Natural Weaning


Just as taking a child away from his mother prematurely has its consequences, weaning a foal too early can cause physical and behavioural damage.

When I apprenticed at an Arabian breeding farm in the early 1990s, weaning was an unsettling prospect. Foals taken away from their mothers would scream and pace for hours, sometimes days, as would the mares who also experienced swelling udders with no relief. Anyone questioning this “standard practice” was branded as “overly emotional” or, horror of horrors, guilty of the ultimate sin in the horse business: “anthropomorphizing.” It didn’t matter that mustangs in the wild weaned their foals closer to a year, and usually as a result of a younger sibling’s birth. Nor did anyone seem interested in the fact that even mustang colts stayed with their parents’ herd for up to two years.

It was considered business as usual, a characteristic of the hot Arabian breed in fact, to deal with flighty youngsters who’d spook at the slightest sound, not to mention mares who became aggressive with humans when new foals were born. Only years later did I realize that horses who were weaned later, more slowly, and if possible turned back out with their parents and other relatives for a while, were among the calmest, most secure, most gregarious and adventurous youngsters around.

Many breeders are understandably concerned with practicality, of involving the least amount of costly human effort in weaning, but the hours saved in training are impressive in the long run when you take the time to build a secure herd environment. Science has caught up with what many of us had been observing all along, that animals do have emotions (even Charles Darwin realized this), and that among social beings, such as horses, healthy development requires more than good nutrition and physical conditioning.

Attachment disorder
Even in mice, the sudden premature separation of mother and child has dire consequences. Michael Meaney, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, found that pups born to devoted mothers grew up to have denser connections between their brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, the seat of memory and learning. They were not only calmer in stressful situations, they recovered more easily from a stress reaction when they had one. As Daniel Goleman further explains in Social Intelligence, the greatest neural setback occurs when pups are separated from their mothers when still quite young: “This crisis flips off protective genes, leaving them vulnerable to a biochemical chain reaction that floods their brain with toxic stress-triggered molecules. Such rodents grow up to be easily frightened and startled.”

Much of this research has been used to shed light on people suffering from “attachment disorder.” When children are neglected or suddenly separated from significant caretakers in the first three years of life, a variety of emotional, social, and neurological consequences arise. Abnormally high levels of stress hormones impair the growth and development of brain and body. People with attachment disorder are significantly more likely to be depressed, slow to learn, prone to chronic illness, aggressive, disruptive, and antisocial. They exhibit chronically high levels of anxiety, less resilience in the face of adversity, and poor impulse control.

The confident foal
Less research has been done on horses. Even so, studies conducted at the University of Rennes in France have shown that foals gain more confidence watching their mothers engage in gentle interactions with people than in direct handling and desensitization techniques like imprinting. In one experiment involving 41 mare/foal pairs, foals that were exposed to a person standing motionless in the stall for 15 minutes per day were subsequently shown to be more trusting of humans than foals that were gently restrained and stroked for the same time over the first five days of life. Even more specifically, each foal’s degree of interest and comfort was influenced by the amount of interest his mother showed in the person.

Another experiment demonstrated an even more positive response to human contact when the mares were brushed during that 15- minute period. Youngsters who were not touched or groomed directly were assessed at 15 days in their response to human approach and later in their reactions to a person trying to put a saddle pad on their backs. The vast majority of foals whose dams were groomed could be approached and touched, as opposed to the control group, in which most avoided or escaped from the experimenter. Almost all the experimental foals accepted a saddle pad on their backs at one month without any training, while most controls were still wary of human contact. When these same horses were evaluated at one year, the flight response of the experimental foals was reduced considerably as well. Add this to a UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study in which distressed mares and foals showed a measurable decrease in infection-fighting T-cells, and you begin to see why ripping a foal away from his dam can be damaging physically as well as behaviourally.

