When you can run your hand down a foals legs and it remains relaxed, (as described in the Early Foal Handling article) it’s time to start picking up their feet. Put your hand underneath the fetlock joint and say “up” using a gentle pull and release.
As the foal takes the weight off that leg, stop and reward him and change sides. Don’t try to get 100% effort straight away. You want to avoid frightening them as they may learn to snatch their foot away. The principle of this method is to teach the foal to relax and to balance itself as it picks up its legs.
I don’t like to pick up a foals legs with my hand above the fetlock joint as you tend to hold the leg a lot tighter to stop it slipping out of your hand, encouraging the foal to pull away. Ask them “up” with a gentle pull and release with your hand. Do not lift it up too high at this stage, and the minute they relax ask them “down”. Keep your hand on the leg until it is back on the ground. If you drop their leg they will start to anticipate and pull their leg away.
Give them time to absorb what has just happened. These early lessons are especially important for the foal to learn that they can do what we ask without pressure. Such handling promotes obliging behaviour. It pays to spend a little more time when you first start, as it will save you a lot of time later on. Repeat the same on the other side. If the foal accepts you picking the front feet up willingly, then the back legs won’t be a problem, just repeat the same procedure for the back legs as you have just done for the front legs.
Make sure your foal is not standing with their side too close to the wall, as they need to lean over to balance themselves as they pick their foot up. (For those who didn’t read last months article, we have our young foal standing quietly in a corner of a stable or yard with his mother standing quietly by.) Often people push a horse up against a fence when the horse doesn’t stand still. A horse quickly picks up bad habits and learns to lean on the handler because he can’t get his balance. Often the horse gets the blame instead of the inexperienced handler.
An exercise I ask people to try is to stand against a wall with your right shoulder and right leg up against it, then try and pick up your left leg. You will find it virtually impossible to hold your leg up without falling away from the wall.
Handling the Head
At this stage I haven’t handled the head of a foal a great deal as most foals are quite sensitive around the head, especially above the eyes. You might have noticed that foals keep their head up high with their neck muscles tight – ready to run. They also try to keep their eye higher to look down on you. They feel threatened when you are above and out of eye vision.
This is one reason I don’t like putting a halter on a foal. If your foal hasn’t been handled well around the head, or learnt how to lower their head and relax, then putting a halter on can encourage them to fight by lifting their head high and struggling to get away. Our reaction is to grab them and hold them tighter, which teaches them to fight and associate this with the halter.
At this stage because the foal is small enough that we can manhandle them and get the halter on, they learn only that their handler is not their friend. Then problems start later on when the foal is let out into a bigger area or paddock. When they see you coming with the halter they become hard to catch.
You have probably seen or used the ‘hide the halter trick’ and the ‘bribe with food’ trick. Nothing is worse than being in a hurry and you can’t catch your horse, so establishing a non-fear based relationship in a young horse is very desirable.
When your foal is standing quietly in the corner and has willingly accepted you touching them on both sides, it’s time to start touching his head. Kneel down at their side and put one hand gently on the opposite cheek to support their head while you massage the cheek closest to you. Begin with rubbing the top of their neck and slowly work onto their cheek, using a massaging motion. By kneeling down you are not as threatening and once they are comfortable with you, you can do this exercise standing up.
They should enjoy the massage and it will give them a chance to get used to seeing your hand on their cheek. Slowly work your hand up under their eye and stroke under the eye with a downward motion. Keep in mind that you’re only looking for a 1% try so as soon as the foal relaxes, change sides. Some foals can be tense and nervous so I like to put my finger into their mouth to encourage them to chew, which has a relaxing effect on them. Massaging the base of the ear is also very relaxing.
I explain this in more detail in my book in the chapter devoted to Step 3 “Touching All Over”. This will teach you how to touch an older foals head, but at this early age I don’t over-handle their head. While a foal is only a few days old their mother hasn’t yet taught them of the dangers around them so now is a good time to introduce some of the objects they will need to become accustomed to such as clippers, fly spray, rugs, plastic bags, and rattling objects.
