Welfare considerations when weaning foals
September 17, 2020
Plans should be put in place for the weaning of foals over the forthcoming weeks. Weaning should be carried out using a method which will maintain the health and safety of humans and horses and which minimises stress on the mare and foal. Foals in particular are prone to high levels of stress during weaning which can have a detrimental effects on their health, growth rate and development. A study carried out by Waters et al. (2002) investigating the development of stereotypic behaviour in young horses found that 34% of the 225 foals studied had developed some form of abnormal behaviour, which included crib biting, box walking and wood chewing, and they had predominantly done so by nine months of age.
Further results from a study by McCall et al. (1987) showed that different weaning management regimens cause different physiological responses in foals. Foals weaned by an abrupt, total separation weaning method exhibited higher cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) responses than foals weaned by partial separation of mare and foal allowing visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile contact.
To reduce negative effects of weaning it is important to prepare the foal for life independent of its dam. This preparation should include appropriate, gradually increasing, regular handling, social interaction with other horses and access to suitable solid feed. After three months of age foals should be eating appropriate quantities of creep feed or a suitable stud balancer. Creep feeds support maintenance of body condition as they contain higher levels of energy compared to stud balancers, making them suitable for foals who are not receiving adequate nutrition from milk intake alone. Stud balancers also supply essential nutrients but they are lower in calories making them suitable for foals in good body condition. Whichever feed is selected it should be fed at the manufacturers recommended amount to ensure correct nutrient intake. Following recommendations requires knowledge of the foal’s body weight, calculation of the daily requirement and accurate weighing of the actual feed.
Feed selection and exact quantities required will however depend on a range of factors including the anticipated mature body weight for the animal, body condition, growth rate, health status of the foal and availability of grazing and/or forage. It is important that hard feed is introduced and the foal is eating adequate amounts, prior to weaning to reduce the effect of the reduction in milk intake.
Weaning by confining foals in a stable or barn has been shown to be associated with an increased rate of development of abnormal behaviour, compared with paddock-weaning. Additionally housing in stables, rather than at grass after weaning, was associated with a further increase in this behaviour which is not seen in feral or unrestricted horses, (Waters et al. 2002).
The majority of equine stereotypies start within one month after weaning when both the nutritional and social environment of the foal is substantially altered. Many circumstances change at weaning. The mare foal bond is broken, but housing and feeding practices are often changed at the same time, so it can be difficult to pinpoint one individual cause (Nicol, 1999). It is therefore essential that stress is kept to a minimum throughout the process.
At CAFRE, Enniskillen Campus, foals are weaned whilst still at grass. Mares and foals are put in a securely fenced field close to the yard to enable high levels of supervision to be provided. One mare at a time is removed from the group of mares and foals, generally over the course of a week to ten days. The group is allowed to settle down before the next mare is taken away. The mare with the calmest temperament is the last one to be removed from the foals. In some studs where groups of foals of a similar age can be kept together, an older, barren mare is often left with the group of foals to play a “nanny” role, which helps to reduce stress.
Mares and foals are monitored closely throughout the process. After the mare has been removed from the foal her udder is checked regularly to ensure that the milk supply is drying off and that there are no signs of infection. Mares are put initially into a closely grazed, well fenced paddock which is not in close proximity to the field of foals. Mares remain in the bare paddock until their milk supply has dried off and until they appear to be settled. Foals continue to be fed at grass.
At the end of September, after students have returned to the Campus, foals are caught daily and are regularly handled. This handling includes leading in hand, grooming and picking up their feet. When weather and ground conditions deteriorate foals are housed at night initially and are turned out during the day. This helps the foal to adapt to the stable environment and to a forage diet which is fed to the stock retained during the autumn and winter months. Preparation then begins for the Thoroughbred foals being aimed at the sales.
McCall, C.A., Potter, G.D., Kreider, J.L. and Jenkins, W.L., 1987. Physiological responses in foals weaned by abrupt or gradual methods. Equine vet. Sci. 7, 368-375.
Nicol. C., 1999. Understanding equine stereotypies. Equine vet. J., Suppl. 28, 20-25.
Waters, A. J., Nicol, C. J. and French, N. P., 2002. Factors influencing the development of stereotypic and redirected behaviours in young horses: findings of a four year prospective epidemiological study. Equine vet. J. 34. 572-579.