Standing for grooming and the farrier, haltering, leading—basics like these are important whether you plan to sell or keep a foal you’ve bred. Young foals grow fast, and it’s not long before that adorable baby is big enough to push you around or do real damage with his cute little hooves.
A horse can learn manners and skills at any age, but an early foundation will make your life—and future training—much easier. Over the years there have been lots of theories about when and how to handle foals, and most breeders have their own favorite ways of dealing with the issue. Here they share some of these ideas.
When to Start
A few years ago the buzz was all about early intensive handling, through the “imprint training” program introduced by Robert Miller, DVM, and similar methods. (See the box on page 14 for more about imprint training.) This concept still has fans, but so far research hasn’t confirmed that it has benefits over more traditional approaches.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t handle a very young foal, but there’s no great rush to do this when the baby is still wet,” says Cindy McCall, PhD, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama. McCall, whose major research interests are equine behavior and factors affecting equine learning abilities, raises her own warmblood horses in addition to overseeing the university horse program.
Instead of the intensive approach, she prefers to introduce foals to handling a little at a time over the first few days of life. “First we pet the foal and get it so we can catch it. When it’s friendly and accepting, we start to play with its ears and nose and handle its feet,” she explains.
That philosophy—handle early but not too much—is shared by many breeders. “We are there at delivery, so we establish right at the beginning that we are part of this,” says Lisa DeMayo, who stands two stallions (Morgan and Thoroughbred) and has raised numerous foals at her Bonnie Lea Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “We talk to the foal, and if the mare is tired after foaling and slow to get up, we may help by toweling the baby off.” However, DeMayo is careful not to interfere with the foal’s interactions with the dam. “They definitely need mommy time in the beginning,” she says.
DeMayo says that how a new foal is handled is as important as when. “You need patience to handle horses of all ages, but especially the babies. They are jerky; it’s their nature. You need to speak calmly and move calmly around them,” she says.
Grooming follows naturally from early handling. Once the foal accepts having people handle its ears and face and touch its belly, legs, and feet, McCall says, it’s not hard to get him used to being brushed all over and having his feet picked up—but it’s important to take everything one step at a time.
“You can begin to pick up the feet right away, but don’t try to hold them at first,” she says. When the foal will calmly let her pick up all four feet, she gradually starts to hold them; then, when he accepts that, to manipulate them. “When he’s big enough, you can mimic a farrier and get under him to hold and handle his feet,” she says.
DeMayo begins to halter her foals when they are a few days to a week old. “The halter is strictly decorative at this point and shouldn’t be left on, but it’s not too soon to introduce it,” she says. She gradually begins to hold and turn the foal with the halter. But, she notes, “You really can’t teach the foal to lead until he has developed some muscles and balance. His first reaction to halter pressure will be to pull away, and very young foals easily go up and over. Until then I lead the foal alongside his mom, using my arm around his neck and a rump rope to guide him.”
There’s a real risk of injury if a foal pulls back and flips over, McCall agrees. She begins to introduce the idea of giving to pressure when the foal is about two weeks old, after it’s friendly and easily caught. Here’s her technique: “In the stall, while you’re petting the foal, put one hand under his chin where the halter noseband would be and gently pull forward. At the same time, put your other hand on his withers and press, to encourage him to take a step. As soon as he does, release both hands.” It’s crucial to get a step before you release—and stay with the foal if he backs away.
Once the foal gets the idea of giving to pressure, leading is less of a problem. “I breed warmbloods, and they’re big—so I teach leading early, starting at about two weeks,” McCall says. “Young horses can learn to lead at any age, but the bigger they are, the more dangerous it is for the handler if they struggle.” A common mistake is to try to lead the foal forward right away, she adds. “Start by going side to side, and be happy with that.”
Some foals get the idea right away; some are obstinate. “They have personalities,” notes DeMayo. For an especially stubborn foal that still refused to lead at five months, she tried a novel technique: “I rigged a sort of collar on the mare and attached the foal’s lead to it. When the mare was led forward, he felt the pull on his halter—but instead of pulling back, he followed his mom. He very quickly got the idea after that.”
While imprint training calls for foals to be exposed at birth to clippers and other stimuli, it’s more common to introduce new things gradually, over the first weeks and months. A foal can get used to all kinds of potentially scary things before he’s weaned—flashlights, wheelbarrows, water hoses, and so on. “Foals go through phases,” says DeMayo. “At first they cling tightly to mom and take cues on behavior from her.”
McCall introduces clippers by clipping the mare while the foal is with her in the stall. “Usually the foal is curious and comes over to see what I’m doing, and I hold out the clippers and let him sniff and play with them,” she says.
She also believes it’s a good idea to get the foal on and off a trailer with its mother—as long as the mare loads well and will set a good example. “I try to do this a few times, two or three times in one day and again a few weeks later. This early experience helps down the road, when it’s time to teach him to load on his own.”
DeMayo begins to teach foals to tie before they’re weaned, at about six months, by tying them for short times while grooming them in the box stalls they share with their dams. She uses a single tie, attached with a quick-release knot to a ring above the foal’s head so that it can’t droop and tangle around his legs. “We never leave a foal tied without supervision,” she says. The youngsters learn to tie for longer periods in their second year.
Cindy McCall sums up: “Early training will help sell the foal, if you do that; and it’ll help you if you don’t.”