Mares bond strongly with their foals, and weaning can produce a high degree of stress and anxiety in both. Instituting a regular routine with the foal from an early age, daily handling and grooming, and short periods of separation from the mare can pave the way to a more smooth foal weaning process. Generally, weaning takes place at 4 to 5 months of age.
Weaning in the Wild
Mares in the wild allow their foals to nurse for up to a year, nudging the foal away only when they give birth to her another. During this process, their milk gradually dries up over time and their foals slowly become accustomed to grazing and eating a variety of other forage. The process of weaning in the wild presents a minimum amount of stress to both foal and mare.
Weaning Domestic Foals
As a horse owner, you must take a variety of considerations into account when deciding to wean your foal. Circumstances such as a desire to sell the foal, an event involving the mare where inclusion of the foal may not be practical, or the deterioration of the health of the mare may play a part in deciding when to wean her foal. Other considerations include the health of the foal and how well he eats grass, hay, grain and other types of feed. Generally, the recommended age for weaning a foal is between 4 and 6 months of age. Weaning older foals is acceptable, as long as you realize the foal will become more difficult to handle with age and increased size. Weaning younger foals isn't normally recommended and may not be practical, since the foal may still struggle to eat solid foods.
Preparing the Foal
Laying good groundwork with your foal from an early age makes the weaning process go more smoothly when the time arrives. From birth, handle your foal daily. Include regular grooming and hoof trimming as part of his routine, as well as leading him quietly next to his dam. When he is comfortable with human interaction in the presence of his dam, start removing him from her sight for short periods of time. If he learns to remain calm and confident away from her for short periods of time, he will experience less stress when weaning time comes around. Limiting your foal's anxiety during weaning is essential to his health, since stress makes him more susceptible to health issues such as colds, strangles, colic or pneumonia.
Making the Transition
Wean your foal in the morning so you can observe him for the rest of the day. Casually work it into your daily routine, leading the mare away while the foal remains in familiar surroundings. Ensure that the area is safe and that the foal cannot climb or jump out, cut himself or bang his head if he becomes hysterical. Take the mare out of sight and out of earshot. Allowing mare and foal to call to each other only increases the stress on both. Once they're separated, resist the temptation to reunite the mare with the foal, no matter how panicked each might become. Prolonging the process leads to increased stress in both animals. If possible, wean your foal with other foals or provide a companion animal with whom your foal is already familiar, such as an older horse, or another species such as a goat, llama or donkey. Introduce new animals to your foal at least a week prior to weaning.