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Horse Problem - Foal Weaning - What's the best age to wean a foal?









QUESTION: I am a novice horse owner with less than one year of experience. I bought a mare and her filly from a family member about 8/9 months ago. The mare is very gentle and a really good mother. I weaned the filly when she was 4 months old and things went very smoothly with no trouble whatsoever. The four weeks pass and I turn the two out together in pasture and the filly starts to suckle again on the mare. I separated the two again for another couple of weeks and then turned them out together again and....she starts to suckle again. The mare just lets her even though the mare is dry. The colt is now almost 9 months old and still will suck. I have tried putting cod liver oil on the mare and it worked at first but now the filly is used to it and it does not bother her....she keeps right on. How do I get my filly to stop trying to suck? The filly eats her grain/hay very well. Is this more like a child not wanting to give up a pacifier and will eventually stop on its own? I plan on breeding my mare again this summer and this could present problems down the road. Thanks for your time!
REPLY: Hi. Thanks for writing. Four months is awfully young to wean a foal in my book, though I know it's sometimes done at that age; I'm just not a big fan of that practice for a lot of reasons. And equine veterinarians, and most natural horsemanship training leaders today (many of which have become very vocal about this) strongly prefer the foal to be at least six months of age before even thinking about weaning. I prefer more natural weaning like that when the colt is more ready, loses interest more, outgrows the need gradually and though they're all different there sometimes, six months is still the pretty solid average for our domesticated horses to not be ready to wean before that age. After that age is when it becomes individual. Depending on the mare, and the foal.

Interestingly, in the wild it occurs even later, but gradually and naturally. That's probably how nature intended, with no interference by "Man." For example in wild mustangs who breed naturally, having no contact with Man, those mares in the wild allow their offspring to nurse up to two weeks before they give birth again; if they are barren for a year, the youngster might not wean until they are nearly two years old. Once the mare gives birth to a new foal, most mares will boot the older offspring away. But by then, the "big brother/sister" can handle it and is already busy playing with peers. Now, few breeders are willing to go that "totally natural" route, and that's completely understandable. It's not always practical. Health issues come into play -- the health of the mare and the baby. And the jobs we want these foals to do up the road. Etc.

I've just found, from a behavioral standpoint, that when they are weaned that young, at four months, or some even younger, many of them don't seem to get their sucking needs fulfilled (even though weaning reportedly went "okay"), so later when I'm dealing with them in training, those are the more "mouthy" ones, and many are more insecure (and studies are starting to reveal this), because they didn't have their sucking needs satiated enough. And they also can become too oral-fixated, putting their mouths on things they shouldn't (and even nibbling on people) way past the age most youngsters stop doing that. I can almost spot a mile away now those that got weaned at four months or earlier and those that were allowed to wean more gradually at 6-8 months. Had those early weaners been left to suckle only a couple more months longer, they generally start to lose interest slowly on their own, as well as lose the physical & emotional need to suck, because their needs have been met -- and they are beginning to outgrow that all by themselves. And those needs fall into the cateogory of physical as well as emotional, both equally important in my opinion -- it's not just about food! It's also about a drive to just suck, to feel comforted by that act in itself because it makes them feel better. If those needs were not met until they dwindled down a bit naturally all on their own, they unfortunately can often remain. I see that a lot "out there" in the training trenches. So are other top NH trainers today and we are speaking out about it, many of us.

Incidentally, we find this in human babies, too, who are weaned too early (before the first year especially!) before they were physically & emotionally ready, from bottle or breast. If that need is yanked away too early, the baby will often still find something to suck on frustratedly, be it a thumb, blanket, etc., and many are far more insecure as toddlers, studies show. Those that are allowed to "self-wean" at their own more natural pace, do not exhibit those types of "transitional object" sucking behaviors and are far more confident in their young worlds.

Lately, studies are showing the same is true of horses and this is why most top vet schools and equine veterinarians are now recommending waiting at least six months, even to eight months, to wean the foal and even then, to do it gradually. That is the "ideal" though all kinds of factors can come into play, including the health of the mare and the foal.

