Foals are full of promise. Our job as their guardians is to see that this potential is realized in a way that’s most beneficial to the foal. Nature has given us a wide window—from birth through weaning to their first birthday—in which to best influence our foals. During this time, young horses are most curious, least fearful and most open to the formation of new relationships and new activities. Guardians should take advantage of this window and teach their foals to accept handling and husbandry behavior. Foals should be taught:
- To wear a halter
- To lead
- To accept the feel of a blanket
- To accept brushing, as well as general body and hoof handling
With a foundation of basic training, you can expand your foal’s education by including such things as standing tied, accepting the presence of common things like paper bags, plastic tarps, clippers and fly sprays, loading into a trailer, and walking over unusual surfaces. After you’ve accomplished foundation training, please see our other equine training articles for help teaching your young horse these skills.
As they mature, foals go through a number of developmental phases. For instance, the foal experiences her greatest development of sensory perception—sight, scent, hearing, feel and taste—during the first two weeks of her life. She’ll begin to graze sporadically sometime during her second week, and just prior to grazing she’ll exhibit “play grazing”, where she’ll act as if she’s chewing or drinking but won’t actually ingest anything. She’ll begin to stray further away from her dam by her second month and, if given the opportunity, she’ll wean herself between one and two years of age. However, it’s very important to realize that these stages don’t dictate specific, absolute or limited opportunities to learn. Learning in foals is progressive. Experiences overlap and progressively produce lasting change.
A popular approach to starting foals is a procedure termed “imprinting.” Imprinting involves being present at a foal’s birth and gently but insistently restraining and handling her, introducing her to husbandry practices, like hoof and mouth handling, and exposing her to potentially frightening things, like bags and blankets. The procedure is called imprinting, which suggests that this early handling will have a profound and lasting effect on a foal. However, studies show that no one interaction during any one specific time in a foal’s life—even immediately after she’s born—will have a lasting effect on her behavior. The imprinting that does occur during the immediate post-partum period is maternal imprinting, during which the mare bonds with her foal through the processing of scent and chemical information. Keeping the foal from the mare, particularly if the dam is a new or nervous mom, might interrupt this essential bonding process. Therefore, handling immediately after birth should never interfere with attempts by the mare or foal to interact with each other.
Even though the practice of imprinting doesn’t have a lasting effect on a foal’s behavior, there is clear evidence that early handling of foals can reduce fearfulness and increase the ease with which they can be handled later in life. The trick is to provide the right amount of handling at the right times to best benefit your foal throughout her lifetime with people.
Studies indicate that there are two things to keep in mind when working with foals to maximize trainability and handling ease as the babies mature:
- First, a mare’s attitude toward people, strange objects and situations will strongly influence her foal’s behavior. A foal’s reactions and overall behavior when interacting with people can be favorably influenced simply by the mare modeling calm and willing acceptance of people. Guardians should focus on minimizing stress and enhancing calm interactions with the dam in the presence of her new baby.
- Second, multiple sessions are most beneficial in producing lasting benefits. Foals should be treated and trained like the young learners they are. Guardians should use simplicity, repetition, gentleness and common sense. Handle your foal daily, if possible, but work on teaching new behaviors no more than every second or third day.
Success in working with foals hinges on adhering to three sets of fundamental rules. The first set applies to learning, the second set applies to working with horses, and the third set applies to working specifically with foals.
- Horses learn through reinforcement Reinforcement is the fundamental tool of all training, no matter the age of your horse or the goal of your training. There are two basic ways to reinforce your foal’s behavior. One is to scratch her gently at the base of her tail or on her withers the instant she does what you want (positive reinforcement), and the other is to allow her to get closer to her dam, to stop halter pressure or remove a blanket or some other object your foal tolerates but doesn’t really like (negative reinforcement).
- Reinforcement requires good timing Reinforcement is very precise. Whatever your horse is doing when you give her a scratch or stop pressure is the thing that she’ll learn to do.
- Reinforcing behavior takes persistence You have to wait for the right behavior and simply wait out or work through behavior you don’t want.
- Start small Whether you’re using positive or negative reinforcement when introducing new things to your foal, reinforce the first behavior that brings your foal closer to the complete behavior. For instance, if you’re teaching your baby to let you halter her, don’t require that she allow you to get the entire halter on. If you do, the experience will end up being a struggle between the two of you, which is never good. Instead, begin by just asking that your foal let the halter touch her, and then move on from there. By taking very small steps and reinforcing each step as if it were the ultimate goal, your foal will avoid reacting out of fear and instead think that learning things with you is fun. Soon she’ll be performing the goal behavior with enthusiasm.
