Training your foal

How soon should you start training your foal? Should you attempt 'imprinting' from the moment of birth or allow the youngster to grow up for a few months before any handling? Opinions vary, but careful handling of your foal from a young age can make later training easier.

Imprinting

Imprinting a foal at birth was a popular idea a few years ago, and is still used by many studs in the US. A foal is very impressionable during the first two days of life and extensive handling of the foal during this period is thought to make the foal more submissive and accepting of humans. Unfortunately some inexperienced people took imprinting to the extreme and, while restraining the foal in order to handle it, caused injury and trauma - the exact opposite of what is intended. In the UK, it is generally considered that the best approach is to keep handling to a minimum for the first 48 hours to allow mare and foal to thoroughly bond.

Leading the foal

A foal's natural instinct is to follow the mare. Many people make no attempt to lead a young foal and when, for example, moving mare and foal from stable to pasture simply lead the mare and allow the foal to follow. Although this is an effective way to move mare and foal around, it does not teach the foal anything about being handled. However, the instinct to follow the mare can be used to help train the foal.

For the first couple of days the foal should just be guided by putting a towel round the base of her neck. With another person leading the mare, you should use the towel to direct the foal. If the foal is reluctant to move forward, you can put your arm behind the foal's rump to push her forward (you may need another person for this if you can't reach).

Using a halter

foal slip with strapThe halter used on a foal should always be made of leather - if it gets caught on something the leather will break and release the foal. A foal slip (a simple form of halter like the one shown) is best for a young foal and often has a short (approximately 6 inch) leather strap attached, to make catching the foal easier.

When first putting on the halter the foal should be manoeuvred into a position which she cannot easily escape. This is best done in a stable with 3 people. One person should hold the mare with her head near the wall and her body angled away from the wall to form a triangle. The foal should be moved into the triangle with one person standing close behind to prevent her moving backwards. The third person stands by the mare's head and gently puts the halter on the foal.

Studs usually leave halters on foals all the time, to make catching them quicker. If you are stabling at night and turning out during the day, you may prefer to take the halter off at night. It takes a bit longer, but putting the halter on each morning is also useful training for your foal.

Leading with a halter

When leading with a halter do not clip a lead rope to it. If the foal breaks away the rope could get entangled in her legs or caught on something and, at the very least, will flap about and frighten her. Instead slip a strap (e.g. a short length of lunge line) through the halter ring and hold it double. This will slip through the ring if stepped on or caught up. It is usually better to have a loose foal than risk a possible accident. Do keep a firm hold on the strap though - breaking away can quickly become a bad habit if the foal realises that you let go easily.

Lead the mare with your left hand and the foal with your right. The foal should just follow the mare but initially it is useful to have another person ready to encourage the foal forward with a hand behind the rump if necessary. Avoid pulling or dragging the foal - she should learn from the start to walk forward with you at her shoulder. Before your foal is born is worth leading your mare from the left - it is surprising how badly some horses lead from that side if they are used to being led from the right.

foal reluctant to lead If mare and foal are at grass and you don't need to move them anywhere, it is still a useful exercise to lead for a few minutes each day. If the foal is being difficult and you are on your own, it is usually best to concentrate on the foal as the mare is likely to stay with her foal. Usually you will find no lack of helpers - however, it is important that everyone stays calm and relaxed and that the foal is handled firmly but without force. The idea is for the foal become confident and relaxed with people - not to intimidate her in any way.

Grooming

As well as leading your young foal, you should get her used to being touched all over. Most foals like being groomed so groom her lightly with a soft brush or your hand. Start with her neck, shoulders and back then, over a few days, progress to touching her whole body, especially her head and legs. Once she is used to you touching her legs, teach her to pick up her feet by running you hand down a leg then leaning against her and gently lifting her foot.

Tying up

Tying up should be left until your foal is a few months old and used to being handled. Put her in a stable with plenty of bedding. Clip a long rope to the halter and thread it through the tying up ring. Keep a firm hold of the rope and move to the side of the stable. Only slacken the rope if the foal starts to panic and is in danger of injuring herself. Once she is used to the idea of being restrained by the rope you can tie the rope with a quick release knot. Tie the rope to a thin strand of twine attached to tying up ring which will break if she panics. If she repeatedly breaks the twine, go back to holding the rope treaded through the ring. Keep sessions short and never leave her unattended until she is well used to the experience.

Take home message

Spending some time training your foal when she is young will make later training, as well vet and farrier visits, much easier. Regular handling also helps you develop a relationship with your foal.

More information

Posted on 29 May, 2012

 
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