Rethinking Weaning

Tis the season when foals are being weaned and shipped off to new homes.

I’ve seen lots of posts recently of people getting their new babies home, and of course I’m so excited for them!

But the standard still seems to be weaning at four months of age, despite the current research that suggests that’s very early.

In the wild, mares routinely nurse their foals much longer, and a recent study shows that it’s the foal who decides when it’s time to stop nursing. And even after they do stop nursing, the foal stays close to the mare, given the choice, continuing to learn life skills and gain confidence and security from the presence of their dam.

While the mare’s milk changes at about 3 months of age, the foal still gains important nutrition from nursing until past 6 months of age, and early weaning has been traced to the development of stereotypic and other undesirable behaviours in adult horses.

And while the foal “pulling the mare down” has long been cited as a reason for early weaning, the studies also show that the most common reason for weight loss in nursing mares is simply that they aren’t being fed enough to cover the huge nutritional demands of nursing a foal. Don’t wean the foal; feed the mare.

I understand that in many cases foals have to be weaned as a buyer is waiting for them, but even a shift of the standard from four months to six would go a long way towards giving babies the best start possible.

Both breeders and buyers are going to have to work towards making this change.

Breeders can explain to buyers that they don’t wean until six months of age, and share the reasons why – for the benefit of their baby throughout their life. And buyers can ask that their foal stay with the dam until six months of age, even if that means initially offering to pay extra board for that time.

I know that many (MANY) foals have been weaned at four months of age, or even earlier, and have gone on to lead healthy, well adjusted, happy lives. My point isn’t to make anyone feel badly about their baby they just brought home – if that’s you, I’m so excited for you, and I know you’ll make sure they have a great life!

I just want us, as the horse world in general, to think more about this. If it’s going to be better for babies to stay with their mom’s longer, then why wouldn’t we do that?

My baby was born May 5th. As I type this, she just hit the four month mark. I can’t imagine weaning her now. In recent years, the earliest I’ve weaned is 8 months, and those were colts. With a filly, and a mare who isn’t rebred, weaning isn’t on my radar at all. We’ll let them decide when the time is right to stop nursing. I realize that’s a privilege not everyone has – my foal is not now and never will be for sale, so there is no excited buyer awaiting her. But I think six months is a reasonable timeframe to aim for, giving our babies some more valuable time to grow up as they evolved to do – with their dam.

Interested in reading more about weaning? Here’s some links!

It’s Time to Rethink Early Weaning of Horses

Wean Foals at Six Months, Or Wait?

The Effects of Weaning on the Domestic Horse 

Domestic Foal Weaning: Need for Re-Thinking Breeding Practices?


3 thoughts on “Rethinking Weaning”

  1. I did a long weaning process with Zorro and feel that is so so much better for the baby. It is very hard to convince breeders who ALWAYS wean at 4 months old that it’s better for the baby to stay with mama. I tried but did not succeed. The breeder said the mare takes weaning very hard and so she likes to wean early and hard. Just remove the foal. It totally broke my heart for the mare and foal. And the baby is taking weaning very hard. I spend so many hours just sitting out there with him. If I were to put it in people terms, there is no doubt in my mind that he is depressed 🙁

    I weaned Zorro over a period of several weeks and he spent every night with Sky. Of course they still live together and will for the rest of Sky’s life, but I have never seen Zorro nurse after the initial weaning process. Though I wish it could be this way for every foal, I do understand when it just can’t be. Weaning is so heart breaking for all involved though!!!

    1. Yeah – I don’t think it’s going to be a quick change, but hopefully gradually everyone will see the benefits of not adding a huge amount of unnecessary stress to four month old babies – and their poor mommas! I hope your baby starts feeling better soon. <3

  2. I am so glad to see your thoughts on weaning! There has been many articles lately and I pray the mini horse world will at least join in the time frame used by those who breed large horses and go a min. of 6 months. I feel the same as you stated above. I will not wean until 6- 9 months and prefer to keep them with their dams longer. Would love to hear your thoughts on the better age to wean,

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