Just wanted you to see that, just to understand the "why's" this is going on now with your filly there. Clearly her sucking needs weren't met when she was separated from her mother suddenly at 4 months; she just wasn't ready. Now she's making up for lost time ...perhaps getting that 6-months+ total worth of nursing in now. And yes, I like that you equated that to a baby with a passifier. How intuitive of you! However, a passifier is an artificial "transitional object" that man created to try to get the baby off the breast, when actually, nature intended the baby to remain on the breast longer, and if left alone there, the (human) baby will indeed self-wean all by itself.

But...that's indeed what is going on there. Since your mare no longer has milk, the filly is settling for the handy passifier to fill a neglected need and I think her mother knows that. Will the filly satiate her needs now and gradually taper off? Sure, eventually. Will it be on the timetable you'd like? Who knows? I don't think it should interfere with your breeding the mare again. In fact, this might even be the ticket to have her bump the filly away from her there once she's pregnant. The mare in the pair plays a role often in weaning if/when left alone there. Most get tired of it and are happy to escape the baby when they feel done with that. And that usually happens around the time when the foal is actually ready as well and the mother senses that.

I have no pat answer here. I'm just showing you the why's this happened in the first place. Since the filly is eating "solids" just fine and gaining nicely, clearly this is just a physical/emotional sucking need that got halted before it was ready to halt. If you left it alone now it would go away by itself, I'm sure, majority do, but I highly doubt that you're comfortable with that maybe-timetable. So...if that's the case, if you're not comfortable with that, the only answer would be to separate her again and give it more time.

Make sure, if you decide to separate them again, that the filly has other horses to be around, ideally other playmates her own age. In the wild, even though they nurse longer (by domestic breeder standards), it's usually very infrequently and very brief, more like "touching base" quickly before running off to play with the far-more-interesting youngsters her own age, getting more engaged in life around them. This behavior is very similar to human toddlers who are allowed to self-wean from breastfeeding -- it's touching base quickly and very infrequently before zipping off to do something fun that is far more interesting -- PLAY! And I speak from experience here. All three of my children (now all grown) were solely breastfed and they do indeed wean themselves when allowed, quite naturally, and gradually, no longer having that need because the need was satiated/met. I distinctly remember the gradual weaning process they went through and before you knew it, they literally forgot how to suck! The need was met and nature made them ready to move on to bigger/better things. We're all mammals. :-) And nature pretty much knows what she's doing when it comes to mammals. Humans are the only mammals that often just think too hard about this stuff sometimes. The rest of the mammal world just follows insinct.

Maybe toss some baby horsey play toys out in the pasture where the filly is. Check out this page on my site and toward the bottom there; I list suggestions for toys for young horses that they enjoy and which allow them to use their mouths on to help transition the filly there:

Also, spend a lot of extra time for a while with the filly, too, just the two of you, and start her ground training now so that life shows her lots more exciting, interesting things to do than nursing, that will engage her and that will help her to lose interest in nursing as well -- especially if you decide to keep them together for a little bit longer -- 9 months is not all that outrageous to me in light of the fact that she probably just wasn't ready at 4 months, and if it's not negatively affecting the mother's health/weight. If it doesn't bother the mother, should it bother you? :-) What a wonderful mother she is, by the way! And a good horse to breed to pass that along!

A bored foal is going to nurse more than a foal who has other interesting things to do in life instead at that age, so I would get busy engaging the foal's mind and body more (either way you decide), but engaged with the human. It'll go a long way for up the road when she's ready for saddle training.

Check out this page on my site about foal starting and what you can be doing there productively that will also help the foal to grow up nicely and be ready for life as a companion to humans:

I know that didn't quite answer your specific question.... exactly, except...the only way to get your filly to stop sucking right now (which was your basic question there) is: remove her from her mother again. But I'm looking at the bigger picture here, what a humane route might do to help her emotionally and even physically there for the longer run. Some foals just have this need a little longer than others. Just like human babies. They're all a little unique there, though few foals are truly ready for weaning before 6 months. So, next time around, try waiting those coupla extra months, then do the weaning gradually, and you probably won't have this problem again. In the meantime...I think the decision is up to you.

Just like parenting, huh. :-)

I just think, most of the time in such's better to listen to the heart rather than the head. And I learned that as a mother, but it translates into all the work I do as a natural horsemanship trainer, as well. Whatever you decide, do it with compassion and empathy and do what you can to help the foal there, either way. I really admire that you reached out to ask. That just shows what a great, caring horse owner you are, novice or not! You have two lucky horses there!

Good luck to you there and thanks again for writing.

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