Weaning strategy.

Whilst some will argue over the best timing or weaning method, the question horse owners are asking is why wean at all? 

Is it really necessary to intervene in what is a normally occurring and natural process? And, what might happen if you didn’t wean that foal? 

Horses and People’s Editor, Cristina Wilkins, talks with breeder and equitation science researcher Dr Amanda Warren-Smith about her experience allowing broodmares and foals to stay together in their family group, and the reasons she chooses not to wean. 

It is always difficult to question traditional practices, especially ones that are as well established as weaning. The act of forcibly separating foals from their mothers when they are between four, six or sometimes eight months of age is believed by many to be a necessary part of the growing up process for a foal. Nevertheless, in this age where horse owners are becoming better informed about horse psychology and behaviour, more and more people are beginning to question the practice.

We know that placing horses under stress compromises their physical and emotional health. Gastric ulcers, sudden changes in growth rate and crib biting are all serious conditions that we know can happen as a result of a stressful weaning period, and have the potential of affecting the horse for life. The health risks added to the thought (and guilt) of seeing a young foal running up and down the fence calling out to his disappearing mother drives most diligent horse owners to seek the best method and timing for weaning – one that will cause the treasured youngster the minimum of stress. But, how many have considered the possibility of not weaning the foal at all?

Dr Amanda Warren-Smith is one of such horse owners going against the tide. A small breeder and equitation science researcher with a PhD that focused on training horses, Amanda owns and cares for her seven horses on her 20 acre property near Orange, New South Wales.

Amanda’s horses include three mares of breeding age, an older retired broodmare, a Warmblood stallion, plus three of their progeny – one of whom is away being campaigned by a professional rider. Amanda doesn’t wean the foals from their mothers and argues that weaning is not usually necessary and should, in fact, only be done in exceptional circumstances.

“Large scale breeding facilities and other professional studs,” says Amanda, “have economic reasons for weaning. Their aim is largely to sell their entire foal crop as soon as possible and certainly within their first year of life. In large-scale racehorse studs, weaning early increases the efficiency of their yearling sales preparation and pre-training processes.

“The priorities of these establishments are, clearly, very different to mine. I try not to breed too many foals as I do not want to add to the already problematic wastage and I see each foal as a long-term responsibility. For me, not weaning is so much easier.”

“When mare owners visit to breed to my stallion, they often ask when – at what age – they should wean the foal,” says Amanda. “They are always surprised when I explain that I don’t wean at all, nor see any reason to wean. Initially, it may be hard to fathom the concept but, when you think about it, why would you? It is going to happen anyway, so why make it hard?

“Even when they are empty, my mares tend to stop the foal from suckling at around yearling age. They do this progressively and the scientist in me has always thought this would make an excellent long-term observation study!

“From my own anecdotal observation, as the foal grows, the mare starts preventing him or her from suckling at will, starting a gradual and natural weaning process. The foal may approach and nuzzle the flank and, with the flick of a tail and her ears laid back, the mare will say no, not this time. Other times, she will stand quietly and allow him to drink. By this time, the foal has already learnt what those behaviours mean, so there is no need for actual kicking and the foal has soon learn that, sometimes, they have to wait for a drink.

“It would be very interesting to actually count and record how this process happens – how many times they drink, at what age, how it decreases over time and the occurrence of injury (which I have never experienced). My estimate is that, at around six months of age, my foals only get to drink one in four times they approach their mothers. It seems to decrease even further as they age to a very occasional drink. I don’t believe there is any need to completley prevent them from the occasional drink by putting fences between them. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

A common reason for weaning is the risk of injury when foals become boisterous and owners feel they are harassing the mare. How do you manage the risk of injuries caused by boisterous, playful behaviour?

“Yes, it is true the foals really seem to harass their mothers, but we’ve never had injuries. The colts tend to do it more, they are quite playful, but none of our foals or mares have been hurt. They rear and fight, charge into their mothers, bite them and all that. The mares don’t even seem to mind and they don’t do much disciplining either, they put up with it without too much worry.

“Our foals seem to know when a kick threat from mum is meaningful and they know they should stay a safe distance away. This relates to the round yard study we conducted a few years ago, where we put pairs of horses in the round yard to see how they would interact and watched for any behaviours that may be similar to those reported by trainers during round pen work (join up). In that study, the pairs that were related (dam and foal) seemed to keep more distance between them. They were less aggressive and, when they displayed threats, there was greater distance between them which, therefore, means less likelihood of injury because they had more room to escape.

“On a similar line, some research in hens has shown that, in small groups, they do well but, in large-scale free-range situations where they interact with hundreds or thousands of other chickens, they can be quite stressed. It is sad because it means that in cages, where they are with the same chickens all the time, they have less social conflict. Of course, in nature, flocks and herds are mostly made of smaller family groups. This is the case with horses in nature – their group composition is quite stable, so they learn to relate and socialise with the other group members; they know who’s who and they know how to behave around each other.

“Our group is small and stable and, of course, we keep them in reasonably big, clean paddocks, so they have room to move and to move away from each other. The property is divided into four main paddocks, which are 5-8 acres each, with shelters and trees around the perimeter and good pasture cover. The stocking rate is low, the area big and we watch them all the time.”

Do you keep all the horses together all the time?

“Keeping the group together allows me to rest and rotate the pastures as needed, but my stallion, Dom, is kept separate, although he is only a fence apart from the others. I don’t keep him in with the mares because I don’t want them pregnant all the time – we disagree on that point! So, my attempt to keep his situation as natural as possible is to keep him next to everybody, but not in with everybody.

“Another time when I may separate a horse from the group is at foaling time. For example, last year I separated the younger mare three weeks before her foaling due date and for six months after the foal was born. This mare is a daughter of one of the older mothers, both of whom are very protective of their own foals and have been known to become aggressive, so I was a bit worried about foal pinching and general herd dynamics. Once the foal was about six months old, I put them all in together again without any problems.”

Do you find your non-weaning strategy makes it more likely for the horses to show separation anxiety?

“Separation anxiety happens anyway, whether they were weaned as foals or not. It is more to do with having friends and not necessarily to do with having been weaned or not. The mare Annabelle whom I have bred and compete on has always been in with her ‘mothers’ (one is her real mum and the other is mum’s best friend). She is six years old now and, when I take her out for a ride or to competitions, both her and her dam are fine about it. Occasionally, they call out and show separation anxiety, but they do it for reasons that no doubt make sense in their own minds and not in mine, and I don’t think it’s anything to do with weaning as such.

“We also have another homebred gelding, Monster, who is leased to a professional rider, but comes home for spells a couple of times a year and, when he does, he goes in with his family and, when he has to go back into training, he goes back to the rider’s property. There doesn’t seem to be a problem, everyone comes and goes, and they seem to know that it is what happens and it is okay.

“So, basically, apart from the first few months after foaling, they are always in the group. When I need to do some training or handling, I just get the foal, do the training and put him back.”

What is your approach to handling and training the foals?

“I work progressively with the foals. I certainly don’t wait until the foal is six months old and expect him to be happy to leave the group. I start early just putting on and taking off the halter, brushing them all over and picking their feet, then progress to leading responses. I will lead the foal away and back, going further and further as he gets better at it. I work a couple of minutes and that’s it, then the halter comes off. The mare gets to learn the foal invariably comes back and he learns the same. Going away to a competition for the weekend when he is five or six years old is really just a progression from those initial lessons.

“The mare is just there and I also use her as a reference point. Obviously, the mare should be calm and settled during the training sessions. When I first start leading, if it is not easy for the foal to get the idea, I position him a few steps away from his mother and lead towards her so she becomes the drawing aspect. Later on, you can do the opposite – test that his leading responses work by challenging the foal to move away from the mare. This consolidates the pressure release training and leading responses.

“I put the gear on them as yearlings. They may wear a saddle blanket, or a saddle and a bridle, but it is just habituating them to the equipment. I don’t do any mouthing of any kind at this stage. They wear the bit, but I don’t attach any leads or reins to it. I also don’t leave it in the mouth very long.

“I wait to start them under saddle when they are four years old. I progress slowly and really, to me, the riding part is a very natural progression and extension of all the other handling I have done with them. It may seem like a slower process if you compare it with someone that throws a stock saddle on them and gets on in six weeks, but it represents only a few minutes of work 3-4 times a week, slowly building towards the end result and I think it is much fairer on the horses. I usually back them myself and I am happy with a few good walk steps on the first sessions under saddle and reward them by getting off, rather than pushing forward to achieve more in less time.

“Some people don’t agree with waiting until they are four to start them under saddle, but our horses are quite big, they are half Thoroughbred, half Warmblood and they mature very late. They grow to around 17 hh, so I don’t want them doing too much work too early. They get plenty of natural exercise in the paddock, but I am not making it happen.”

What about keeping condition on the mares during the long lactation time?

“Quite the opposite, actually. One of the good reasons I leave the foals on the mares is to keep the mares’ weight under control! Mine are all good doers and I have no issues keeping condition on them. If a mare was poor and losing weight, I may do things differently. But, the mares we have are all huge. I have a 25-year-old retired broodmare, and the three breeders are 15, nine and six, and they are all in great condition. I feed them very little, just for convenience really, to give them a routine and to check them every day and, because they are so well, I think having the foals on longer is good for them.

“While I agree that poor condition in the mare may be a reason to wean a foal, before weaning I would go through everything else… Is she getting enough feed, pasture and roughage? What are the health issues behind her lack of condition? Why isn’t she doing well?

“Under a domestic situation, it is not normal for a horse not to hold its condition and, with broodmares, there are many more factors to consider than just removing the foal. You also need to look at the foal’s growth rate – is he growing too fast? All those sorts of things. I have not had that experience, in fact, mine is that the less you do the better they seem to be!”

What advice do you have for other small-scale mare owners?

“It is rewarding to breed a horse but, if you don’t have enough room for them and time to look after the foal long-term, you really should re-consider.

“Anyone breeding should also only breed the number of foals they can handle – and I mean it literally! The foals need to have gradual training from a young age, progressing through the following four years until they are ready to be ridden. For a young horse, being sent to a trainer for ‘breaking in’ is always going to be traumatic – whatever his age. Even if the trainer is good, the change of setting, the unfamiliar people, other horses and environment, added to having to learning so many things in a short space of time, is never going to be the best for the horse. The more you can train at home, the better, and the more you can break down the whole process into very small steps and build on them very gradually, the better.

“Ask yourself if you really have to wean, and, more importantly, what could possibly happen if you don’t. To me, not weaning is so easy; I don’t have to do anything. It is natural for horses to live in a family group and it is also good for my property management. Keeping the horses this way means I can rest and rotate the pastures as needed.”

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For further reading about weaning strategies:

Managing Horses in Family Groups: Part 2