These growth spurts can trigger developmental orthopedic diseases and potentially cause lameness and lifetime unsoundness in young horses.
Of all the questions that present themselves at weaning time, the most common is “At what age do you choose to wean your foal?” The answer significantly affects development of the young horse, as many lifetime characteristics and traits are shaped between three and six months of age.
Three-to four-month old foals begin to eat roughage and grains alongside their dams to meet their nutritional needs. The young foal’s digestive system needs to evolve from depending on milk to one becoming solely dependent on roughage. The slow, steady decline in mare’s milk production from four months and onward sets the stage for the foal’s digestive system to comfortably adjust to forages and grains.
When foals still dependent upon their mothers for milk are weaned and their diet abruptly changed to high-protein grains and feeds, they can go through a phase of rapid growth due to the sudden influx of protein. These growth spurts can trigger developmental orthopedic diseases and potentially cause lameness and lifetime unsoundness in young horses. Foals weaned four months and younger also often develop pot-bellies. The foal is eating to meet its hunger but its digestive system is not capable of processing this type of diet just yet. The pot-belly is a sign of a stressful dietary transition. Foals weaned at six months and beyond have smoother dietary transitions and safer growth curves.
Suckling in foals satisfies more than simple nutritional needs. Equally important physical and emotional needs are also being met by the suckling act. If the young horse’s suckling instinct is not satiated or dwindled down a bit naturally on its own, it unfortunately remains behaviourally. These young horses are more likely to become the “mouthy” ones and the “nibbling” ones. They become orally fixated, putting their mouth on things and people way past the age most youngsters stop doing that.
The physical act of sucking also serves a role in polishing off the development of the young horse’s head and dental structures. Orphaned foals and foals weaned at a very young age have incomplete development of the upper palate and dental arcade. Correlations between suckling and skull development have also been found in human babies whom have been breast-fed.
Although each mare and foal is an individual, generally foals six months and older tend to seek out experience beyond their dam’s supervision and tend to only touch base with their dam. This is often a very good indication that self-weaning is well on its way. These older foals have grown past foal-hood insecurities and more readily adjust to the weaning process, as evidenced by the minor and often short-lived emotional drama at weaning time. This is not the case when foals are weaned at a very young age. Their emotional scene can be very dramatic and last for many days.
Foals six months and older are the ones best prepared to enter into the weaning transition. Their gains are nutritional, physical, mental, and emotional.