As foaling season approaches, a commonly heard inquiry among horse owners, especially those expecting their first new foal, is, “When should I get that baby used to a halter?” My own personal answer has always been, “Immediately!”
Long before the term “imprint training” became household words and such words were ever widely used to describe the process, there were those of us who simply believed that the sooner you get your colts and fillies accustomed to being handled all over and wearing that halter, the easier it would be to progress later on with their schooling and, eventually, their under saddle training.
Getting the newborn foal used to a halter as soon as possible is just plain good common sense, and it’s simply the most stress-free way to begin a lifetime of education. You must make sure the halter fits properly ~ these days most feed stores even carry tiny halters, some of which are designed for miniature horses, but they’ll fit babies just fine. Get one that’s just a little bit too big, to make sure there’s growing room, but you don’t want the baby to be able to slip out of it. They learn fast, and that’s a sure fire way to teach your foal how to get away from you. Definitely not something you want him to learn!
I have always been a firm believer in handling foals a lot from day one. They grow in a hurry and within a couple of weeks, you may not be able to hold on to him. Learning to accept human hands is a fact of life, and the sooner he learns to live with it, the better. Many times I have had to deal with weanlings (some of who were approaching a full year of age!) who have never been touched ~ or merely had as much handling as was required for basic veterinary needs. An awful lot of them hadn’t ever been wormed, hadn’t had any shots and had never even had their feet trimmed.
The process of “halter breaking” takes on a whole new meaning if you allow a foal to grow too much before you handle him. It can take weeks, sometimes months, to get close enough to even touch a foal who’s been allowed to “grow up naturally”. I don’t recommend it. At that rate, he might weigh 500 pounds by the time you can actually get that halter on him. I’ve had to build specially designed catch pens and even catch chutes in which to feed youngsters who didn’t know what the touch of a human felt like. Once they were safely in the pen or chute, I would have to work to get them used to my presence without the fighting the confinement or trying to run away. That’s certainly not the best way to teach them to trust us humans.
Since many mares are already overprotective of their babies, handling them early is the only way to build trust. It’s also easier by far to introduce your your young horse to his farrier and veterinarian (if you should need one for an emergency) if he’s already used to being handled and can be lead safely with a halter.
I want each of my foals to be completely used to being touched all over, having their feet picked up and being groomed on a regular basis (preferably every day) by the time they reach one month of age. By six to eight weeks they should know how to lead easily from both sides and be ready to learn the basics of longeing. Now, by that I don’t mean you should expect to take your babies out and truly longe them on the end of a longe line at a gallop, but I do want them to know how to walk in a circle around me both ways and to fully understand what “Whoa!” means. I also want to be able to walk all the way around them in each direction without them moving.
Teaching a foal “Whoa!” doesn’t need to be a big deal, but it is an essential basic all horses must know. Never make a major production out of anything insubordinate he may do. If you want him to stand still while you walk around him, tell him “Whoa!” in a firm yet gentle voice. If he moves, even if it’s only one small step, gently move him back to where he originally was and tell him “Whoa!” again, your voice more firm this time, and give a tiny gentle tug downward on the lead rope to further illustrate your point. After this exercise becomes routine, he will begin to understand the concept. Then, when you’re teaching him to “longe” around you with his lead rope on, he will understand that when you say “Whoa!”, that means stop. Remember, repetition is the key to training any animal, and horses are no different.
The reason for his learning to lead from both sides (rather than just getting used to you being on his left, which is the side we traditionally lead from) is simple: We’re going to be teaching him how to longe from both sides, right? We also don’t want him afraid to have us on his right side for a myriad of reasons. For instance, you may need to lead him down a narrow road or pathway where the only safe place for you to be is on his right. You wouldn’t want him to balk at being lead “wrong” and bolt into the street when a car is coming toward you in a situation such as that, would you?
