I find the first day of weaning very stressful. I work hard all year to minimize emotional stress for my ponies. Training approaches, management strategies, and nutritional program are all designed with equine emotional (as well as physical) health in mind. When it comes to weaning, though, there’s no getting around the fact that the process is stressful for mare and foal alike. The vocalizations are what impact me most because I can hear the distress in their voices. Fortunately I know that gradually after that first day, everyone gets used to the process and stress declines.
This year’s first day of weaning had some entertaining events to take my mind off the stress. The first came when I moved two mares to an electric-fence-lined paddock with just a single wire. The paddock has housed ponies for years, but it only works of course for those ponies who know that that single wire is indeed a barrier. As I approached the paddock, it occurred to me that neither of these mares were trained to electric fence. Sure enough, when I let them loose, one at a time, they went under the wire towards the green tendrils on the other side then bolted away when the fence shocked them. I retrieved them, tied them to an interior wood fence, then put the electric fence back together. I let them loose again, and while I was there, they eyed the fence respectfully and ate the hay I had put out for them. Later in the day I found one of those mares again on the wrong side of the fence, but after I returned her that second time, she stayed put. Those mares at least are now trained to that electric fence.
Another paddock and another pony posed a different challenge. I put a mare and foal in with the rest of the herd then extracted the mare, intending that weaning would begin for that foal. When I checked on him an hour later, he was on the wrong side of a wooden fence. I don’t know whether he went under or through the fence, but when I put him back in that paddock again, he was out within five minutes. I decided not to try to solve that problem at this point. Instead I saw a silver lining. I’ve been enjoying riding his mom with him at foot, and I’ll get to continue that until I figure out a different way to wean him.
The evening that I had all this weaning entertainment, an email appeared that offered advice to make weaning easier. (1) I eagerly read it, only to discover that I was already implementing their suggestions:
- “[Wean] no earlier than four months of age, to allow the foal ample time to grow and develop a strong immune system before leaving mom’s side.”
- “[Turn] weanlings out with a well-behaved gelding or nonrelated mare both for companionship and for teaching them how to behave.” I prefer instead to have the companion pony already be an established part of the foal’s herd, such as an older sibling or non-breeding mare. Then when the foal’s dam is removed, the foal still has a familiar herd structure. The one downside of this strategy is if the companion pony is bonded to the mare being removed. They then may protest the departure of the mare as much as the foal does. This situation increased my anxiety on the first day of weaning because the distress calls were coming from most of the ponies in the herd, not just the foals!
- “[Gradual] weaning …. is less stressful for the foal than abrupt weaning…” Their definition of gradual weaning is a little different than mine. They assume abrupt weaning to mean that all mares are removed from all foals at the same time with the foals all being together with no other companion ponies. Gradual weaning is when a single mare is removed at a time. For me, gradual weaning is time-based. I have a mare who doesn’t do well with cold-turkey weaning, so I take her away during the day, which is about 8 hours, for two or three days then I take her away instead at night, which is about 16 hours, for two or three days, before taking her away permanently.
- Introduce any dietary changes a month before weaning.
Some research indicates that foals’ immune systems become depressed during weaning, likely from the stress of the process. Doing what we can, then, to minimize stress certainly will benefit our foals and may even help our own stress about the process, too!
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014
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