Take the Hazard Out of Foal Handling

Babies gain strength and agility every day. establish a great, safe foundation using Pattie Haney's gentle, consistent training techniques.
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Babies gain strength and agility every day. establish a great, safe foundation using Pattie Haney's gentle, consistent training techniques.
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In many ways, foals are like children. their early experiences stay with them for a lifetime and can make for either a well adjusted, trusting companion-or a horse that will pose a constant challenge. Getting an early start with your foal and keeping his training experiences positive will encourage a mutually rewarding relationship for you both.

No question, foals are irresistibly cute, and we can't wait to get our hands on them. But they're also amazingly quick and powerful. And they gain strength and agility every day. So it's important to approach every aspect of foal handling with care and regard for your own safety as well.

Learning to wear a halter and lead should be among your young foal's first learning experiences. In fact, you should begin the process as early as possible, according to Pattie Haney, breeding manager for Matthews Cutting Horses in Turkey, North Carolina. Haney, who has managed the care of hundreds of foals during her career, says you can start the process as soon as your foal is born.

"The biggest mistake people make is waiting too long to start handling a foal and putting on his first halter," says Haney. "It's a whole lot easier to do when a colt is a few days old, rather than after a few months, when he is much bigger and stronger."

Haney suggests we think of our foal's early education in three general stages: handling, haltering, and leading.

Hands On
The very first stage in gentling your foal is getting him accustomed to being touched and handled.

"Handling is an essential part of getting to the haltering stage," stresses Haney. "The more comfortable that baby is with your touch, the easier it will be to put the halter on him."

The ideal time to begin handling your foal is as soon as he is born, Haney says.

"I like to start handling a foal before he's even standing, if at all possible, and definitely within the first few days after he is born," she explains. "I pet and rub him from head to hoof! I scratch him lightly on his chest and behind his ears and make it a very pleasant experience for him to have me in his space."

Baby Steps

  • Start handling your foal from Day One.
  • Work gently, quietly, and consistently.
  • Rub, stroke, and scratch, using the right touch for each body area.
  • Let baby sniff, explore, and even nuzzle such new objects as brushes, halters, and lead ropes.
  • Introduce the halter in stages. Buckle the strap only when baby is quiet and totally unconcerned by it.
  • Get a helper and begin leading lessons when the foal is still following mom

This early hands-on approach will have positive effects in the future, she adds. "We need to make our foals as comfortable as possible with being handled by people. It comes into play with everything we will ask of them in the future, from giving them a bath to trimming their feet."

Spending hands-on time will also build a foal's confidence and trust in you, and give him his first lesson in controlling his natural flight instinct. A baby's typical reaction to an unfamiliar situation is to run and/or to hide behind mom. If we curtail that reaction to our presence from the start, the self-control and trust the foal learns will be a real asset to his future training.

The thing to keep in mind, according to Haney, is that the experience should be a pleasant one. She spends a great deal of time rubbing, scratching, and petting the youngsters in her care.

"When they are really little, they haven't learned to be afraid of people yet," she says. "We don't want to give them the opportunity to learn that fear. So we head it off with a lot of good time spent with them."

She often begins by rubbing a foal on the neck, back, and chest. After he accepts this, she moves on to the legs and head.

"It's important to stay calm and quiet," says Haney. "And don't back off. If he moves away, quietly move with him, keeping your hands on him and talking in a soothing voice."

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Pattie makes a point of handling a foal at least once each day. If the mare is friendly and accustomed to the drill, all the better. If not, Haney puts a halter on the mare and has another person keep mama still and quiet.

It's important to pay heed to any maternal warnings. Not all new mothers are receptive to having people fuss with their foals, while others are perfectly agreeable. In fact, Pattie notes that the foal's mother may actually be an ally when it comes to handling junior.

"If you can keep her close at hand, she will provide her baby with the security he is familiar with thus far in life," she says.

Not getting in a rush is also something Pattie keeps in mind. "Taking your time and being patient is very important," she stresses. "You have to remember these little horses are babies. You need to set your goals in baby steps."

After he is comfortable with having you rub him down with your hands, you can introduce other objects, such as a brush, small rag, and even a halter, letting him sniff, nudge, and even nibble on it. As he accepts the objects being rubbed on his body, be sure to reward him with kind words of reassurance.

"Always keep in mind that you need to reward your foal for accepting being handled," Haney says. A reward is a scratch on the neck and a reassuring voice.

Safety Tip

To keep safely out of the "kicking zone" when working around a foal, you should stay out of the range of reach of his hind legs, just in case he becomes agitated or startled. As a rule of thumb, stay in front of his mid-section on either side until he is very calm and comfortable, showing no signs of fear, when you move around him.

Friendly, Firm & Fair
"You need to remember that foals are not puppies," says Haney. "Even though they are very cute, they can be dangerous. Foals play rough. If you have ever watched how they play together, you know that they kick and bite and strike.

"Resist the urge to play with your foal like you would a puppy," she adds. "If you don't command a certain amount of respect from the start, you are likely to get hurt."

Pattie explains that you don't have to be mean… just firm.

"You must have their respect and not let them push you around," she says. "You need to remember that our idea of playing is not the same as a colt's idea of playing. I remember one guy who worked on a ranch. He thought it was really funny when a young colt would grab his ball cap off his head when he went to take him out of his stall." She continued, "That colt grew up to be a stallion. One day, instead of grabbing the ball cap, he grabbed the guy by the shoulder and hurled him to the ground."

Take Your Time

Getting in a hurry is all too common. "The biggest mistake people make is rushing . . . and forgetting that they are dealing with horses, who learn from repetition and consistency," says Pattie Haney.

As your foal grows, take every opportunity to become a familiar fixture in his world. During feeding time, while cleaning a paddock or stall, or just when you have an extra few minutes here or there, take the time to handle your youngster. Set boundaries for appropriate behavior when necessary.

When your foal reaches six months of age and is weaned, the need for human contact intensifies, as young horses may very well revert to their wild instincts--bonding with other horses and revisiting their tendency to flee. You want to solidify the relationship you began with your foal by spending quality time with your weanling.

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The Halter
Once you can approach your foal and handle him without upset, it is time to put on a halter. If you have introduced the halter during your rub down sessions, it will be a familiar object. Haney holds it in her hand while she rubs the colt on his neck, back, and over his hip.

When he accepts the feel of the halter against his body without becoming tense, continue down his front legs and around his chest, rubbing and praising him. Then begin scratching his jaw and rubbing behind his ears while still holding the halter, showing him it will not harm him in any way. Pattie eventually loops the halter over one ear, if the foal is agreeable, to familiarize him with the touch of it around his ears.

"I do just about anything that shows him the halter is not a threat," she adds. "If he starts getting scared, I just go back to an area on his body that he didn't mind me rubbing it on and start over."

As the colt becomes increasingly comfortable with this routine, concentrate on rubbing the halter around his head, slipping his nose in and out of the noseband, and rubbing around his ears. As he adjusts to the situation, you can begin the motion of putting the halter on him. If you have adequately rubbed him around his ears and head, he should be relatively calm when you attempt to buckle the halter in place. If he is not, go back to the rub down exercise until he relaxes.

Remember, says Pattie, patience is the key.

"Keep the mood calm," she stresses. "Continue, even to the point where he gets bored. It's usually when he just doesn't care too much about what I'm doing any longer that I buckle the halter.

"If I've taken my time and remained patient, I should be able to eventually get the halter buckled into place," she adds.

Once you have successfully haltered your foal, you can let him wear it for an extended period of time. It may even be advantageous to let your foal wear a lead rope attached to the halter until he lets you walk up to him and catch him every time you enter his pen.

"If he is difficult to catch, leave a lead rope dangling from the halter that you can grab if he starts to turn away," suggests Pattie. "This technique of dragging a lead rope will help your foal learn to 'face up' to you when you approach, which is the preferred response.

"If he starts to walk away when you approach, you can grasp the lead rope and ask him to turn and face you," she continues. "Then, walk up to him, keeping a firm hold on the lead and speaking to him in a soothing voice. Pet him until you feel him relax. Doing this time after time will eliminate his anxiety about being caught."

However, it's not a good idea to leave your foal unattended while dragging a rope.

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Follow the Leader
Once your foal is comfortable wearing a halter and is easy to catch, it is time to teach him to lead.

Haney believes the least traumatic way to teach a foal to lead is to do it alongside his mother. If you keep your mare and foal in a barn at night, turning them out in a pasture during the daytime, those trips to and from the barn are ideal opportunities to have a leading lesson.

Wherever you intend to conduct the training sessions, Haney recommends they occur in a safely fenced area.

"Begin in an enclosed paddock, round pen, or small fenced pasture, if possible, in case the foal gets away from you," she suggests. "Have another person lead the mare at a moderate to slow pace, while you follow along with the foal. If things get out of control, the other person can stop the mare until the foal has quieted down again." Remember, keeping your cool will help the foal keep his. If he becomes nervous or agitated, slow or stop the lesson so you both can regroup.

Taking advantage of the mare-foal relationship simplifies leading because the baby has a natural incentive to go forward. He wants to stay close to mom. Once you start to move, it's then simply a matter of controlling and directing that movement. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Hold onto the lead rope as you walk with the foal, keeping it relatively loose and without tension.
2. Start by following the mare, and then begin to ask the foal to turn his nose in your direction of travel by applying some pressure to the line.
The moment he tips his nose to you, reward him by releasing the pressure and giving him his head.
3. Have the person leading the mare make a turn as you simultaneously pull the foal gently in the same direction. The goal is to have the baby understand that, by giving to the pull on the lead, he will receive a reward-the release of his head.
4. If he pulls on the lead, stay firm until he takes a step in the desired direction and gives to the tension. This does not mean you should get in a battle with him. But if you give to him, instead of waiting for him to give to you, you are only encouraging him to pull against the lead rope. However, be sure to reward him immediately when he does give by releasing any remaining tension in the lead rope.

"This reward system of teaching creates positive reinforcement for his release to pressure," says Haney. "The idea is for him to seek that release…that is, to look for the reward of not feeling the pull on the lead rope."

"Eventually you can guide the foal a little further from the mare as you go for your walks," says Pattie. "If he balks, refusing to move, a gentle pull to one side will usually get his feet moving again. This technique can help in avoiding an all out tug-of-war."

Slowly but surely, your foal will begin to grasp the idea that moving toward you results in the release of tension on his head.

"Don't be discouraged if he doesn't get it right away," reassures Haney. "During the first several lessons, I'm thrilled to just get a step or two in the direction I'm asking him to go. And I always try to end on a positive note. That is, when he gives me a few steps, I will pet and scratch him and end the lesson there."

Be Consistent
As with children, one of the greatest things we can give our foals is our time. Spending a little time every day will build the relationship between you and your foal, and give you the opportunity to keep his education moving in a positive direction.

"An important factor in gentling your foal and teaching him to wear a halter and lead is consistency," explains Haney. "The day-after-day repetition is huge in helping him really learn what you're trying to teach him. There is just no substitute for spending the time.

"Horses are creatures of habit, and it is our job as their owners to teach them good habits that help them grow into well-adjusted horses. We need to earn our foal's trust, and become a normal and positive fixture in his daily life," she concludes.