As far as him learning to tie, there are many ongoing debates regarding the age when a young horse should be able to safely handle being tied. Naturally, if a foal is too young and his bone structure too immature, you can cause his neck to break by forcing him to fight the lead rope, not to mention causing him a great deal of fear and pain getting to that point. Always remember that a horse’s natural instinct is to lean into pressure ~ they have to be taught to move away from it. When you try to tie a horse who’s never been tied to anything in his life, he will instinctively pull back on the rope he’s tied with. True, he’ll eventually figure out that he can’t go anywhere and he’ll give up fighting (at least if the rope, snap or halter doesn’t break first), but he might injure himself in the process.
At age eight to nine weeks or so, after the foal is used to being lead around in his halter and lead rope, and is completely familiar with the concept of “Whoa!”, understanding that the command means to stop, I begin to teach him the basics of being tied. At first I don’t even want to attempt to secure him solidly to anything. I usually begin tying lessons in a pipe corral without any fencing on the sides.
What I do to start is loop the lead rope around a vertical post in the middle of the corral section I’ve chosen to work him on. Instead of tying the rope, I simply hold the end of it for a few minutes until he realizes he can’t walk away because he’s attached to it. In his mind, he’s now “tied” and he will almost always try to put up a little bit of a fight. I will always tell him “Whoa!” in a soft yet firm reassuring tone while he is fighting the rope, to try to get him to understand that he’s got to stand still. When he stops, I will immediately loosen up on the rope and tell him what a wonderful, smart horse he is, praising him lavishly. I’ll then re-tighten the rope to see if the situation repeats itself, which it usually will for several instances.
Generally, it only takes one lesson which lasts about twenty to thirty minutes at most for him to figure out that he’s not being hurt when he stands tied quietly, and then I’ll have a truly halter broke horse. After a few minutes, however, if he still tries to fight the rope and may either be getting too fatigued or may be in a position to hurt himself, such as putting his forelegs through the corral), I will loosen up on the lead rope, rub on him for a while and perhaps groom him to soothe his mind and let him know everything is going to be fine. In most cases, a foal will ordinarily stop fighting and accept being tied without too much further argument. Once he has stopped pulling back forcefully, you can actually tie him up (always with a quick release knot!). One critical point to remember is that you don’t want him to associate being tied with a negative experience. Reward him when he stands still and don’t prolong the session any longer than it needs to be. Less is more. You can always repeat the same steps the next day, and by then you should have a horse who’s fully broke to tie.
The other subject I want to address is when to wean your baby. Again, there are many differences of opinion on what age is best, but it really depends on several factors. One is how much of a burden the foal is putting on his mother. If the mare is getting too thin, and her baby seems to be draining her, I’ll usually begin the weaning process a little early. Many show farms wean their foals as early as three months of age, by which time the foal should be eating a good diet of hay and supplements, depending less on his dam for nutrition. Some places wait until their foals are six months or older.
Under ideal circumstances I will separate a foal from his dam at four months, which is about the median age for weaning. Another consideration that sometimes needs to be figured in is if either baby or mom is going to be shown. It is definitely a hassle to take both of them to a show prior to weaning, so I generally don’t plan on any shows for my broodmares or babies until weaning is complete.
As a matter of method, I prefer to keep the mare and foal side by side in separate corrals but near each other to avoid “separation anxiety”. After they’ve been separated, I don’t want the baby to be able to nurse any longer, and since the instinct will be very strong, I want some fencing on the paddock section between them. Generally, I will gradually try to get both mom and baby used to leaving each other for short periods of time prior to the actual weaning, progressing to longer and longer periods apart while I am working, grooming, bathing or clipping one of them, and so on. By the time I am ready to wean the baby, he doesn’t think of mom going away for a little while as being any traumatic thing ~ it’s no big deal.
Hopefully both halter breaking and weaning can be a bonding experience for you and your precious foal. These experiences will take you through his entire lifetime, and will carry over to whomever purchases him should you decide to sell him. They are the building blocks of a good, solid education, and the more pleasant these experiences are for both you and him, the easier it will be to continue to train him when he becomes old enough to begin his chosen career.
Remember what they say ~ a little goes a long way. A little bit of thinking can go a long way toward ensuring you have a healthy, happy, well adjusted foal who trusts you to treat him right and teach him the ways of the world as he grows up, whether his mom is there or not.