There comes a time in everyone’s life when one needs to leave the comforting bosom of her mother and venture out on her own. On our farm in mid-Ohio, that time comes every October on Weaning Day. I had heard about the weaning process for years, and I was intrigued to witness it firsthand. About a month ago, I got my chance.
I was out walking my dog, the crisp autumn air and bright blue skies keeping us both moving at a brisk pace, when I noticed a commotion at “The Run In Barn.” The Run In Barn is a barn where yearling horses, those who have been weaned from their mothers a few months before they start turning one, are kept in a barn that opens up onto a field where they can freely run in and out of the barn.
On this day, unbeknownst to me, The Weaning was taking place and The Sheriff and Wonder Woman were very busy and intense, corralling mother/baby pairs of horses into the barn, paying attention to every move the horses made, lest they be taken by surprise and kicked into next week.
When weaning day begins, the poor foals don’t know what they are in for. They start the day as usual, grazing with their buddies, nursing and nuzzling with their moms. The Sheriff and Wonder Woman then take about three or four mares and foals at a time from the field into the barn nearby and then into a large horse trailer. This part is pretty uneventful because wherever the mare goes, the foal, like a clingy toddler, will follow. The trailer then makes the short trip down the hill to the Run In Barn and, upon arriving, the mare is gently led down a ramp and into the barn, Wonder Woman shushing and petting her all the while. The oblivious babe follows close behind, her nose touching the swishing tale of her mom, per usual.
When they enter the barn, however, the drama begins. The mom is led one way and the babe is led another. Mom starts whinnying and snorting, babe wheels around, bewildered by what is happening, looking for mom.
“Mom? Mom? Where are you going? Mom? Mom!”
The foal is corralled with equally confused youngsters. One by one, about twenty pairs of mom and babes are led through the same process and soon the Run In Barn is filled with panicked, confused foals that are now, officially, “weanlings.” It's a bit reminiscent of "the reaping" from The Hunger Games, but no one will be forced to fight to the death here.
When I came across this site, it was comical, but also pitiful. The weanlings were literally running in circles, bumping into each other, snorting and neighing, trying to figure out what just happened. In the distance, I could hear the retreating sounds of the mares in the horse trailer going back up the hill, whinnying, crying out, as if to say “It’s alright, baby. You’re going to be fine. Mommy loves you.” The Sheriff turned up the ever-playing radio in the barn to muffle the sounds of the neighing moms and to distract the babes and help them settle in.
Inevitably the babes do settle in and figure it out. The fillies and colts are separated by gender like two single sex Catholic high schools. In about three days, they are forming new bonds with their peers, figuring out who the leaders are and following them. They pace back and forth like they’re at a high school mixer, fillies and colts staring at each other, fillies retreating to a circle to whisper secrets. There’s literally a chastity fence down the middle to separate them and make room for the Holy Spirit, I guess.
When I approached the fence of the filly side a few days after the weaning, the small herd turned in unison to look at me, swishing their tails as if to say, “Oh. My. Gawd. Look. At. Her. Hair.” The alpha, I’ll call her Brittney, sauntered over to check me out and her clique followed. They kind of gave me the up-down until Brittney turned dismissively, surely muttering “What. Ever.” It struck me that, in just those few days, they were no longer babies, but teens trying to navigate life on their own.
It all felt very familiar and reminded me of so many milestones in my own life where my daughters and I went through the painful process of letting go. I keep thinking back to when I put my oldest daughter on that first kindergarten bus all those years ago with her freshly scrubbed face and name tag dangling around her neck. I blew her kisses through the bus window with a lump in my throat, a baby on my hip and a toddler holding my hand. I think of that first high school drop off, sending her off to the Darwinian playground of adolescence. And, God help me, that gut wrenching first college drop off when I snot cried all the way home through four states. I thought my heart was breaking then, like a limb had been ripped off my body. I went through each of those phases three times, and it never got easier. My trail of tears after the college and graduate school drop offs has gone through about eight different states.
The Sheriff assures me that the mares get along just fine after the weaning. Like seasoned Irish mothers, they are already pregnant and actually seem to enjoy the downtime before the birthing season starts again in January. I eventually was fine, too, after weaning my kids off to college. And they eventually found their legs and are figuring it out.
Now it is Christmastime and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my wayward foals. (Miraculously, I have one in town, for now). Soon, our house will fill up with daughters, laughter, stories, dirty laundry, dirty dishes, the inevitable and futile political arguments, Netflix marathons and cuddles by the fire. And then, our time together is over and they’re off again.
Driving them to the airport in January, I will have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It still hurts to say goodbye. Every time. We’ll kiss and hug goodbye and I’ll jump in my car, turn up the radio to distract my thoughts and whisper to them, or myself, “It’s alright, baby. You’re going to be fine. Mommy loves you.”