Weaning Woes: Is Artificial Weaning Hard On Horses?

Weaning, where a foal is removed from his dam, can be heartwrenching for both the humans and the animals involved. During traditional weaning, foals are forcibly separated from their dams at six months of age. However, left to their own devices, a foal will eventually separate from his mother on his own accord; this is considered “natural weaning.” Little research has been done on natural weaning.

The relationship between a mare and her foal focuses not only on providing sustenance to the youngster, but on the imparting of social skills that will allow the foal to become a well-adjusted part of an equine herd. Researchers in France studied natural weaning to determine if it could offer benefits to the mare and foal.
Drs. Séverine Henry, Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, Aziliz Klapper, Julie Joubert, Gabrielle Montier and Martine Hausberger studied three groups of semi-feral Icelandic horses: 16 mares with their foals, all owned by a riding school. The researchers discovered that the weaning age of foals varied greatly, but that foals were on average nine months old when they willingly stopped nursing from their mother.

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Surprisingly, the foal didn’t gradually taper off his suckling before weaning nor did the mare become more aggressive with her foal before weaning; it seems the foal simply stopped nursing. Immediately after weaning, the foals spent about as much time with and stayed as close to their mothers as before weaning, indicating that they still needed social contact with their mothers.
None of the mares lost any body condition even though they were in foal and had a nursing foal on their side, though their breeding may have something to do with this: Icelandic horses are notoriously hardy.

Artificial weaning generally causes high levels of stress in foals and this is often the time when stereotypies like cribbing or weaving begin. The scientists hope that this data will assist in providing a better understanding of what happens in the mare-foal relationship, specifically from a social point of view, and how artificial weaning can affect foals.

Read more at Horses and People.

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