

I think group living helps with some aspects of training, especially early and basic topics, such as leading and desensitising. In my opinion, ponies kept in groups are more mentally balanced and, therefore, less likely to have a major issue with training. However, overall, I think the attitude and approach of the trainer and rider are stronger influences than the way the ponies are kept.

Separating the importance of human versus environmental factors can be difficult. A trainer who does not understand or care about a horse’s social needs is likely to exert his will by force, rather than understanding, and end up fighting with his horse over everything. On the other hand, someone who sees the benefits of free group living is likely to also be a good leader and communicator with horses and, therefore, a good trainer or rider. But, that is only my biased opinion.

I also believe that successfully keeping horses in group living forces you to know and understand them better, and forces the horses to know and respect you better. The result is an improved relationship between you and your horse, which translates to greater success in training and performance. Which horse do you think will be better to train: the one that freely comes to you when called from a 10 acre pasture or the one that will bolt out of the stall and run away if you don’t fasten the lock?

Do your ponies experience separation anxiety problems when the are removed from the herd? For example, to take to a show or when you want to do some training?

That depends on the age and stage of training. When I take very young ponies from the group for a walk around the farm or neighbourhood, or into the round pen for some work, they often worry and call for the others. I think that is natural because the young pony still looks to its mother or the other ponies for security. I don’t object to an animal relying on its mother for support when it is young; that is how it should be.

I have not found ‘separation anxiety’ to be a problem with mature ponies. They look to me for security and, if they don’t, it’s just a signal that I must work to strengthen our relationship.

I see confirmation of this when I take a pony away from home without any companions to some busy event like a show. When we get there, everything and everybody is a stranger to my pony, except me. I have found that, in those circumstances, the pony tries to get closer to me and more compliant with my directions and wishes. The very strangeness of the circumstances makes the pony focus on me for relief of any anxiety.

I actually don’t ever worry about separation anxiety (or about problems called some kind of ‘sour’ – buddy sour, barn sour, etc.). I view these issues as a sign that the relationship between me and the pony has not been solidified and matured. The solution to the problem lies in correcting the relationship and firmly establishing my hierarchic position. If I concentrate on that task, the anxiety or sourness disappears of their own accord.

On the subject of separation anxiety, I recommend the videos of Warwick Schiller, particularly for you fellow Australians. He has many videos on YouTube. He makes the point very well – that the anxiety is not about separation, it is about leadership (more exactly, lack of leadership). When you become the true leader, the horse’s anxieties disappear.

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If you would like to discuss this topic further you can contact Tom by email by clicking here.