Foals are very easy to handle on the day of their birth, as they are not aware of the danger around them. I have seen foals walk straight up to a dog and try to smell and play with it. The foal has no idea that the dog could hurt or even kill it.
As they grow, horses have a natural instinct to run away from something they are not sure of, they are flight animals. Flight is their way of solving the problem of fear. When the foal is being born I don’t like to interfere too much.
I make sure the bag is off the foals head and allow the mare to stay down and resting as long as possible, to keep the blood flowing through the umbilical cord. The mare will break the cord naturally when she gets up. At this point, before the foal starts scrambling around to get up, it’s a good idea to quietly approach the foal and soak the navel cord with iodine to avoid navel infection which is serious for foals. Let the foal try to get up for the first half hour.
If you see the foal tiring, it may be a good time to assist to stop the foal from falling continually. Sometimes you can assist too early and a maiden mare may not bond with her foal as it now has your scent on it. If this happens it may be hard to get them to have the first drink.
It is very important for the foal to get colostrum from the mare’s milk which has all the antibodies it needs for a healthy life. Within a couple of hours after the first drink, the foal should pass meconium. It is advisable to study specific literature on foaling, mare and foal nutrition and foaling procedure.
Approximately 2-4 hours after birth, when the mare and foal have bonded, I have a handler hold the mare while I sit down nearby and wait for the foal to become curious enough to come up and smell me. They are very inquisitive, and it doesn’t usually take long for a foal to come up to you.
By letting the foal come to you, it will give him more confidence and make the first of my ten steps (facing up) easier. It is important not to approach the foal from their rump, and definitely you shouldn’t start handling them from their rump area first.
Problems often develop when people start rubbing or scratching a foals rump, usually while they are nursing. Some foals will develop a bad habit of backing up to you for a scratch, even getting cranky when you won’t scratch them. This can lead to the foal kicking out to insist that you scratch them. A foal that has been started this way can become confused, as they associate pleasure at their hind end and pressure at their head. Consequently, they will turn their rump to you when you approach their head to put the halter on.
Back with our newborn baby, from my sitting position I reach out my hand and let the foal smell me. Looking for a 1% effort, I then withdraw my hand to encourage the foal to come closer. This is classic advance and retreat training. The more you retreat, the more they will advance – which builds their confidence.
When I am happy they have accepted me, I start touching the foal around the neck, shoulders, down the back and hind quarters, gently stroking down with the hair direction, so they learn to relax, which is very important. Repeat this from the other side.
The horse has two sides to their brain and they need so see you on both sides to accept you. If you only handle the foal from one side, they only learn to accept you on that side. For example, many horses only lead well from the near side, as they have not taught to do so from the off side. I have found that horses learn to accept training more readily if you change sides every time they give you a 1% effort – when they show the slightest sign or effort that they are relaxing or communicating. e.g. Reaching out to smell you.
If you don’t follow the 1% rule, your horse or foal will not understand what you want of him. I don’t like to touch around their head at this stage, not until the foal is totally relaxed and standing still. If you are touching a spot or area and the foal tenses up, persist until the foal relaxes but do not hold them tight or grab them and do not yet attempt to pick up the foals feet.
If you are touching the girth area, and the foal relaxes 1%, change sides rather than continuing on that side. At this stage, wait until they thoroughly accept you. This may take a couple of training sessions. If you attempt to pick up feet too soon, the foal will feel immobile and vulnerable and their natural reaction to this sensation might be to snatch their leg away and leave you, and you do not want them to mistakenly learn this.
Many older horses are not comfortable with having their legs held, and it is far preferable to teach horses to learn to stand for the farrier or to have their hooves picked out when they are young, but first they need to learn to stand still. We do not want to teach our baby horse anything bad, so we won’t jump forward to more complicated things just yet.
It is important to make sure they are comfortable and relaxed when you touch their leg all over, before attempting to pick up their foot. Back to our young newborn, my next step would be to slowly put my arm around my foals chest and the other arm around the hind quarters and pick the foal up. They normally struggle a little but I will wait for him to relax and then lower them down and rub them all over.
Repeat the same procedure on the other side. Keep picking up the foal until it totally relaxes in your arms. This is very beneficial as you can control the foal if it has a cut, needs worming, or requires veterinary attention. A foal can produce a lot of adrenaline if hurt and will really fight to survive. Should a newborn or very young foal require veterinary treatment, if you follow my handling procedure, they will be much less frightened and much easier to control.
Until they can be properly halter trained and learn to yield to pressure, putting a halter on a foal too early will probably result in a headstrong foal who will fight rather than yield. While a young foal can easily be restrained by holding the halter firmly, they will feel pressured. As it is natural for them to run away from any sort of pressure, they can easily hurt themselves by running backwards, rearing up and flipping over.
Even with a quiet foal, holding onto the halter to handle them will make them resentful. As the foal grows and gets stronger, you will find him harder to control. It is a good idea to use a stable or small yard with a safe corner to do your initial training in, where a foal can’t get his legs caught up. Have a helper hold the mare on a halter just a few feet away from the foal. It is important that the foal is facing the mare while you are doing the early training so he feels secure.
Firstly, you need to train the foal to walk forward by placing your arms in a cradle position around them (in front of their chest and behind their rump), taking care not to hold tightly. I make a verbal clicking sound as a signal for the foal to move forward. If they don’t move, I gently move my arms forward, putting a gentle pressure on their rump but leaving a slightly open space between my arm and their chest to encourage them to step forward into the space.
Once they have given a 1% effort, and this may mean that the first time you ask them all they do is rock forward, stop pushing and reward them with a rub, then change sides and repeat what you have just done. When they have learned the sound to step forward, teach them to take a step backwards. Simply say ‘back’ and push back with your arm on their chest, remembering the 1% rule, and change sides. This handling can be started in the first week. Now you have your foal walking forward and backing up, the next stage is to back your foal into a safe corner.
This will give you a free hand to be able to handle the foal all over. Without a second handler it is important to use the corner, as a timid foal will try and back away and this may cause you to grab them, teaching them to be wary of you and stay away. At this stage still keep your arm around their chest, but do not hold them tight.
Touch them all over and down their legs. Sometimes when touching the foals legs they will try and pick their leg up and move it away from your hand. Do not hold it up, just rub the leg until the foal puts it down. The foal must learn that touching the leg is not the signal to pick it up.
This will be beneficial later when you need to wash, bandage or treat a cut on his leg. This technique will also make it much easier to load the foal on a float if the mare has to go back to stud before the foal is weaned. It’s a good idea to give your foal a little trip in the float while it’s still on its mother if the mother floats well, to give them confidence when travelling. How to load a foal on a float and transport it safely is a subject for another article.
There is a whole chapter devoted to it in my book, and plenty of information to help you in my Foal Handling DVD. This article should give you a good start with handling a newborn foal and there is a more advanced foal handling article on the website as well.