We started out with a newborn foal, Maverick. But I do want you to know that all of this works with any horse of any age with just a few "tweaks" to help it fit the age and size of the horse. And while I will continue with this as a foal handling blog, soon, it will be where Maverick is going and not where he began.
First up is learning to lead, tie and groom. Before we get started it is important to know that a foal is very fragile. It is really easy to injure their necks as well as the rest of their bodies. So, always keep in mind that the safety of your foal should come first. Go through this training slowly and if your foal shows any signs of distress, stop and decide whether you are going to quit for the time being, quit for the day, or start over by returning to and earlier step. Mutual respect, confidence, and trust must be earned slowly if you are to have a great partnership with your horse.
Let's start with grooming. The first tool you need is your hand. Yep, your hand! Go into the stall, halter Mama, and if she ties well and quietly, tie her. I like to hang a hay net for her to keep her busy and she needs the extra hay anyway to keep up good milk production and help her recover nutritionally from foaling and nursing. Because you have been practicing with haltering, your foal should be curious and easy to catch. If he's not, go back a step until he is.
Have a longish - I like 12 foot - lead attached to the halter made of really light rope. Your foal should enjoy your hands on him if you've done the first bits right. Allow him to nurse, wander around his Mama, and generally be a foal. Your job is to not pull on the halter and to keep your hands on him. Use the mare, provided she is sweet and willing, as your training partner. Do things like push the foal into her with your body and cup the base of his neck in the crook of your elbow while preventing backwards movement with your hand on the back of his leg. Start slow and short and work up to a couple of minutes of restraint. This is the traditional way to restrain a foal. Sometimes, it is also done with the tail in your hand, lifted over the back. You should practice this hold too in case you need it for vetting purposes while your foal is little. Keep your voice soft and quiet. I use a droning like sing-song, they see to listen well to it. The mare and foal don't care what words you use, but they do care about the tone and inflection of your voice. I practice this restraining several times a day for about a week. Just remember to keep sessions short.
Next up is to start grooming. Take a soft brush and groom your mare. Your foal will be curious and you should allow and encourage. Your goal here is not to get the mare groomed but to generate interest in your foal. As he wants to see what you are up to, let him sniff the brush. He may want to put his mouth on it and this is allowed. He is learning so fast right now, that you don't want to discourage any act of discovery. Brush the mare with the brush while you brush the foal with your hand. You have the halter and lead on him, so you can multi task. He will also be learning to lead and tie right now! How? Just read on.
While you are working, your energetic, short attention spanned foal will be mentally jetting from one thing to another. Explore the stall, play with the buckets or bedding, nurse from Mama, sniff you, eat the brush, hide and go seek around Mama, and about 50 other games! You pretend to not notice all of this, but really, you are very focused on what your foal is doing. Let your foal do this, but keep enough lead rope in your hand that he can't go more that about 4 feet out from you. When you feel the float (slack) coming out of the lead rope, become a "tree". Keep everything soft and flexible, but don't move your feet. He is now effectively "tied". If he pulls against you, have give, but don't move and don't pitch him slack. Now, if he starts to set back or fight, you must go with him or pitch slack to him to prevent injuring the neck. But, if you have done the restraint exercises right, he should translate from one type of restraint to the other without too much difficulty. It is very important here that the session be as calm and easy for the foal as possible. If you frighten him, he may forever be a horse that fights against restraint of any kind. This can affect everything from hoof trimming to trailer loading and everything that comes in between.
Well what about leading? If you have been "following" your youngster as he goes beside Mama to the pasture every day, he will be comfortable with the halter and lead and the turn out and pick up procedure. So, the next step is for your helper to take up a more correct position walking with the foal next to his Mama on these daily trips. The helper should, for now, walk to the mare's right with the foal on about 3 feet of slack in the lead rope. The foal will be excited and anxious to get to the turn out area, so the handler will still need to be light on their feet. Also, by now, (you should be at the 1-2 week old stage here), the foal will have enough balance, coordination and muscle strength to rear, buck and kick; so the handler should be aware and cautious. This frolicking should be discouraged by short, sharp pulls on the foal via the lead rope. The rule here is if the foal is walking and behaving, there is no impact of the halter on his head. If he acts up, bolts or misbehaves, he should be quickly corrected by words and deed and then go on as if the incident didn't occur.
So, this time, we have begun to introduce grooming, leading, and tying. You have continued to encourage curiosity, enhanced your foal's ability to be handled, and put trust exercises in place to facilitate future handling. Keep these tips in mind: there are no off limits areas for grooming, while you are not lifting legs yet, you still rub them all the way to the ground with your hand. If the foal takes the leg away, insist on touching it until he stands quietly. Never put any kind of pulling action on the halter and lead. Either give until the foal gives back or let go. At this age, he won't go far from Mama, so letting go isn't a problem. Take everything slow, there is always tomorrow.
You will move smoothly from rubbing everywhere with your hands to brushing everywhere with the soft brush. Slow soft movements are the key here. When you find an itchy spot, and most foals will be itchy just about everywhere, scratch it! You will be rewarded with so much more that funny lips and facial gestures. You will be rewarded with a deeper bond with your foal and the beginning of a partnership relationship. Alternate back and forth between your hands and the soft brush. Make up little brushing games; I like brushing on Mama until the foal touches me and then brushing the foal for only 5 strokes. This encourages him to learn to communicate with you. Keep going like this and you will soo be ready for the next lesson: Away from Mama and back to Mama.
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