Weaning as training
Even before encountering these studies, I witnessed the benefits of weaning my foals in a more natural way. When I compare my poised yet adventurous two-year-old Arabian Indigo Moon with other horses his age, I have to conclude that the exaggerated startle response and poor impulse control I’ve observed in young horses at other farms is the equine equivalent of attachment disorder. Just as this diagnosis results in years of counseling, special education, and sometimes incarceration in humans, the time, money and safety we sacrifice in training flighty, mistrustful mounts far outweighs the initial “trouble” of making sure weanlings have the best possible start in life. The key is to treat weaning as a form of basic training – one that involves input from older wiser members of both species.

Based on experience and research, including the studies mentioned above, I recommend the following five-step weaning program:

1 During the first three months of your foal’s life, spend time grooming his mother and milling around the corral or pasture without an agenda. Let the foal approach you by choice as much as possible, touching or grooming him briefly only when he initiates contact. Then, even if you must restrain the foal for medical procedures, he will have a variety of other, more pleasant memories associated with human contact.

2 Early haltering and leading is positively enhanced when the mare is invested in the destination. Taking the pair for a walk to a favorite grassy spot or a route that results in carrots piques the youngster’s interest as he takes cues from his relaxed yet enthusiastic mother.

3 Between four and seven months, you’ll see indications that the mare is ready for a break, and the foal is acting more autonomously. At this point, separating the two for brief periods is a natural, stress-free progression. It’s easier if you have several mares and foals living together – mothers continue to graze while their children explore a nearby pasture or corral. But even a single mare/foal pair quickly learns to appreciate these respites. The key is to bring them back together again. And again. And again. The act of separating and reuniting mare and foal two or three times a week creates that sense of security and resilience to stress that conventional weaning practices sacrifice – to the detriment of horse and human.

4 When you’re ready to wean, generally at six to nine months, you’ll want to separate the pair daily. (If you can wait until eleven months, you’ll match nature’s timing, which may offer additional developmental benefits for the foal, though this hasn’t been studied.) Over a week or two, increase the time spent in separate corrals to a full day. Then switch the schedule, allowing the pair to spend days together and nights apart. Finally, since few mares will fully wean on their own, you will have to separate the pair 24 hours a day until the milk dies up. This is best achieved with the mare and her new weanling both enjoying the company of other horses, while also being able to see and possibly even touch each other over the fence.

5 Turn the weanling back out with his dam and other herd members. Here he begins to learn more complex socialization skills under the tutelage of family members with whom he already has a strong bond.

The horses I’ve weaned in this way show a remarkable pattern. They trot to the gate, eager for our next adventure. Passing by herds in other pastures, these youngsters continue to walk quietly beside me when horses are playing or spooking nearby. I can lead yearlings off property alone, even at night, with no signs of stress. In fact, they try to get me to stay out longer, urging us to hike farther afield. And they walk home more slowly, sometimes with marked resistance to “going to bed early,” as opposed to barn sour horses who jig all the way home.

As for those left back at the ranch? Their sometimes fretful whinnies seem less about missing a herd mate than fervent attempts to call us home – so someone else gets a chance to explore unfamiliar territory. To a secure horse, that big, bold world out there is a salad, one they’re eager to savor with a trusted two-legged friend.


Linda Kohanov is a trainer, clinician, and best-selling author of several books, including the 2001 classic The Tao of Equus. She offers more in-depth narratives of her adventures in natural breeding in her 2003 book Riding between the Worlds and her book/horse wisdom card kit Way of the Horse, a collaboration with noted equine artist Kim McElroy. As founder/director of the Epona International Study Center and Equestrian Retreat in Arizona, Linda also offers workshops and private consultations. For more information, visit taoofequus.com or call 520-455-5908.

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1 Comment

  1. Eszter
    May 30, 2018
    Reply

    Hello! I’m just using this method for my mare and foal, they are separated for 24 hours a day. After one and a half days I let her nurse a bit, because she was unconfortoble, but since then, 3 days now they are separated. I would like to know how many days does it take to die up the milk?

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