There are many ways to wean a baby. (Or a yearling!) When we had the farm we tried a few different ways. First we tried taking the baby away, cold turkey, and moving it across the farm as far away from the mama as we could. There would be a couple of days of crying and whinnying from both mama and baby, but then things would settle down. The best was when we had two or more babies to wean at the same time. We would put them all together so they weren’t alone. This was worked just fine, though there was a lot of stress put on both the mare and the foal which resulted in several ponies colicing. We always had Banamine on hand and gave it orally. We would watch both mama’s and babies closely so we knew when something wasn’t right. This way of weaning caused me to really dread the end of summer, that 6 month mark, when the babies were ready to leave mama. I would lose sleep at night. After all I am a mom and know how I would feel if someone just ripped my baby away! Sometimes the mares would have issues with their bags, swelling, lots of heat and mastitis.
This all caused me to sit down and so some research. There had to be a better way! I found “Progressive Weaning.” Progressive weaning is done in a more natural way. In the wild the mama would begin pushing her foal away around 8 or 9 months of age, as she gets ready to have her new foal. By the time the new foal is born her now yearling foal will have been weaned from nursing. Actually, some mares will begin weaning on their own. Others will allow that baby to nurse well into it’s 2nd and 3rd year. I’ve known of mares allowing their 10 or 12 year old “babies” to nurse all those years later! We had a mare that would allow all the foals to nurse off of her. We had to do the Progressive Weaning a bit differently with her, but it still worked!
Progressive Weaning is when you have a gentle older brother, a gelding or an older mare, that is the babysitter. A horse that is gentle and easy going, but that will teach the foal a few manners when necessary. The older brothers are great because they’ll usually play with the foal. You begin by putting the babysitter horse in with the mare and foal for a short time before the weaning process. That way the baby gets to know this new horse and they form a bond. Then you can start the slow process of separating the mare and foal.
I start by separating in the morning. They all get their morning feed which keeps them occupied. I put the mare in a smaller paddock, bordering the pen that the foal and babysitter are in, this allows the foal the room to run and play. This also keeps the mare from moving out of the foals line of sight, but the foal can leave the mares. I’ve found most mares will respect fences a bit more than a frightened foal will. Also if the mare has had several foals and they have been weaned in this fashion they tend to be less worried. Sometimes the foal will entice the mare to come over to the fence and allow a little nursing session at first. Typically this only lasts the first week. Then the mare is happy to have her time away from the nagging foal and no matter how cute he is begging her to come over, she will ignore him and do her own thing.
I slowly work up to having the mare and foal separated for the entire day. At night the mare is allowed back out into the larger paddock and mare and foal spend the night together. This way I get my beauty sleep knowing they are happy together and the mare gets relief from her milk bag slowly filling all day.
Typically what will happen is the mama will stop allowing the foal to nurse. This can take weeks, but I have found that foals weaned this way are not stressed and neither are the mares. The foals seem to mature a bit better, they handle stress and change better as adult horses. It’s amazing the difference Progressive Weaning makes on how the horse matures mentally.
I will keep the mare and foal being side-by-side on the fence line and work towards them not being in together at all anymore. When done in this fashion the foal being weaned barely notices what is happening!