Part 4- Leading in hand.
For a few weeks now, the foals have been haltered regularly. They can be caught anywhere (in the paddock, by their dam, away from their dam, or even in the middle of the field) and have zero issues with the halter, the leadshank, or being touched anywhere including the ears the nose, and the legs.
At this stage, I prefer to continue to loop a soft leadshank around their butt, and over the back, when I lead them around, but now I often just let it draped there or across their back and rely more and more on the halter to control the movement, but the butt rope is there if I run into any hesitations. Generally just putting the robe behind their butt is enough to get them moving forward enough and it gets them used to having ropes on their back, on their neck, or on their croup with no issues.
After a few weeks of this, the foals should be completely chill about being haltered and taken for a little walk within view of their mothers and relaxed enough to allow you to pick up all four feet for a few seconds each. The best is to pick up the feet, pause, tap the base of it with your hand, and gently let it back down.
A note about possible setbacks.
At around 2 months of age, most foals get really anxious about being away from their safety group. I have noticed it systematically enough to see it as a pattern, the previously brave and independent foal is suddenly clingy and fractious if their mother wanders a bit further away. I think that as the mare gets more relaxed about keeping an eye on them they are sometimes left behind as they nap and the group moves away and they get a few frights-waking up far away from the others and having to get up and run back to the safety of the herd. This makes them a bit insecure and more vigilant about staying close to the other horses.
Since we want to make leading and handling a comfortable experience there is no point at this stage in forcing them into walking further than twenty or so meters from their dam and peers.
What we often do is that while the mare is eating, we lead the foal away (about 10 to 20 meters) and groom them away from their dam. They enjoy the attention and learn that leading away often leads to pleasant things.
So we need to do this every day?
Ideally-yes, practically- probably not.
There is great value in routine for horses, as you might well know from dealing with older horses, even well trained and well-handled ones. It makes life easier for everyone to have a routine, to know what is expected, and for the most part to stick to it. The other value of doing this very regularly, if not every day, is that not every day will be perfect and in that lays the chance for a few good lessons. The foal is constantly learning, just like a young child, and almost every experience at this point is formative.
If it’s a windy day, the foal might be antsy and easily startled. You do your routine handling calmly and steadily and it learns that it is not a big deal to cope with the wind.
If it’s feeling slow and drowsy on that hot day then it is calm and relaxing and that also goes into the memory banks.
Maybe on one day, it will want to play or be mischievous and you are interfering with those impulses. You carry on anyway, you don’t take it personally ending on a good note and again the foal has learned that you are fair and reasonable but that you demand his attention.
All these little lessons add up. The risk in handling only once in a while is that when all is well you have limited occasion for unpleasant experiences, dealing with resistance, finding out how they handle the pressure. You are also not building a big bank of experience for the foal to rely on when suddenly something out of the ordinary happens.
We are teaching this young horse how to adapt as best as possible to our world, with all its variety and sometimes scary and unsettling events.
So now the foal is leading well with a butt rope if need be but more and more often without. It almost never stalls when you are leading it and in this familiar setting resistance is brief and easily overcome.
Now what: the foal is halter broke right?
Not by our standards, no.
For example, at this point, if you were to stand directly in front of the foal and ask them to walk forward you would probably be met with resistance. It still has only a very vague idea of how to respond to pressure.
So we work on that, the foal has to learn that tension on the halter is instantly relieved when they step forward but will persist if they stall or step back. They need to practice this response in different circumstances so that it becomes a habit, a reflex, and an instantaneous reaction.
The way to test that will be asking them to walk over a log, to cross a threshold of any kind, to step with us into a darkened environment. Once they do that and respond well to the pressure on the halter you can start to consider loosely tying them when they are in a safe environment- simply looping the leadshank around a post or a panel with just enough resistance to slow down the pull but not enough to cause a panic. Again loosely: no hard tie at this point and not for many months to come.
Here are some common issues at this stage:
- What if the foal sometime stalls and refuses to budge?
The best is to change direction, pull them sideways and get their feet moving in any directions and then resume. A horse in motion is easier to keep in movement, if you keep the feet moving it will be a lot easier.
- What if the foal walks really slowly?
Be happy it’s walking at all, as long as it is moving with you let it dictate the pace. Time will come when you can demand more but for now slow and steady is perfectly fine!
- What if the foal tries to rush by you or walks really fast?
Do everything you can to stay in position and not let it get past your shoulder, once it rushes past you and can swing away, you suddenly are in a tug of war with its head-never a good idea! Use your shoulder and elbow to curl its head and neck around you as you shift his momentum from forward to around you and resume your normal pace. Like a good dance partner, you will need to anticipate some moves to make this fluid.
- What if all is going well and suddenly it tries to rear and throws a tantrum?
First of all, if that happens more then once: wear a helmet, some horses are rearers, and their no point risking injury. A small hoof can still hurt quite a bit! The important thing here is to remain as much in control of the horse and your emotions as possible. Follow the antics try to stay within the shoulder zone as much as possible, use the wall, or the mother to contain him as much as you can. Like a child, a foal has no tools to handle its frustration and fear, stay calm walk back to the dam, and let him calm down, let him have a drink if it wants to, and try again.
- The foal constantly tries to bite me as we walk!
Well, he is playing with you like he would with another foal. You are not another foal but any severe discipline will not go over well at this age. I like to give them something acceptable to bite: I will let them grab the leadshank in their mouth and found that satisfies their need to bite and nibble and keeps my arm safe. If you were to reprimand a bite I recommend you tap under their chin: they don’t see it coming, they don’t associate it with you directly and it doesn’t make them head shy. Avoid overreacting as it can either encourage more play or scare them: neither outcomes are what we are looking for. I have had many young horses lead around perfectly well while holding their leadshank in their mouth a bit like a dog carrying its leash. The mouthy-ness will pass, have no worry. Colts are often more mouthy than fillies but I have had both.
Here is a little video of a two months old colt. He is loose and I am handling him while his dam polishes off some beet pulp and minerals in the corner feeder.