Human handling early in a foal’s life, when done carefully and responsibly, can save a lot of stress for that foal later. Have you ever heard of imprinting? This is where you have the opportunity to create a human-foal bond in the first few hours after birth, establishing a trust that can last throughout their life. You start by handling the foal right after birth, rubbing them dry and allowing them to get used to humans being around. However, don’t interfere with the dam/foal bond that also needs to develop. Instead, join the pairing so they both know that humans are there to help, not hinder. Then get that foal accustomed to outside stimuli, every day, so they are less fearful of new introductions – handling, halters and saddles, clipper noise, hoof trimming, etc. The biggest mistake people make is to not repeat the activities often enough to completely desensitize the foal. Dr. Robert Miller, author of Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, recommends 30-100 repetitions for each activity in order to habituate the foal. By using the foal’s natural curiosity to explore his/her new world, they learn to accept new stimuli with confidence instead of fear. Start by showing the halter to the new foal, let them sniff, nibble if they feel the need and rub it across their cheek and neck. Very gently slip it over their head but be aware it may take a few tries before you get it over their ears. Be patient and don’t let it turn into a battle – don’t get the foal over excited where the fight/flight response kicks in. Once you get it over their head, reward the foal with pets and scratches then take it off. Continue in this way, leaving it on for longer periods each day.
Once they are used to the halter, you can start teaching the foal to lead. Never let this part turn into a tug of war. Instead, have a long lead rope with one end attached to the halter and the other in a loop around the rump. Pull on the halter rope at the same time as using the rump rope, along with a soft, firm “Walk” command, to encourage the foal to move forward. They may jump in the beginning so be sure you are standing to the side and not in front. After a few steps, stop the forward motion with a tug down on the lead rope and a “Whoa” command. Getting them used to these verbal commands early will be handy when you start with longeing and riding later. As soon as they start responding to the lead rope pressure with no trouble, you can stop using the rump rope.
Once they are used to the halter and leading, start teaching them to tie and standing quietly. You can also use this quiet time to continue handling their feet but with a purpose. Run your hands over their body and down the backs of their legs. They will usually pick up their feet just with that stimuli but you might need to tap down around their fetlock and then pick up the foot if they don’t. Hold the foot up for a short period and then put it back down; doing this with all four feet. This will help them learn balance as well, by standing on just three feet. Don’t let them get in the habit of leaning on you, gently push their weight back on to their feet if they start leaning into your shoulder. Your farrier won’t thank you for a horse that leans on them the whole time they are working. Have a hoof pick handy and run it across the bottom of the foot and around the frog to desensitize them. Once you’ve done this with all four feet, get the grooming tools handy. Curry them and then brush them along the whole body, use a soft brush for the face and a wide tooth comb for the mane and tail. Also handle the ears gently so they don’t pop their head out of reach and get used to being touched all over. Do these activities quickly and quietly without a lot of fuss so they easily accept your touch without a battle.
At what point should training turn to exercise? Mild exercise early in life, like with all young, be they human or animal, is important to build strong bones and muscle. However, a heavy exercise program designed to build muscle mass before the bones are ready to handle the stress is not a good idea. Too much muscle on an immature frame can cause future problems – developmental orthopedic disease (DOD), arthritis, and/or the inability to flex properly. It is best to allow your foal to be with his/her dam and other foals the first year. While running and playing in the field, he/she learns balance while running on uneven ground and naturally builds their musculoskeletal system as they grow. You as the owner/trainer can use this time to start basic training techniques. A short period each day will be sufficient to help them overcome fear and learn new skills.
Brenda Jackson, Murray County Extension Coordinator & Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent