The effects of weaning on the domestic horse (Equus caballus)

Natalie K. Waran, Nancy Clarke, Mark Famworth

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For free-living or feral horses weaning takes place naturally at around 8-9 months [Gill, E.L., 1988. Factors affecting body condition of New Forest Ponies. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of Biology, University of Southampton]. Some mares will continue to suckle their foal until shortly before the arrival of their next foal, gestation being approximately 342 days depending upon the breed of the horse [Ropiha, R.T., Mathews, G., Butterfield, R.M., 1969. The duration of pregnancy in Thoroughbred mares. Vet. Rec. 84, 552-555]. Under domestic conditions, weaning tends to take place earlier, typically between 4 and 6 months of age. The weaning process has been identified as associated with potential psychological, physical and nutritional stressors that are of welfare concern. Following a review of the literature it is evident that there is a need for detailed research into what should constitute best practice with respect to foal and mare welfare. In addition, there is a need to understand the potential long-term impact of weaning on, for example, trainability and later maternal behaviour, and whether the stresses associated with early weaning have detrimental effects on the performance horse. There is also a lack of clear information concerning the most frequently observed weaning practices and the reasons why certain weaning methods are chosen. Some variables should be closely managed during weaning in order to minimise stress responses. These include: early creep feeding to familiarise the young animal with the food it will be exposed to during weaning, feeding a high fibre diet and keeping the animal in extensive conditions using a gradual approach to weaning. However, we conclude that there may not be one best method for weaning, since the chosen method must take into account a number of factors including: available resources, the housing environment, the individual foal's stage of development, the strength of the mare-foal attachment, the foal's ability to cope with changes in social conditions and the ability of the horse owner to implement the chosen method. We do however suggest that the fewest stress responses appear to occur where foals are weaned gradually and allowed to have social contact either with other foals or with older horses. (c) 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-57
Number of pages16
JournalApplied Animal Behaviour Science
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2008


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