This scenario is all too familiar to veterinarians; it seems like I hear it at least once a year: "I decided today would be a good day to teach my foal how to lead. We had just weaned her a few days ago, so we led her out of the stall, and she just started pulling back on the lead rope. I thought I could out-muscle her, but then she just went straight up in the air and fell over. We thought she was okay at first, but after a few minutes we realized she couldn't get up..." That foal suffered a humeral fracture, which was repaired successfully, although major surgery and expense was required. While the outcome of this accident was good, the entire event was probably preventable.
The training of a foal should begin from his first day of life, not postponed until he is weaned. When people wait until the foal is older--even two to three months of age--often there is a fight, and someone is the loser, whether it be the human or the foal. Foals which have had little human contact or experience with handling have a very strong flight response. They still might regard humans as predators, and their instinct tells them to fight or flee.
You might be able to out-muscle a young foal, but in his struggle to get free, he often is the one injured. Most bad injuries are caused by foals rearing up and flipping over backward. This type of fall can lead to trauma of the head, neck, or extremities, with very serious consequences, such as blindness, brain damage, or fractures.
What can you do to help prevent injury not only to yourself, but to the foal? In this article, we will discuss some methods used to teach foals to lead without the fight, how to restrain foals in a safe manner, and handling newborn foals in order to have them be more willing to accept human contact in the future, otherwise known as imprint training.
When Should You Start Handling A Foal?
When the foal is born, it is important to familiarize yourself to the foal and desensitize the foal to human contact. This process is called imprinting. In the early hours of a foal's life, the same as with other species, the newborn bonds with his mother, usually the first animal with which he has contact after birth. By familiarizing yourself with the foal in such ways as rubbing and touching the foal from his ears to his tail, it will help the foal accept human contact. The effects of this early training will last into the later years of his life. More on imprinting later.
How Can I Safely Restrain A Foal?
A foal needs to be restrained for a variety of reasons during his young life before he has learned to stand quietly on a lead. Examples include veterinary examinations and treatments such as vaccinations, antibiotic injections, musculoskeletal examinations, or to have his hooves trimmed by a farrier. Foals also need to be restrained while they are learning to be led. The best way to restrain a young foal (less than two to three months of age) is to place one of your arms around his chest and the other around his rump. This allows you to direct the foal while walking or restrain him in a certain spot. If you need the foal to remain as still as possible--perhaps for an injection--then place one of your arms around his chest and gently elevate the tail with the other hand. By elevating the tail, the foal is less likely to attempt to jump or run away. Do not bend the tail all the way over the foal's back, and never pull on the tail.
Very lively foals might need to be placed against a wall for further restraint. This technique works well on the young foal, depending on the size of the foal and the person restraining him. Most foals up to about three to four months of age can be restrained in this manner. After that time, the foal is too large and powerful to contain just by holding.
A note of caution when working with a foal which might not be used to human contact. If you need to restrain any foal which fights vigorously while being restrained for a procedure, examination, farrier work, or anything that is going to take more than a few minutes, and the foal is greatly stressed by the restraint, then it always is better to have your veterinarian sedate the foal for the procedure. Veterinarians have a saying: "Better living through chemistry." In these cases, it not only applies to the people having to restrain the foal, but also to the foal itself. A little sedation often can prevent a foal or person from becoming stressed or injured. It also can make the foal's first experiences with people much easier, and he will be more willing to accept a human's touch in the future.
Should I Have Halters For My Foals?
Halters can be placed on any age foal, even the newborn. Halters should fit so that one finger can be placed easily between the halter and the foal's head at any place. Halters that are too loose are just as much a danger as those that are too tight. Loose halters can become hung on paddock posts, stray nails, or even stall door hardware. Even more frightening, small hooves can become tangled in loose halters as they scratch itchy faces not accustomed to wearing halters. Halters must be adjusted weekly on rapidly growing foals, otherwise, the halter can become too tight and lead to pressure sores.
