Support your foal’s weaning process with the right diet

Weaning a foal can be a stressful experience, but it doesn’t have to be. As your foal finds his independence, support his diet (and your mare’s) for optimal health.

Weaning is a natural part of any mammal’s development. It’s a beautiful time of growth and individuality — yet in the equine world it is considered one of the most stressful times in a horse’s life. In worst case scenarios, this stress can mark the start of health issues that may potentially last a lifetime. How can we get back to the natural order of things, and help our foals get through the weaning process more smoothly?

When to wean

There are many opinions surrounding the best time to wean a foal, with recommendations ranging from four to 12 months. Foals are able to eat and process enough forage on their own by four to six months of age, while a mare’s milk production has been shown to sharply decrease after three months. This seems to indicate that a natural weaning process allows the foal to become gradually able to get the nutrition he needs, independent of his mare’s milk, starting at four months of age. This gradual progression is important, since the occurrence of developmental orthopedic diseases (DOD – see below) grew more frequent only after it became common practice to supplement foals with grain starting at three to four months.

This practice, also known as “creep feeding”, does result in fatter foals and rapid growth. However, while these foals may reach their final height faster, they don’t grow any larger than their delayed weaning (six months or longer) counterparts. That said, providing adequate calories and nutrition for the mare to support the foal is key to weaning at an older age. Monitoring the mare’s body condition so she stays in good flesh is important – waiting until the mare is thin and milk production has significantly decreased may make it impossible for the foal to continue nursing.

No matter the exact age you choose to wean your foal (your vet can help you make a decision based on your individual situation), here are some basic tips to make weaning less stressful:

  • Allow weaning to happen naturally at a later age (nine to 11 months).
  • Prior to weaning, implement gradual periods of separation from the mare.
  • Allow the foal to be in a herd situation with horses he knows.
  • Allow him to become accustomed to being led and handled while the mare is present.

Introducing new feedstuffs

Making sure your mare eats a diet that simulates her natural needs as closely as possible is the best nutrition plan for any age.

Most mares need free choice grass hay or pasture to maintain their weight. If you are lucky enough to have mares and foals in pasture, the foals will naturally start nibbling grass at an early age. Over time, the consumption level will increase and the foal’s digestive system will adapt. If you don’t have pasture, feeding hay at ground level allows the foal to start nibbling on hay alongside the mare.

A diet consisting solely of grass hay does not address some key nutrients. For example, fatty acids and vitamin E need to be supplemented in any horse not on pasture, as these nutrients are volatile and quickly lost in the drying process involved in haymaking.

Knowing the nutrient content of your hay will help you fill in what’s missing. Protein in particular can vary widely between batches of hay. Often, hay is purchased in small untested batches. In this case, it is best to rely on generalities going by hay type and regional trends. Here in the Southwest, we tend to have hay high in iron, low in copper and iodine, and adequate in selenium. If you look online, you can purchase supplements made for specific areas.

Having a natural form of free choice salt available is also a good idea. Redmond Salt or Himalayan Pink salt seems to work best. Both varieties are available in rock or coarse ground forms.

Finding a forage-based concentrate with added vitamins and minerals is another good option for adding nutrition to pasture or hay, without the negative consequences of grain on both the mare and foal. The foal can start sharing the mare’s concentrate while he’s still nursing.

Grain or no grain?

Due to their sugar content and fast fermentation rate, grains and legumes will destabilize a foal’s blood sugar. Sugar spikes cause an acute stress response that elevates cortisol. Cortisol has many negative effects on the horse’s overall health.

All grains contain phytic acid, which suppresses pepsin and therefore compromises digestion. Grains also change the pH of the cecum from the optimal pH of seven to a more acidic environment that inhibits fermentation. This causes the weanling (or horses of any age) to have less efficient digestion of grass/grass hay and a higher likelihood of hind gut ulcers.

Diet can help prevent potential health problems

Developmental Orthopedic Disease

Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD) refers to any musculoskeletal growth disorder in a young horse. A family history of rapid growth makes the weaning process even more important in preventing DOD. It is best to wean these foals as late as possible to encourage a more natural growth process. Excess calories and limited exercise are key contributors to the development of DOD. To avoid this problem, your foal should derive his energy from fiber instead of starch and sugar. Additionally, free exercise is far preferable to being stalled and exercised in short spurts, particularly through lunging or round penning. Joint injuries are much more likely when exercise is limited.

Monitoring growth in height as well as weight gives you a better idea of how fast the foal is growing. It’s also important to visually monitor the foal to ensure that ribs can easily be felt, and that he has a trim body.

Additional health issues

The stress of weaning can carry lifelong consequences. Cribbing can start at weaning as a way to not only relieve stress, but also self-medicate stomach ulcer pain. Nervous behaviors such as weaving, pacing, wind sucking, food aggression and others can develop during this time.

Along with the issues mentioned above, increased cortisol can cause lesions by inhibiting normal bone remodeling and decreasing growth. It can also cause aggressive behavior. Physical, emotional and dietary stresses can all cause cortisol to increase. This is another indicator of why it’s so important to minimize stress and maintain blood sugar stability to prevent high cortisol levels during the weaning process.

Weaning is also not the time to give vaccinations or de-wormers, since the stress of these chemicals can inhibit the immune system. Wait for several weeks until the foal is thriving.

It’s important to be sensitive to both your mare and foal during the natural but stressful weaning process. Be sure to give both horses plenty of emotional support and proper nutrition. No part of this undertaking should be abrupt or traumatic; instead, it should be a celebration of the foal’s natural growth and maturation process. When raising a horse that’s happy, healthy and well-adjusted, there’s no need to rush.

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Dr. Debra Freiberg graduated from Ohio State University Veterinary Medical College in 1993. In her current practice – Healing Hands Equine, Dr. Debra's mission is to help animals live healthier lives through a holistic approach that addresses the physical, mental, and emotional root causes of problems. She utilizes medical manipulation therapies, nutritional therapy, acupuncture and horsemanship dentistry. Her passion at home is also horses. She and her husband, Walt, compete in endurance competitions. Dr. Debra and her Missouri Fox Trotter, Playboy’s Desert Reign are the 2018 AERC National Limited Distance champions as well as receiving several other national awards for their accomplishments.