Start with a small towel which for this purpose represents a horse rug and put your arm in front of your foals chest and introduce the towel to him from your other hand. Let him smell it and then rub the towel down his side. He (or she) will reach around to smell it indicating that they are relaxing a little and this will be the time to change sides. Change sides a couple of times then lay the towel over their back like you would a rug or saddle cloth.
To teach your foal to accept neck rugs, hoods and to lower their head, I put the towel over their nose and eyes. Wait until they lower their head and then pull the towel completely over their ears onto their neck. You would not do this too soon or in such a way that might startle your foal. If your foal is coping well with the towel and is curious about the things you show him, then it may be time to introduce clippers to him.
Be sure to use battery operated clippers to avoid cords which might cause an accident. Don’t turn them on straight away, but let your foal smell them first, then turn them on and let him smell them while they’re running. While the clippers are running, rub your hand up and down his neck to let him feel the vibration. After a few lessons you should be able to run the clippers all over his body – without clipping him of course.
Repeat the same process using a plastic bag, spray bottle and a rattly object (perhaps a tin can with stones inside). Preferably start all objects on the same day but remember that your foal will tire easily and will need to drink regularly.
Some of you may now be asking, “What do I do with my foal that is already a month or two old and I can’t catch it or handle it, and it needs to be wormed or have its feet done? Do I let the vet or farrier come out and do it?” That wouldn’t be very fair for the vet or the farrier.
Firstly, they are very busy and are running to a time limit, so by necessity the foal will get grabbed or pounced on to be restrained. Although no-one is actually physically hurting the foal, it has just been confirmed in his mind that humans are predators and should be avoided. He probably already had suspicions, and that’s why he was timid to start with.
Imagine what is going through the foals mind. I’ve seen foals handled this way and they squeal like a pig because they think they are about to be eaten alive! It may take months to get a foal’s confidence back after a person has grabbed it, as we are now considered by them to be two-legged monsters. Some horses will remain nervous and distrustful for the rest of their lives. Roping is a method I particularly abhor for foal handling and should only ever be a last resort.
The foal feels the pressure around their neck, panics and starts fighting to survive, which can do a lot of damage or even kill the foal! They will pull against it and may flip over and hit their head. Foals that receive this type of handling are normally hard to teach to float load and tie up and they learn to rear up at the slightest pressure on the halter.
The point I am trying to make here is that when we pull on the halter the foal will pull back against us. It is a completely normal reaction, and until we have been able to teach our foal how to give to halter pressure, its natural instinct is to pull back. Instead of having a willing partner, we will have a mistrustful foal who will not respect us.
That first impression with the halter can make a good horse or a bad horse.
I have worked with many problem horses and they all have the same thing in common – when they feel a little bit of pressure on the halter they fight against it. That first incorrect lesson can promote a lot of problems such as being hard to catch, lead, float or tie up, breaking reins when stood on, rearing up or just being stubborn, not to mention vet and chiropractor bills or permanent injuries.
There are no bad horses but there are a lot of bad handling methods.
I have often heard horse owners say, “my horse is a good horse but sometimes he will pull back or rush out of the float, etc.” All these problems are man-made. Putting a halter on a foal and trying to get them to lead before they have been taught a signal to move forward is asking for trouble; tying them up before they know how to give to pressure, picking up their legs before they know how to stand still; putting them on a float before they lead well and have accepted noises and rattly objects are all guaranteed to create problems.
Let’s discuss ‘Time’.
I constantly hear horse owners say “I haven’t got the time”. Teaching my ‘Ten Steps’ program doesn’t take a lot of time. I have seen many horses at shows that have never had the right training, for instance: not standing still to have their hoofs blackened; being twitched to have their face and legs trimmed, fidgeting when being washed and plaited; pulling back when tied up; being nervous and whinnying a lot; barging forward when led; shying when led to the ring and much more.
All these problems take up time and your horse is confused and stressed. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do the initial handling in the early weeks of a foal’s life.