Leather or nylon halters can be used; however, if the foal's halter is going to be left on in the paddock or the stall, then a leather halter is preferable. If the foal becomes "hung" on something and pulls back, the leather halter usually will break. However, the nylon halter is very strong, and the foal can injure himself quite badly in the ensuing struggle.
Many large breeding farms begin placing halters on foals soon after birth. The sooner the foal becomes accustomed to wearing a halter, the earlier training to lead and to stand can begin.
How Do I Lead The Young Foal?
Foals easily can learn to lead when they are young. The mere act of following their mother helps a great deal in teaching foals to go forward with someone beside them. After the foal is accustomed to a halter, leading lessons can begin.
For young foals, only a soft cotton lead rope is necessary; never use a chain shank. In the beginning, a lead rope is not necessary. Simply hold the foal with one arm around the chest and the other around his rump and walk with the foal just behind the mother as she is being led. The foal quickly will become used to the idea of having someone being with him while walking forward and having someone guiding his movements. It is best to begin this while the foal is young, one to two weeks old, before he gets too big!
When the foal is comfortable with someone "holding" him while walking, then a shank can be used. A long cotton shank can be used to create a large loop that goes over the foal's rump. The loop comes together at the foal's withers, with enough slack being present from the withers to the halter so you don't pull on the foal's head. This loop is used not only to guide the foal's movements, but also to begin the process of encouraging the foal to walk forward on his own, not just when following the mother. This technique especially is useful when having to lead the foal away from the mother.
This technique is much more effective for teaching foals to lead than just pulling on them. In many cases, when we pull on an untrained foal's halter or lead shank, he doesn't know what we want him to do. He just responds by resisting the pull--at first pulling back, then often by rearing. If one continues to pull while the foal is rearing, he might fight even harder, with the dangerous result of flipping over backward. If you have a foal which decides to rear, give him some slack! Don't let go of the lead rope, but stop the pulling and allow him to settle down on all fours.
How Can I Restrain A Foal For Trailering?
Foals often have to be shipped in a trailer with their mothers for various reasons, such as for re-breeding of the mother, transport to a different farm, or transport to a veterinary clinic for the mare or the foal. No restraint should be used for the foal during transport, other than when the foal is being led into or out of the trailer.
The easiest way to load both mare and foal is to use one or two people to hold the foal as described for restraining, and guide him into the trailer. If using a two-horse trailer, remove the partition if possible to create a box stall. The mother usually will eagerly follow her foal into the trailer, but is unlikely to load into the trailer without the foal. After the mother is tied in the trailer, the foal can be released. For unloading, use one or two people to guide the foal out of the trailer either before or after the mare has been unloaded, depending on your situation.
If the trailer does not have a ramp, then it is best to try and unload the foal on grass or soft dirt, since foals often will leap out of trailers that do not have ramps. Other trailering tips include making your trailer halter-proof, which means making sure young, curious heads cannot get halters caught on anything inside the trailer during the trip. I prefer to leave the leather halters on during the trip, so I do not have to struggle with foals in a confined space and put halters back on once I've reached our destination.
How Can I Restrain A Foal In Lateral Recumbency?
There are times when a foal needs to be restrained in a down position--on his side, which is called lateral recumbency. In other words, in order for the farrier to apply special shoes, or for your veterinarian to place a catheter, the foal must be lying down to prevent injury to the people working on the foal and to keep the foal from injuring himself.
First and foremost, whenever foals are going to be restrained in a down position, they must be placed on a pad or a padded area (lots of fluffy straw, towels, or blankets) to cushion them and to keep them warm. Second, the foal, if healthy, usually needs to be sedated prior to lying him down, otherwise, he will struggle constantly to get upright. However, if the foal is sick, often he will lie still and not struggle.
