Research-Based Weaning Tips to Reduce Stress

Start planning early to make the transition away from mom as smooth as possible.
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Research-Based Weaning Tips to Reduce Stress
Start planning early to make the transition away from mom as smooth as possible. | Photo: iStock
The newest crop of spring foals might just be arriving, but it’s never too early to start planning how to wean those babies to make the transition as smooth as possible. Not only can weaning cause immediate and significant stress, but it can also lead to behavioral problems—mostly stereotypies such as cribbing. As such, researchers have been studying ways to keep weanlings’ welfare in mind when the time comes to separate them from their dams.

Weaning in groups, weaning in pastures, removing only one mare at a time, and gradual weaning are just some of the suggestions emerging from recent studies on the topic, said Lea Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours.

But the research doesn’t stop there. In their newest weaning study, Lansade and her fellow researchers tested the behavioral effects of a progressive weaning program on 34 Welsh pony mares and their foals. In the experimental group, 18 of the mare/foal pairs went through a progressive weaning program in which the researchers separated the mares gradually for longer and longer periods from their foals. Lansade presented their findings at the 42nd French Equine Research Day, held March 17 in Paris.

The separation started with only 15 minutes on the first day and culminated in six hours one month later—the last day before the final separation. The separation was only physical, as the mares and foals could still see each other through the metal bars of a single fence, Lansade said.

The control group of 16 mares and foals stayed together with no separation at all until the day of weaning.

The experimental group of foals showed fewer signs of stress on the day of weaning, with less trotting around and whinnying than the control group, Lansade said. Overall, even considering the amount of stress that the foals in the experimental group might have experienced on a daily basis during the short-term separations, the combined stress level was still lower in the experimental group than in the control group. The mares in the experimental group tolerated the temporary separations well, Lansade added. They whinnied some, but not frequently, and stayed close to the fence that separated them from their foals.

However, on the day of weaning, they did not show fewer signs of stress than the mares in the control group. That could be related to the study design, though, she said: The mares were ultimately removed from the site entirely, to a different location, which in itself was a major source of stress.

In addition to using gradual separation during weaning, breeders can help their foals make the weaning transition by keeping the mare/foal pairs in a pasture with other mares and foals. And instead of weaning all the foals at once, take out only one mare at a time, as this tends to cause less stress, Lansade suggested.

In cases where such a setup is not possible, wean the foals in pairs, Lansade said. Monitor those foals closely to make sure they don’t develop aggressive behaviors toward each other, as sometimes happens.

Correct feeding is also beneficial in the days leading up to and following weaning, said Lansade. Foals fare better if they have diet rich in fats and fibers, as opposed to sugars and starches.

And foals seem to benefit from more human handling and training immediately after weaning compared to three weeks later, she added.

“Weaning that’s progressive, in a group, at pasture, in the presence of other adult horses, associated with a well-planned dietary transition should be favored over any other method,” Lansade said.

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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