Bye, Mom!

Helping your suckling transition to a weanling.

Separating a mother and baby at weaning time can be the most stressful and dangerous time in a young horse’s life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Journal checked with leading breeders to see how they made the big break. Dan Lucas of Lucas Racing Inc. was Quarter Horse racing’s champion breeder in 2004 and to his credit has, among others, world champion Wave Carver and champions Ocean Runaway and Cash For Kas. He also raced champion Corona Kool. Dan and wife Michelle raise horses on their farm in New Market, Maryland. Lawyer Tom Maher is a 20-year breeder. From his home base in Pierre, South Dakota, he has bred 86 winners from 197 starters, including 11 stakes winners, with earnings of more than $874,000. His horses include Grade 1-placed runners Featured Dash and Bills Glamour.


The first step in weaning is making sure the foals have some basic training. Both breeders start by handling the foals while they are still on their mothers, making sure they’ve got at least the basics of leading down to make the process less stressful for the horses and easier on the humans.

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“We try to imprint the babies when they’re born, then handle them while they’re still on their mothers,” Tom says. “We do that all we can, because frankly, it’s easier on the human to not be dealing with the bigger horse trying to halter-break it. We run our mares and colts out in the big country, so when they come in for weaning, we handle them more in the stalls.” Dan groups his horses into groups of four to five pairs with the foals around 5 months of age. Tom chooses similar small groups based on the size of the colts, starting with the larger ones. “We wean a bunch of foals every year,” Tom says. “I probably wean a little later because our babies are born a little later here, but I try to do it by Labor Day weekend.”

The Break

“The most important thing is to completely separate mares and foals so they can’t hear each other calling or whinnying,” Tom says. “The worst thing to do is put them side-by-side in two pens or stalls, because they will run and get hot trying to get to each other. Either one could hurt themselves, and if the mare is pregnant again, she could spontaneously abort.” Dan and Tom use similar methods, using stalls for the weaning process. The stalls are solid with high walls to prevent the foal from trying to jump out. The mare and foal are walked into the stall, and the mare is immediately turned around and walked out. All of the mares are then led to a pasture out of hearing distance. Still in the barn, the foals are monitored, and Dan turns up the radio to help drown out the noise. “We talk about the stages of grief in people,” Dan says. “That’s kind of what the foals go through. First they’re scared and upset, then they get mad, then they get sad, then they finally calm down.

“When they’ve calmed down, we’ll put their feed and water back in,” he says. “We do that fairly quickly anyway, but occasionally we’ll have one try to climb out of the stall, and we don’t want those buckets in there until they’re done with that part of it.” Once the babies calm down, Dan enters the stall and handles the youngster, adjusting the halter and making friends. “The babies settle in, and usually within three days, they’ll not be worried anymore, especially if you took them in with the mother,” Tom says. “If you fight and have a wreck while you’re separating him from his mother, then he’s anxious. But if you go in there, leave him in, walk the mare out and go out of hearing with her, they usually settle right down.” Tom feeds his freshly weaned babies a mixture of oats and sweet feed, but for the first two to three weeks, he also adds Calf Manna or powdered milk replacer. He also adds a small amount of alfalfa to help prevent diarrhea and gives the foals a preventative deworming. Lucas checks stool samples for parasite levels and manages his deworming program accordingly. “I consider deworming the cheapest investment you can do,” Tom says.

Additional Training

After the foals have accepted life on their own, the breeders next finish up their initial training in leading and then introduce the foals to the hot walker. Usually, Dan says, foals figure out the hot walker in two or three sessions. “We put them there every morning for a short period of time, three or four minutes,” he says. “As long as they’re doing well, we’ll keep it short and take them off and put them back in their stalls. You don’t want to put a foal on there and have him eventually start throwing a fit because he has been on it too long. “Pretty soon, they get to enjoying it – ‘Wow, I get to go out, I get to see my buddies’ – and they learn that they can play on it a little bit. They get to where it’s not a task but something they look forward to. That’s the point at which we quit, because once they’ve learned it, they’ve learned it.” During the weaning process, Dan begins transitioning his weanlings into paddocks for a few hours every day. The horses are turned out to play, then brought back in and fed so they get a positive association with the barn.

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Once they have learned all the necessary lessons, they are turned out into a large pasture to continue growing. “It typically takes one to two weeks, depending on the horse, to get weaned,” Dan says. “Some of them go through the process really quickly, but it has taken up to six weeks. We’re just not going to hurry them.” Tom’s colts also get introduced to the hot walker, and he then separates them by sex into larger pens. Once they’ve learned what they need, they are put out into yearling pastures until the following summer, when they are brought back in for the fall sales or to begin training.