First Steps for Foal Handling
Successful methods for handling foals are as marvelously varied as the breeds, colors, and markings you discover on these leggy little individuals when they're born. Some people handle foals from the moment of birth, while others foal out their mares on rangeland and bring them in for the foals' first handling at weaning time. The "best" way is what works for you--and for a particular foal or group of foals--in your own situation and circumstances.
The newborn foal is programmed for soaking up a huge amount of information immediately after birth. To survive in the wild, a foal has to learn who his mother is, quickly get up and nurse, follow his dam, and run alongside her to flee from danger. Prey species like horses and deer attach and bond with what they see right after birth (the mother) and later instinctively flee from anything unfamiliar. When first born, a foal does not fear humans and can learn to tolerate and remember many things, just as he learns to recognize and follow his dam (imprinting). After that short window of time, however, he tends to become more suspicious and wary of unfamiliar creatures. The most advantageous time to make a lasting good impression on the foal and control what he sees and experiences is right after he's born.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, a retired veterinarian from Thousand Oaks, Calif., began handling newborn foals using a formalized training process in 1960. According to Miller, imprinting is automatic learning as a newborn, and training is learning by reinforcement (at any age).
"What I call imprint training is training during the postpartum imprinting period of the foal," he explains. Done properly, handling a foal at birth makes later training easier, because the foal accepts many things that might be more challenging later. He has already experienced having feet, mouth, and ears handled, for example, and he is comfortable with it.
Miller has written articles and books and made videos about how to imprint train correctly. If done incorrectly or hurried--not continuing each step until the foal completely relaxes and accepts it-- attempts at imprint training might do more harm than good. An insecure foal might still be apprehensive about certain things if you quit too soon. An independent or aggressive foal might not learn to submit if you quit before he's totally desensitized; you merely reinforce his strong-willed determination to resist humans. If you're working with an ear or flexing a leg, and you halt before he tolerates your manipulations, he's learned to jerk his head or leg away. "Each step must be continued until the foal is totally passive about it," he says.
"Most foals are naturally submissive and still end up as gentle and compliant horses even if improperly imprinted," he says. But if a foal is highly dominant and willful, or very flighty, and the procedure is done improperly, he'll learn undesirable behavior and become spoiled."
Miller adds that the most common mistake is rushing the first training session. The foal becomes sensitized to stimuli (body handling and manipulation, use of clippers, etc.) instead of being desensitized, and, therefore, he fears and resists these things instead of accepting them.
"The second-most-common mistake is to omit or inadequately perform subsequent lessons," Miller says. "I like to do those on alternate days for at least a week or two, if possible. During these sessions the emphasis is on control of movement, teaching the foal to move forward, back, and sideways on command, to rotate on forehand and hindquarters, lead willingly, and stand patiently when tied.
"Horses establish their dominance hierarchy by controlling the movement of peers--making a subordinate individual move, or inhibiting its movement," he continues. "Omitting the subsequent lessons in control of movement will produce a foal that's disrespectful. That foal can become a potentially difficult animal."
Many owners do not imprint, but they do handle foals at birth. Dan Rosenberg, former manager of Three Chimneys Farm and now a private consultant in the Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky, says he's never imprinted in a formal way, but he has always handled foals from the moment they're born.
"I have my hands all over them, talking to them," he describes. "This is partly an examination of the new foal and partly to let them know immediately that I pose no danger. Soon after they stand for the first time and have nursed, I go back into the stall and squat in the corner and invite them to explore me, and I touch and talk to them."
He puts a halter on the first morning. "We handle them every single day," Rosenburg notes. "I think it's generally better to have one person holding the foal and another doing the touching--starting at the head and moving along their neck, back, and quarters, then the belly and down the legs. I never get into an argument with them. They are never 'forced' to submit. If they only allow me to get down to the hock today before snatching a leg away, I'll leave it at that and try to get to the cannon bone tomorrow. Eventually, I'll be picking up all four feet and patting the bottom of the foot with my hand. At this point, I introduce a soft brush and rub rag--not to groom them, but to let them become accustomed to these. This daily handling continues every day of their lives."
Lee Bolles, an Arabian breeder who has worked for several large breeding farms (most recently, Al-Marah Arabians), is now retired and raising horses near Tucson, Ariz. "What we do with babies the first day of life is get hold of them and cradle them between our arms, to get them accustomed to being restrained," he says. "We work equally from both sides from the beginning so they don't develop a favorite side."
