A Late Start

I have a 5-month-old colt that was never halter broken. According to the breeder, it appeared that at one point a halter had been put on him, and the experience was traumatic for him.

Since he came home with me, I have been spending time with him at feeding time by feeding him his grain in a bucket and touching him. I started out with gradually touching his cheek and head and have worked my way down to his neck, withers, and shoulder from both sides. He is still very nervous about me touching his head and more accepting of my touching his neck, withers, and shoulder area.

For the most part, touching him can only be done while I'm feeding him his grain.

Fortunately, he has shown no true aggression. He has not, as of yet, attempted to kick or bite me. I have made progress with him--but my question is, am I doing the right thing? I am worried about such things as getting his feet attended to. Do you have any suggestions?        Mary Cote


Sounds like your slow and gentle approach has been making progress and working adequately for the pace of your need to interact with this fellow so far. But now you have reached the point where you need to be able to halter him reliably, catch him reliably, and to advance with acclimation to the domestic procedures. There are many ways to do this gently.

I would start with getting him peacefully into a smaller enclosure. Since you have been working with him at feeding time, perhaps you can continue in that mode by feeding him in a smaller and smaller enclosure. This will reduce the distance he can escape when he's had too much of you. You can gradually increase the pressure and wait for him to relax and "stay" with you.

The smaller enclosure needs to be sturdy and safe. The goal is to go slowly and carefully so that your colt doesn't panic. But if he should, a sturdy enclosure will reduce the risk of injury. A sturdy enclosure will also ensure that he does not establish a precedent for escape.

In situations like this, I first get the horse coming into a small pen for a few meals. I like to make a ritual of it. He comes in, you shut the gate, and you give him the feed. Then you can touch him a little bit either during or after the feeding, then open the gate and let him out. Once he is doing that well, I then like to get him into a sturdy wooden chute with tall sides that discourage jumping out. It should be narrow enough that he can't turn around in it. The interior surface should be smooth so the colt has no rails to climb if he starts to panic. It should have easy releases at the front and rear in case he does get into trouble--for example, if he flips over. If you don't have a wooden chute, we have made a makeshift chute with hay bales along a stall wall, or just a four-sided one out in the open. I like to let the colt eat a few meals in the chute, then I gradually increase the touching and grooming. This chute allows me the safety to exude confidence while he builds trust in me in this new situation.

Once that is established and linked with the positive feeding situation, I just go gradually and systematically to touch everywhere as you would in acclimating a young foal. In his case, I would work a lot on the head--the muzzle, ears, poll, and neck area with the goal of getting a halter on and off a few times during each feeding. First I use just my hand. Once the colt is tolerating some pretty brisk rubbing with a hand, I then use a lead rope and a small halter in my hand to do the rubbing. This gets him used to those objects around his ears and poll and muzzle before you actually put the halter on.

For a nervous horse, but especially for a youngster, it can help to have a buddy--one that is dead quiet around people--standing calmly and eating nearby. If Mom is cool about it all, she would be an obvious good choice. If not, any quiet horse can help. You can especially appreciate the benefit at those "panic or not" decision points, when the nervous animal clearly looks to the quiet one.

The temptation is to put a halter on and make sure it is on good and tight, then put him out to pasture and never take it off. That can work, but a further step is for this youngster to learn that the halter is a good thing, and that it can go on and off and is not a problem. Chances are, if you leave it on while he's out at pasture, he might try to get it off or even accidentally get it caught and have another negative experience with the halter. It's the same principle as loading and immediately unloading a problem loader on the trailer. You don't want to slam the door and leave him in there and go for a rushed ride, but rather load and unload, load, wait a minute or two, and unload, then load and wait longer and unload, until he learns that it is not a trap.

Once a colt is doing well with touch and haltering in the chute, then I go back to trying to approach him in the small pen. I try to approach, give a treat, then put an arm and/or lead rope around his neck, then the halter. If that is not working, I leave the halter on in the small pen and maybe even use a catch rope on the halter so that I can approach, reach out a hand with a treat, and reach below the chin to take the catch rope as opposed to grabbing the halter itself.

As with training a dog to come when called, what happens right after the haltering is very important in reinforcing or discouraging that behavior. A calm and relaxed posture and a treat can make all the difference in getting a youngster to come willingly for haltering. Any action perceived as negative will discourage the good behavior.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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