Study: Young Foals can Learn Basic Handling Skills

Study: Young Foals can Learn Basic Handling Skills

Each foal learns at a different rate, and breeders should be aware that learning differences are normal and not a cause for frustration, the researchers cautioned.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

When’s a safe, effective time to train young foals basic handling techniques? And what’s a reliable method? Researchers in Australia and New Zealand have determined that training young Thoroughbreds using learning theory and equitation science principles at only 3 weeks old can yield excellent results.

However, each foal learns at a different rate, and breeders should be aware that learning differences are normal and not a cause for frustration, said Leigh M. Wills, BSc. Accompanied by study co-author Andrew McLean, PhD, of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, Wills presented her work during the 2016 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held June 23-26, in Saumur, France.

“Training using the 10 ISES training principles was successful for all foals in our study,” Wills said. The 10 ISES training principles are guidelines for horse training developed by leading equitation science researchers, founded on learning theory—the science of how horses learn and respond to training.

Using the principles described on the ISES website, Wills and her fellow researchers taught basic handling skills to 56 Thoroughbred foals from one stud between the ages of 3 and 6 weeks. “This corresponds to the critical socialization phase, in which young horses seem to be naturally more open to being handled by humans,” she said.

The researchers taught the foals to stand still while being approached by a human, balance themselves on three feet and hold one foot in the air for five seconds, and respond to light pressure to move forward and to stop while leading. The young horses initially stayed next to their mothers during the training, and the researchers used a small padded area to prevent flight responses, Wills said.

Taking into consideration foals’ limited attention span, the researchers trained them for only 15 to 20 minutes per session, said Wills. Further, she said, they never trained them more than three days in a row to give them time to acquire what they had learned.

Foals took anywhere from one to eight training sessions (an average of five) to learn to stand still as a human approached them, Wills said. It took four to nine sessions for foals to learn both the foot-lifting task and the pressure-response task. There were no injuries to either horses or humans throughout the study.

While the gap was wide from one foal to another, the number of training sessions had nothing to do with either the sex of the foal or the foal’s sire, Wills added.

“There’s an inherent variation that exists in the amount of training required for each individual foal, and it’s important for breeders to understand that,” Wills said.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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