Part 5: The final touches
A foal that stands to be haltered, that leads well, that accepts grooming, and picking up his feet has a good solid base for further education down the road.
For many, that will be enough and they will be left alone until it is time for some more formal education.
For others, it will be the bare minimum as they will also need to learn how to be bathed, sprayed, clipped, loaded into a trailer, trot in hand and stand on the line for shows.
We go beyond in our handling of foals but not for any particular utilitarian reasons (we do not take them to shows, we don’t clip them and we certainly do not bathes them as we do not have access to warm water) but we do it in order to continue to give them the tools required to navigate the complex world of humans and their never-ending demands.
We focus on two general skills:
- the ability to respond to pressure without getting overly worried (moving away from pressure, lowering the head by touching the poll, backing up in response to a hand on the bridge of the nose, moving forward when there is pressure on the halter and that includes being tied – with supervision).
- trusting and following the handler where ever they go (over things, under things, across things, and into things.)
In all cases, what we want is to build trust and resilience. We build on this with small steps, little victories, the repetition of the easy things, and progressively increased difficulty.
My foal seems to take everything in stride, what should I do then?
For the foal that is confident, these lessons look rather easy and perhaps unnecessary.
The challenge for the handler with the confident foal is that they can quickly dismiss us for guidance. After all, they can rely on themselves for all the confidence they need. This can lead to other issues that need to be worked through. They can get easily bored for example and rather than being compliant they can become headstrong and can give the impression of being stubborn. If not worked carefully they can start to think that they can be in control. Keep exposing them to new things, expect good behavior and have fun.
My foal is always very hesitant to do the exercises, what am I doing wrong?
Probably nothing. If you are consistent, calm, and forgiving keep at it.
Some foals can be very concerned about anything new, with them the lessons can take multiple attempts, each of them building on little victories and it can feel like it takes forever.
All foals will benefit from the effort and the time spent helping them learn how to solve problems, behave, and what to expect of us.
It is easy to neglect the confident foal and focus on the nervous one or perhaps it is the other way around: we rather work with the foal that gets it easily and we dread the theatrics of the nervous nelly that doesn’t seem to “get it”.
Both foals will benefit from regular challenges. However it is essential not to over-face the nervous one and to always end prior to any major issues arising, and if there a need to insist and use some force you must continue to do so from a calm and compassionate point of view. If the foal learns that when he gets scared and nervous the human becomes aggressive and harsh this does not bode well for building trust.
If you cannot ensure that you can handle this part serenely it is perhaps best to do nothing at all.
Some exercises that we have done over the years to challenge the foals and allowing them to learn that they can handle the pressure:
Walking over a tarp first laying flat on the ground and eventually bunched up and catching their feet as they walk.
Running leadlines around their legs and lifting them with it, walking with it dangling around their knees and hocks.
Stepping unto various surfaces and platforms: solid ones, moving ones, cement blocks, hollow-sounding ones etc…
Following us between trees and around buildings, into dark shaded areas, through man doors, into tack rooms and horse trailers.
Walking past flags, barking dogs, running tractors, and cars or trucks.
Breaking all of these activities into small baby steps helps the foal learn that he will not be asked to do anything he can’t handle. I find that once the foal has become scared or is in a flight or fight mode it is too late, I have failed it.
The challenge for me is to figure out the steps that will get me to acceptance not in the shortest amount of time but with the least amount of stress for that particular foal. When they are not stressed they can think and when they think they can find their resilience. I find that with that method, foals quickly become quite engaged and curious and looking forward to our sessions. When it occasionally goes south I have a good amount of trust and goodwill in the bank with them and that allows us to move forward the next time we tackle the challenge.
If they are scared of something I take the lead; I go in front, I stand quietly, I change my position to be between the foal and the object of their concern and I act confident and dismissive of the thing that worries them. They learn that if I don’t care much for it, perhaps they shouldn’t either.
A note on timing. I have found over the year that much more can get accomplished after weaning. Without the reliance on the dam for easy comfort and reassurance, the weaned foals naturally gravitate to the humans interacting with them regularly for support. It is important not to spoil that trust but I find that if all the steps laid out in this series are followed the weanling is generally very trusting and much can be accomplished.
If you want to can read the previous 4 parts in this series: