Six months old. That landmark age when your baby foal isn’t a baby anymore. Time to wean…
As in, time to take him away from his dam, lock her up so she doesn’t injure anyone trying to get to her baby. And time to make him try to get past the anxiety of losing the one living being he’s ever been truly connected with.
Maybe it seems sad. Maybe, for some, it seems worse than sad, even heartwrenching. Yet, it’s what everyone does. It’s the way it’s always been, so it must be right. Right?
If you’ve ever wondered where that six-month weaning tradition came from, you’re not alone. French researchers have recently decided to try a different approach. Instead of artificial (forced) weaning at the six-month mark, they looked at the effects of spontaneous, “natural” weaning on both horses in the “nursing couple.”
The results of their study, they said, could change the way we view weaning management in breeding farms.
“The mare-foal relationship isn’t just about food; the social aspects are important as well,” said Séverine Henry, PhD, lecturer of animal behavior at the University of Rennes, in France.
“It might seem impractical to some breeders to allow foals to naturally wean from their mothers, but the potential benefits could be worth considering.”
In their study, Henry and her fellow researchers observed 16 mare-foal couples in three groups of Icelandic horses in Iceland.
The horses belonged to a private breeder and a riding school, but they roamed freely at pasture as semi-feral herds. (It is customary for handlers to bring in the young stock at about three years old to start their training.)
They found that weaning age varied considerably from couple to couple, but on average it was at about nine months of age, according to Henry.
Surprisingly, the foal didn’t seem to gradually decrease his suckling before weaning. “They still had about the same frequency of nursing even up to two weeks before stopping,” she said. Meanwhile, the mare didn’t become more aggressive with the foal during this pre-weaning period.
“This combination really gives the impression that it’s the foal who just decides to stop nursing at some point, at least for some dyads,” said Henry.
In the weeks following weaning, the foals spent about as much time near their dams as before weaning, and stayed just about as close. “It appears that they still needed that social contact with their mothers, and some needed it more than others, staying closer for longer,” she said.
None of the mares lost any body condition throughout the study, despite being in foal and nursing at the same time, and despite very harsh winter conditions outdoors, Henry added. However, the hardy nature of the Icelandic breed could contribute to that, she added.
Very few observation studies have been carried out on horses left to wean on their own, according to Henry.
“It’s really necessary to have this data so that we can understand in detail what’s going on in the mare-foal relationship, especially from a social point of view, to help consider what we might be interfering with when we wean foals artificially at six months or even younger,” she said.
Did you know? Weaning time has been previously identified as a critical point in the development of oral stereotypies such as crib-biting and windsucking. Two thirds of horses affected by these coping behaviours start within one month of being artificially weaned. Read more…
The study didn’t involve a direct comparison between artificial and spontaneous weaning and can’t be used, at this time, to provide any concrete suggestions for breeders. However, it’s a first step in “opening doors” to considering the possibility of allowing mares and foals to choose their own timing for weaning.
“We now have a better scientific base of knowledge about weaning in horses, like an understanding (from previous studies) of some of the effects of artificial weaning such as high levels of stress and the introduction of coping mechanisms like stereotypies, and, in this new study, of the way natural weaning occurs,” Henry said. “Based on that knowledge, we can start to question ourselves about the pertinence of artificial and precocious weaning in equine breeding programs, more especially for breeders of one or two breeding mares.”
1. The study by Séverine Henry, Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, Aziliz Klapper, Julie Joubert, Gabrielle Montier and Martine Hausberger is titled: Domestic Foal Weaning: Need for Re-Thinking Breeding Practices? is published in Animals and is open access. You can read the full paper here.