After your veterinarian sedates the foal, then one of two methods can be used to get the foal on the mat. The first method works well if you have a very strong person that can pick the foal up (holding him around the chest and hindquarters) and gently lay him down. The second method works well on very young foals. Stand on one side of the foal, with one arm around the foal's hindquarters and one arm around the foal's neck, and gently bring the foal's head and hindquarters together. When the foal begins to look like a pretzel, he will gently "collapse" onto the ground. The trick is making sure you bend the foal's head and hindquarters away from you, so that the legs fall away from you. This will avoid some potentially nasty contact with sharp hooves.
Once the foal is on the mat and hopefully sleeping quietly, I always cover the foal's eyes with a small towel. This will encourage the foal to keep sleeping by preventing visual stimulus. Be sure to cover the eye that is on the down side. The towel also helps prevent inadvertent trauma to the eye, most importantly corneal ulcers. Make sure the towel does not cover the nostrils!
If the foal struggles to get up, you can keep him down by gently putting pressure on the foal's neck, while keeping the foal's nose in the air. If the foal can get his nose on the ground, then he will be able to get his legs underneath him and launch himself onto his feet. Keeping his nose in the air with the neck on the ground prevents the foal from being able to get his legs underneath him, therefore preventing him from rising. Also, make sure you are holding the foal from behind--the opposite side from his legs. Even a small foal legs can produce amazingly strong kicks.
This technique has its limitations as the older and stronger the foal, the less likely someone will be able to physically restrain the foal and keep him down. In those cases, more sedation is necessary once he begins to awaken. If a foal needs to be made to lie down for any procedure, there is a potential for injury to the people or to the foal. So, a veterinarian should be present to ensure the foal is adequately sedated.
What Is Imprint Training?
Imprinting is not a new concept, and the phenomenon first was reported in the early part of this century by researchers investigating animal behavior. Imprinting was recognized in other species, especially geese, before it was applied as a training technique for newborn horses. Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist and animal behavior researcher in the earlier part of this century, observed that newly hatched geese would follow the first large object that moved, whether it be the mother goose, a human, or a plastic toy. After this phenomenon was found to occur in birds, it was discovered to occur in other species as well, including horses.
Imprint training is based on the fact that the newborn foal is born able to respond as an adult to stimuli. Unlike species such as cats and dogs, whose newborns cannot see or hear, the foal is born with the ability to see and hear the same as an adult. Furthermore, within an hour of birth the foal can gallop and run away from danger if threatened.
Because of these unique qualities in foals, pioneers in the field of imprint training, such as veterinarian and horseman Robert Miller, have recognized that foals not only are able to learn immediately after birth, but will remember early experiences with humans later in life. Imprint training involves rubbing and touching the foal all over its body within the first hour of birth. This process creates a bond between the foal and humans as well as desensitizes the foal to the human touch and in the process makes the foal submissive to humans. Imprint training can be carried further, by picking up the foal's feet and even getting the foal used to clippers around the head, ears, and body.
Experts in the imprinting field, such as Miller, recommend repeating this process with the foal for the first several days of life. After the initial imprint training, early training can be started, such as getting the foal accustomed to a halter and lead. People who practice imprint training usually find that their foals are very comfortable around people, including veterinarians, and their foals often are easily restrained. Furthermore, this early training can lead to a much easier time training young horses to drive or ride.
Having a friendly, well-trained foal is the goal of every horse owner and breeder. The way to achieve this goal is to begin early, starting with imprint training and continuing with halter and lead training while the foal is very young. Training the foal to accept other aspects of horse life, such as tolerating clippers and accepting having his feet examined, also is important. When working with foals, the other necessary ingredient for success is patience. Short tempers are counterproductive when working with young horses. Remember, they are babies and gently need to be taught the proper way to behave. These aforementioned techniques hopefully will help you more easily manage your foals, and make the process more enjoyable for human and horse.
For more information on imprint training and Miller, please read:
- Foal Imprinting, The Horse of January 1998.
- Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, by Dr. Robert Miller, published by Western Horseman, 1991.
- From Birth to Backing, by Richard Maxwell and Johanna Sharples, published by Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1998.
About the Author
Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, owns Early Winter Equine in Lansing, New York. The practice focuses on primary care of mares and foals and performance horse problems.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals