At least three weeks needed for foals to come to terms with weaning … – Horsetalk

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Researchers have charted the hormonal and behavioral changes in foals during weaning, suggesting that foals need a minimum of three weeks to grow accustomed to the new situation.
Weaning can be defined and understood in many ways, Kristin Delank, Sven Reese and their fellow researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.
For example, it can be seen as the change of nutritional source from the mother’s milk to entirely using other species-specific food sources. Weaning can also be understood as the change offspring undergo during the time of parental deprivation, resulting in the development into an independent adult.
In today’s most common way of breeding and raising horses, weaning occurs at a precise date or age.
“Although it concerns the foal’s adaptation to the new situation, it should be seen as a process rather than a certain point in time,” they said.
The weaning is, in most cases, just one of the stressors facing the young horse. In addition to separation from the mare, there is a change of diet, integration into a new social group, a change of location, or a change of management procedures.
Weaning marks a stressful period in a horse’s life that results in increasing levels of metabolites from the stress hormone cortisol in the feces of horses, as well as behavioral changes.
The Ludwig-Maximilian-University of Munich study centered on the state stud farm of Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany. Until weaning, all foals were raised in a group with other dams and their foals, and the housing method was open stabling with daily pasture time depending on weather conditions.
The 10 foals involved in the study comprised nine Arabians and one warmblood, with six colts and four fillies. They were divided into three weaning blocks based on the stud farm’s management process, which took the age and developmental stage of the foals into account.
On the day of weaning, a veterinarian sedated the foals before they were transported to a breeding station 18km from the stud farm. The breeding station continued the known daily feeding schedule with concentrated feed twice daily, hay three times a day, and grass on the pasture depending on weather conditions.
The first group of foals was placed in a mixed-gender group, while the later two groups were placed in gender-divided groups.
The foals were observed from one day before weaning up until three weeks after weaning. The behavioral observations were done over eight hours between 7am and 5pm.
The observer documented the exact behavior the foal showed every five minutes during the eight hours.
To scale the stress experienced by the foal, a metabolic byproduct of cortisol was measured in the feces, which allowed the researchers to assess each animal’s plasma cortisol level changes throughout the trial.
“All foals displayed a distinct hormonal stress response to the weaning process through increased fecal cortisol metabolite levels,” the Munich-based study team reported.
The foals changed from moving mainly before weaning to standing during the three weeks after weaning.
“Compared with the day before weaning, the foals showed less active behavior and significantly increased their resting behavior.
“Regarding the overall resting behavior, the weaned foals initially increased their time spent resting in a lying position during daytime and then started to decrease the time lying.”
After weaning, the foals showed a significant increase in resting while standing.
There were also higher vocalization rates on the day after weaning.
The researchers said the foals showed expected behavioral and hormonal changes throughout the study period as a result of weaning. Despite the broad individual range, the cortisol metabolite values demonstrated a significant curve during the three weeks after weaning.
“However, it seemed that the changes had not returned ‘back to normal’ at three weeks after weaning. Therefore, we suggest that weaned foals need a minimum of three weeks to acclimate to the new situation.”
The results also pointed to the benefits of companion animals throughout the weaning process.
“Even though hierarchic encounters naturally cause stress in the foal, companions provide the opportunity to perform care-soliciting behaviors such as mutual grooming.”
Horses, they said, evolved as social herd animals, and adult horses are often housed in groups at least for some time during the day.
Foals learning to integrate into social structures may well have better adaptation skills than adult horses.
The research team said their results could not determine statistical support for the illustrated “signs of stress” and “coping behaviors” because of the small number of foals involved and large individual variations.
“However, the findings pave the way for future studies that should, for example, include more foals and narrow the focus to fewer behaviors.
“Furthermore, it seems worthwhile to observe the foals’ changes in lying and sleeping behaviors after weaning to reassess the hypothesis that weaned foals sleep more during the day than during the night.”
They said it is impossible to accomplish weaning without producing stress in the foal.
“The goal must be to determine the process that provides the best long-term welfare for the foal.”
The study team comprised Delank, Reese, Michael Erhard and Anna-Caroline Wöhr.
Delank K, Reese S, Erhard M, Wöhr A-C (2023) Behavioral and hormonal assessment of stress in foals (Equus caballus) throughout the weaning process. PLoS ONE 18(1): e0280078. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0280078
The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here
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