With feral horses, by the time weaning occurs naturally both mare and foal are more than ready for it. When we hasten the process artificially, there is inevitable stress.
Foals depend on their dams for basic survival needs of nutrition and protection from predators or even other horses. The dam also gives the foal its social status in the band. Mares fulfill these functions because of the extremely powerful drive of their instincts and hormones.
Interfering with this bond predictably causes anxiety, even anguish. This means poor appetite, vocalizing, pacing (or running if room allows), poor concentration and diminished awareness of people, other animals, even physical barriers. In the worst case scenario they may be a danger both to themselves and others.
A variety of methods are used, from gradual lengthening of periods apart to abrupt complete separation. When separation is final, mare and foal should not be able to see or hear each other. Foals do best either housed in individual stalls or pastured in a group of familiar peers with at least one quiet and tolerant adult baby sitter.
Mares are more likely than foals to end up being stall confined or put in with a group of unfamiliar horses after weaning. Their stress levels can therefore be higher and individuals may benefit from supplementation geared to help balance these reactions such as Valerian root, thiamine, magnesium and taurine.
Behavioral manifestations of stress in foals are best handled by management of their environment, keeping them with familiar companions, a stabilizing adult and confined in an area with sturdy and safe fencing. However, there are still often problems with the babies going off feed. Maintaining adequate nutrition but without excessive calories is also an issue for mares which need to decrease milk production but often are pregnant.
The solution to this problem begins before weaning. Both the mares and foals have extremely high requirements for protein and minerals compared to adults that are not growing, lactating or pregnant. They require a diet more dense in protein and minerals per calorie.
The easiest way to achieve this is to provide needed calories with an well balanced adult type concentrate and forage then supplement with a high protein and mineral supplement that can be adjusted to the needs of the stage of growth, pregnancy or lactation.
Look for 25% protein from milk and high quality vegetable sources with guaranteed lysine and methionine levels. There should be a balanced, high potency mineral profile with 5 to 6% calcium and 500 ppm copper. Unlike supplements for adults, a moderate level of iron inclusion is advisable for this age group. Fat soluble and full spectrum B vitamins complete the support package. Because this nutrition is in a concentrated form they are more likely to eat it all.
Weaning is no fun. Reduce physical dangers by careful management of the environment and nutritional calming support as needed. Deal with dietary shortfalls caused by poor appetite with the use of a concentrated protein and mineral supplement that is more likely to be completely consumed.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD