How do I halter train the new foal?
Foals start out well: feral. They are leggy bundles of instinct that know nothing of the cushy captivity they are born into. The instincts that have served them well for millions of years of evolution will be constantly clashing with the world they will live in and the demand that will be put on them for most of their lives. For that reason, it is important that we ease them into our world as sensibly and as compassionately as we can.
Just like young children and dogs, the first period of their lives is the most formatives. Brain plasticity allows for some learning that will be much more difficult later on.
The most basic thing that any horse needs to know is how to be lead around: halter training.
I will present here the step-by-step approach we have been using with foals for years.
I will let you know why we use those steps and when to move to the next one.
I will also point out some behavior to look for and how to react.
There are 5 steps to this approach
1- A healthy baby well bonded with the mare
2-The catch and release
3-Introduction to the halter
4-Walking in hand
5-Into the world.
Part 1- A healthy baby well bonded with the mare.
When the foal is born, if we are present, and we usually are, there will be some amount of handling that will occur. We might towel the foal a bit to stimulate it, we will certainly feed him some colostrum and we will treat his umbilical stump right away.
Then we let them be unless they require intervention or help.
We do not “imprint” our foals. It's a semi-controversial topic in the horse-breeding world and I have no intention to get into it here. I am not against it to be clear; I just don’t use that method.
Why is that?
Well to be honest there are three reasons.
1) At the birth of any of our foals, we are usually busy enough taking care of the basic health of the mare and the foal to have much time left over to do the suggested handling within the suggested time frame.
2) Over the years we never found that it made any difference in our foals. Perhaps because we handle our foals very regularly we always managed to get foals that were as accepting of handling as what the proponents of “imprinting” were saying was the ultimate result of spending time with the foals at birth.
3)In some cases over handling the foal can cause issues with the natural bonding of the mare and foal, something we do not want to mess with. No; it is not common, but it can happen especially with fractious or nervous mares, a difficult birth, or most importantly with maiden mares.
Ok, so what do we do at birth?
I will cover that in more detail in a post on foaling but suffice to say that we do the minimal amount of handling and that means: treating the umbilicus (the navel) as soon as we can, helping the foal or the mare if either of them needs assistance in reaching their respective milestone. The mare needs to recover, pass the placenta, and accept the foal. The foal needs to get up, seek, and find the source of milk and pass the meconium obstructing its bowels.
We try to get a veterinarian to come and assess the mare and foal the next day.
The vet will check the eyes, heart, lungs, and umbilicus, take some blood to assess the amount of antibodies the foal got from the colostrum in case he needs to be supplemented.
We will also sneak in a few times a day, corner the foal, and dip his umbilicus in disinfectant but we try to keep our intervention to a minimum. We prefer to let the mare and foal bond in the first 24 hours. We monitor and observe to make sure all is well but we generally let them be. The most often observed behavior is the mare having a long sleep and the foal sleeping, getting up to nurse and going back to sleep.
They both need to recover from the birth- what is the point of being born in a nice comfortable and safe setting if not to recover in peace?
In the wild, the mare would be seeking the safety of the herd as soon as the foal is able to walk and follow her.
Wait? What if the foal doesn't lie down?
Occasionally, we’ve had foals that simply did not know how to lie down. They stand and try to sleep weaving and stumbling but not truly resting.
They can’t truly sleep and yet they need too, sometime their immature circulatory system will make their lower legs stock up: they need to lie down.
So how do you get a young foal to lie down?
It is surprisingly easy.
Those long spindly legs are not very strong or well coordinated. You go in when the foal is sleepy and standing close to a soft landing spot-ideally deep straw. Then you simply grab the front and back leg on the opposite side of you and use your body to push them down. If they struggle once on the ground: try to hold their shoulder down and watch out for the kicking back legs.
If they struggle for more then a few seconds let it go and walk away and try again later.
But truthfully they usually fall instantly asleep grateful to finally have found a comfortable position the moment they are horizontal in the deep straw. We rarely have to do it more than twice and they rarely struggle. We tiptoe away and they usually have a nice long sleep.
Of course, if the foal needs treatment or attention of any kind then clearly we will handle them as needed. But otherwise, we wait a few days before we get to phase 2.
We generally leave them alone for two days or so with minimal handling. We certainly go in and care for the mare, clean the bedding, groom the mare, and fuss over her. The foal will see us come and go a few times a day.
A word about newborn’s eyesight: it’s not terribly good. Some foals will walk into gates and objects, not so much solid wall: they can see those and the flank of the mare is their safe spot. They will often come over and investigate us out of curiosity but they don't see us very well.
If they come over that is fine, if they don't that is fine too. We don't turn them out for a few days for that reason. Some mares are excellent mothers and will always keep the foal away from the fence or the gate or the walls instinctively but it is not always the case.
So at this point, we have ensured that the foal has a healthy start to life and we’ve let the instincts of the mare and foal play the leading role.
We have to introduce ourselves. In part 2, I will describe the next step of our progression: the catch and release phase.
Anecdotally: This year’s colt shows how different foals can be at birth.
The black colt would react as if he was getting an electric shock when we touched him: sharp quick response the moment he was out of his mother. Even his mother nuzzling him made him jerk away. He started to talk right way with a high pitch little whinny. The palomino colt was born almost completely passive, only the most vigorous of rubbing on his neck would give him a bit of a frisson, he was alert and responsive with a good suck reflex-just really chill and contemplative.
We read nothing really into this, how they are just raw and into this world is anecdotally interesting but doesn't seem to carry much into their later behavior.