HORSES, HOWE & WHY
Article #5: The Right Start Weanling Handling
by Wil & Beverly Howe
Equestrian Connection, 1988
The first encounter with a newborn foal is always exciting for anyone, but the introduction of human contact to this incredible creature is a very critical time; this is where some basic guidelines to follow are very helpful in getting the young horse off on the right start.
From now on this little horse will be interacting with humans for the rest of his life; that is why it is so important that we as the handlers, taking on the leadership role, do a good job of preparing this young horse for his start in our world. The earlier we start this process the easier it is for the foal to accept the pressures of being restricted, restrictions that will be expected of him every day of his life, being haltered, tied, led, etc.
As we work with our babies, remember you are the handler. Keep in mind the idea that these little fellers may be cute and small now, but every day they are growing up, and even as full-grown horses they will always be a child mentally. Horses need direction, and that is our job as their handler. Be kind and patient, but be sure you get the message across that you are the adult teacher.
Here are some steps to follow when introducing your foal to the restrictions of human contact and handling:
Gentle down - As soon as possible, make your presence known to the newborn foal. Touch, hold, and move your baby with your hands. When holding to prevent the foal from running away, put an arm under its neck and the other below the tail, giving him a comfort zone by letting up the pressure as the foal relaxes. Show the foal that it is safe to just stand there on its own, rather than being pulled or held. Make it comfortable for the foal to be with you.
Halter - At one to two weeks of age, put a halter on the foal. Be sure it fits and stays adjusted properly as the foal grows. Now that a halter is on the foal, do not grab for the halter when catching him; instead, try to get next to the foal, taking the time to pet, scratch, and comfort him first, then slowly snap the leadrope to the halter.
Leading - At one to two weeks of age, start leading with the mother present to help guide the foal. Gradually separate the foal from the mother. Remember to pull to the left or to the right to untrack the reluctant foal. Do not pull straight on, as this will invariably cause him to plant all four feet and resist even more. By pulling to the left or right side in a strong give and take manner, we can gently pull the foal off balance, causing him to step forward or sideways. Remember to instantly release the pressure when the foal comes forward, repeating it several times. In some cases an extra leadrope or lariat around the foal behind just below the tail, tugged lightly in sequence with the halter, will give the foal the added boost needed to come forward.
Tieing - At one month of age, with the mother present, you can tie your foal. Use a good halter, properly adjusted, tying it high above the level of the foal's head to something solid that the baby cannot get tangled up in. A solid wall, if possible, works best. Do not panic if the little rascal throws a tantrum or falls down, just make sure he can get up; foals are tough and bounce back quickly. Let them stand tied for 10 minutes, then 15, then a half hour, and so on, increasing each day until the foal learns to stand comfortably relaxed on a loose lead rope.
Sacking Out - expose your foal. While tied, brush (use a soft brush), rub, and scratch the foal all over his/her body. Calmly hold your cool as the youngster squirms, keep it up until he relaxes; a deep sigh is a good sign. Then use rags or a soft light weight blanket and very gently flop it all over the foal’s body. Introduce fly spray on their legs first, then shoulder, neck, back, and behind. Remember, this is to be a pleasant experience; do not scare the foal by making course abrupt actions.
Hobbling - after a month of age you may also hobble the foal. In a safe area with soft ground, have your foal haltered and put the hobbles on. Do not let the foal travel, and always step to the side. Do so until the baby stands still. Pull the leadrope occasionally off the side to remind the foal he cannot move. When the foal gives in, pet him. Once they are conditioned to the hobbles, you can hobble them when they are tied; this will keep them from pawing and being restless. By hobbling a horse at such an early age, they will be less likely to hurt themselves and will learn submissive behavior more easily.
Picking Up Feet - as soon as the foal is gentled down and used to being handled, tied, and groomed, start picking up its feet. After they are hobble broke, you can more easily pick up their feet. Do this occasionally to keep it fresh in the foal's mind. It also makes it easier on the horse shoer later.
When weaning time comes, the process of separating the foal and dam anywhere from three to six months of age, you the handler take the place of the mother, continuing to educate the foal so it can adapt to our ways. Remember to control your pampering and affection towards the foal so as not to create a spoiled and demanding young horse. The rules for good ground manners start here!