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Breeding Basics: Keep Them Separated
Thursday, March 30, 2017 - by Marvin Pave

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Breeding Standardbred racehorses is both an art and a science. For those who aren’t breeding at the commercial level, but would like to optimize the success of their breeding product, either in the sales ring or on the racetrack, Hoof Beats presents part five of a seven-part series on breeding basics.

This month’s topic: weaning the foal.

We asked veterinary and breeding experts what they thought were the most important factors in ensuring the best possible foaling outcome, specifically, what steps to take to hopefully assure the weaning procedure will produce a healthy and marketable foal.

Offering a range of opinions are veterinarian Etta Bradecamp, reproduction specialist at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.; Richard Arnold, president of Willow Oak Ranch in Tennessee and Montana; and Jim Avritt, Sr., a breeder in Lebanon, Ky.

Prepare for Stress

Weaning—or transitioning the foal from consuming mother’s milk to feed and forage--is the single most traumatic day in the normal life of the foal and the mare, said Arnold.

“At Willow Oak, we try to use common sense and anticipation to reduce the stress as much as possible,” he said. “The first rule is to make it appear as low-key and normal as possible.

“We wean the foals over a period of weeks. We leave the mares and foals in their pastures and remove two mares the first day.The two oldest foals’ mares are removed together so that the mares will have a pasture companion.”

Arnold said he removes the first two mares in the field in the evening while everyone is calm and the foals are feeding. The mares are removed to a pasture out of sight and sound range of where the foals are.

“This will leave the weaned foals in their familiar pastures with familiar mares to keep them calm,” he said. “We repeat this over the next few weeks, removing one mare at a time. Since the last mare is important to the stability of the foal group, the older the foals are when you remove the last mare, the better. By the time the last mare is removed, the foals should barely notice.”

Some farms will elect to keep an older gelding or mare with the colts and fillies, respectively, to provide stability to the group of weanlings. After all the mares have been removed, Arnold said he brings all of the foals in for three days.

“During their time with their moms, we have been bringing them in for hoof trimmings so the foals are used to being in stalls,” he said. “During those three days, we do basic training on walking, stopping, grooming and general socialization. After that, we bring these new weanlings in every five weeks for a hoof trimming and we repeat the basic training each time we bring them in.”

When the mares are removed, Arnold discontinues their grain to help them stop lactating, paying close attention to their eating patterns and general attitude while they get over the stress of weaning.

Over the years, Avritt said he has relied on two weaning methods.

“Initially, I took my foals away from their mothers and confined them to individual stalls for about a week,” he said. “During this time, I broke them to lead, and trimmed, vaccinated and wormed them. 

“However, I was unhappy with this method because some of them would occasionally get sick while confined and they obviously got no exercise. It appeared to be unduly stressful on them.”

Avritt switched to his current method of weaning his foals in the field by systematically removing their mothers and taking them to another part of the farm where they can neither see nor hear their foals.

“For example, last fall I weaned a group of six foals together,” he said. “On the morning of the first day I removed three mares from the field and that afternoon I removed another mare.

“On the morning of the second day, I removed another mare and that afternoon removed the last mare. Foals seem to tolerate this method much better than the confinement method. The only drawback is that they have to be broken to lead and be vaccinated, wormed and trimmed at another time.”

Monitor Health

Bradecamp agreed that weaning is one of the most stressful events in a young horse’s life and that in addition to minimizing the stress of the weaning event itself, it is important to ensure that the foal is prepared from a health standpoint.

“Foals should not be weaned while they are ill or if they are thin or malnourished,” she said. “The illness should be resolved and the foal healthy before being weaned, even if this requires leaving the foal with the mare for a longer period of time.

“Foals should be current on their vaccines and on an appropriate deworming program prior to weaning. Consult with your veterinarian to establish a health program that is tailored to your farm and horses. The immunity that a foal receives from the mare’s colostrum has waned by four months of age and the foal must rely on its own immune system to mount a defense against pathogens.”

The effects of stress, Bradecamp added, may suppress the immune system and make a foal more susceptible to certain diseases.

“Lawsonia is one such disease that is most commonly seen in weanlings and it is suspected that the stress of weaning predisposes them to developing the disease,” she said, adding that keeping foals with their cohorts that they have been raised with during the weaning process can help minimize the stress.

Additionally, avoiding mixing new groups of foals during this stressful time eliminates exposure to pathogens those outside foals may carry.   

“Administration of an immunostimulant prior to weaning may help booster weanlings’ immune systems and some farms feel that this helps,” Bradecamp said. “Temperature-taking daily for a week post-weaning can also help to identify problems early during this most stressful period.’’

Once weaned, weanlings are often turned out and allowed to grow up. However, it is important to remember to monitor their growth, health and development during this time.

“Providing adequate nutrition and maintaining appropriate body condition will allow the foal to reach its full potential,” said Bradecamp. “Routine hoof care and regular handling will make the transition to adulthood and training go more smoothly.”

Avritt said that for the first two or three days after he weans his foals, he milks their mothers out about 50 percent twice a day and rubs some Bag Balm ointment on their udders to prevent mastitis.

“To [milk mares], I use a small, hand-held, trigger-operated vacuum pump called Udderly EZ,” he said. “This is the same device I use to collect colostrum from my foaling mares.”

A lot of hard work and time goes into getting a foal to this stage of its life, said Bradecamp.

“It is important to remember that although this is a period of time that little is done with the weanlings from a training standpoint, their care should not be neglected,” she said. “It is not a time to `drop the ball,’ but instead a time to nurture and care for that young horse that has its full life’s potential ahead of it.”

Therefore, during this stressful period of time, she suggested that breeders “employ a management plan that minimizes the weanling’s chance of becoming susceptible to diseases and pathogens that may derail its development into a healthy adult horse.”

Wean by the Sign?

Jim Avritt Sr., a breeder in Lebanon, Ky., said he always weans according to the astrological sign as established by the Farmer’s Almanac.

“I am sure many breeders haven't heard of this, while others who have do not believe in it,” he said. “However, I have weaned ‘by the sign’ for over 50 years and have no doubt that it works. I learned it from my father, who raised hogs and always castrated ‘by the sign.’”

When foals are weaned “by the sign” they do not become upset when their dams are taken away and seldom even nicker for them, Avritt said.

“Likewise, the mothers do not become upset and nicker for their foals or run the fence lines,” he said.

There are 12 zodiac signs, he said, and as the moon circles the earth (once every 29-1/2 days) it passes through each sign in sequence. One of the zodiac signs therefore dominates each day of the month.

“I always wean when the sign is in the legs,” Avritt said. “For example, in 2017, the sign will be in the legs on Saturday, Sept.30, and Sunday and Monday, Oct. 1 and 2. I will therefore start weaning my older foals on Sept. 30.”

He will wean his younger foals on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28 and 29, the next time the sign is in the legs.

“My fellow breeders should try this before laughing at me,” he said.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.