He likes to have two people, to get the foal used to having more than one person there. "Usually when we give shots or deworm, it takes two people because we need someone to hold the foal," says Bolles. "As soon as that second person shows up, the foal immediately becomes apprehensive because he knows you're ganging up on him to do something he won't like. They figure that out very quickly." So he says it pays to have a foal used to being handled routinely by two people. Whenever the foal is given an enema, a shot, or is dewormed, he takes time to make it a positive experience so the foal can relax and gain trust and not be apprehensive about these procedures the next time.
"We also start picking up baby's feet very early in life, and tap on them with our hand," explains Bolles. "Then, when the farrier comes, the foal is already picking up his feet, and he's also used to the two people."
Rosenberg starts leading foals from day one. "I start without a lead rope. My left hand is holding the halter and my right hand is free to pat or tickle the foal on the rump if needed to encourage him to move alongside me," he explains. "I hate to see people grab the foal's mane at the withers because they resist. Having the dam right in front of the foal is best if she'll be cooperative, but many mares want to be able to see the foal, in which case it's best to let her be where she is happy and relaxed." If the mare is worried, she can transfer her worry to the baby, and he'll become upset and afraid.
"Early leading lessons should never degenerate into a power struggle," he adds. "Patience works miracles, and it's important to be able to distinguish between a fear response and willful disobedience."
Carol Harris, who breeds and trains Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds at Bo-Bett Farm, in Reddick, Fla., doesn't halter break her foals until weaning. Then they are haltered and left in a stall dragging a 12-foot rope. "It's heavy, and never gets tangled around their feet," she explains. "When we start handling them, we don't have to chase them around the stall; we can quietly pick up the rope. Also, if they ever get loose with a lead rope later, it doesn't scare them.
"Before we turn them out in a paddock we teach them to come to us, using pressure on the rope," she says. "When they take a step toward us we release pressure. They learn very quickly because their reward is release of pressure, and the next thing you know they are coming right to you." She says before long the weanlings are easy to lead.
Bolles says when he worked at Locust Farms, a facility raising Arabian horses, in Ohio, they had a big, open barn where the weanlings came in to be caught and tied individually to eat their grain. "They had to be caught and tied up twice a day, but they were easy to catch because we left breakaway halters on the foals, with Velcro crownpieces," he explains. "If the halter ever got caught on something it would come loose. We had a 10-inch tab on the halter ring so when you caught the foal you didn't have to go to his head. You could just scratch him on the withers, reach down and take hold of that tab. This is much less confrontational for the foal; you're not taking your hand to his face."
Some owners who handle mares and foals daily teach the foal to tie while young. Tying a foal next to the mare works well, using her as security and a good example, as long as you don't leave the baby tied very long and make sure he can't pull back hard enough to hurt his neck. If you stand behind him while he's tied, you can encourage him to step forward again if he starts to pull back. Never leave the foal unattended while tied.
Rosenberg doesn't tie foals prior to weaning. "There's plenty of time to do that as a weanling," he says. "I like to do it with the weanling in the stall. I attach a rope to the halter and pass the loose end around a bar in the stall front, or through a ring. I can then work with the weanling while holding the loose end of the rope. I can give and take, to let the youngster learn that he is under restraint, but not trapped, and not in danger."
Many people try to make the first tying lessons nonconfrontational by having some "give" if the young horse pulls back. Tying with a bungee cord, stretchy tie strap, an inner tube secured to a post, or with a sandbag counterweight on the end of a rope run through a ring in the wall are several ways to make it easier on the youngster's head and neck if he pulls. In the latter method, he might raise the sandbag off the ground if he pulls back against it and there's some give, but it goes right back down when he lets up, and it brings him back toward the wall. Some horse handlers give the foal enough rope that he'll hit the back wall of the stall with his butt before he runs out of rope and is pulling hard. Letting the young horse drag a lead rope in a small, safe pen makes him easier to tie up the first time because he learns to give after stepping on the rope, rather than yanking back and causing himself (or someone else) injury.
There is no one "correct" way to handle foals; your circumstances and experience will dictate much of how your foals are trained at a young age. If you have never handled foals before, seek an experienced horse person to help you avoid the pitfalls and start your young horse out right.
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.
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