- Build on success When you’re teaching your baby something new, always begin by asking her to do something she knows and will do willingly.
Working with Horses
- Safety first! One of the advantages of working with foals is that they’re relatively small and easy to handle. However, foals can be quite athletic and surprisingly strong. And, of course, working with foals means working with mares. Always keep in mind that your safety is your most important priority, and the safety of your foal and mare your second priority. Whenever possible, stay where your mare can see you. Never stand directly in front of her, and never kneel or sit on the floor around her if she’s loose. If she’s nervous about you being with her foal, work with her to relieve her tension, or put her behind a barrier that still allows her to see you and her baby.
- Take it slow Move slowly and maintain a calm and patient demeanor. Work slowly and don’t try to teach your baby everything all at once. If you wish to teach her a new skill, teach her the new approach in a series of steps that are simple enough for her to master successfully. Move on to the next step only when she’s happily and successfully doing the first.
- Talk to your foal as you work with her Speak softly and with a low tone of voice. Avoid using a high-pitched tone—a calm voice creates a calm horse.
- Be patient Training a horse takes persistence and, most of all, patience. Never attempt to force your foal to do something. You’ll always be most successful if you break the task down into very small steps and help your foal learn each step well before moving on to the next.
- Have a goal and know the path to that goal Working with foals—or with any horse—always goes best when there’s a goal to the training. Always know what it is you wish to accomplish, and know what your foal must do to move toward that goal.
Working with Foals
- Get buy-in from mom Although training your foal may be your goal, you must start the training with your mare. If she’s nervous or defensive, you should work with her before beginning work with her foal. (Please see our articles, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling and Training Your Horse, for tips on how to help your mare accept the handling of her baby.) Your mare’s attitude is important for two reasons:
- A defensive and protective mare is dangerous.
- Studies show that a mare’s attitude shapes her foal’s attitude. Simple, gentle handling and hand-feeding a mare in the presence of her foal for the first five days post-partum has been shown to greatly enhance the trainability of foals for at least a year. These results were more consistent and enduring than results gained through foal imprinting procedures.
- Work with your foal in a safe, relatively small and enclosed area Much training can be accomplished in the presence of the mare in the stall. When working with your foal with her dam present, the mare should be held by an assistant. Some mares will accept tying, but tying a mare often increases her distress and leads to disruptive behavior. It’s far better to have an experienced horse person hold the mare while you work with your foal.
- Secure your mare, even when she’s not in the enclosure with you and the foal When you’re ready to begin teaching your foal to lead, unless your mare is very accepting of your attentions toward her baby, you should keep her secured adjacent to your handling enclosure in a way that allows her to see her foal. Again, if possible, use two handlers: one person to handle the mare and the other to handle the foal. Do the following to facilitate separation:
1. Begin with both foal and mare in the enclosure.
2. When they’re both calm, lead the mare out and close the gate before the foal follows.
3. If the mare gets upset at being led away, or if the foal gets upset at being left, bring the mare back into the enclosure until both calm down again. Avoid distressing the mare. Keep in mind that the more often she’s led away but then brought back in, the better she’ll accept being led away.
- Keep your sessions brief—no longer than 5 to 10 minutes Your first few lessons may focus on simply familiarizing your foal with your presence, petting and grooming the mare, or with her being led away. Other lessons will teach your foal to accept a halter, leading and exposure to potentially frightening things. All lessons should be carried out in short, simple steps.
- Keep in mind that, at first, your touch will be scary to your foal Use the removal of your touch to reward your foal’s acceptance of your touch. For instance, when you’re handling your foal, keep your hand on her until she stops attempting to avoid your touch. As soon as she stops reacting, move your hand off of her. Avoid wrestling matches by gradually increasing the restraining nature of your touch—but, at the same time, never release your foal while she’s struggling. If you do, you’ll teach her that struggling works.
- Touch in the right places can be pleasurable Once your foal accepts your presence, you can take advantage of the fact that foals will react well to touch in some areas, while avoiding touch in other spots. Most foals like to be scratched lightly at the top of the base of their tails and on their withers. Touching other areas often results in shaking, dancing, kicking or other avoidance behaviors. Introduce touch in these areas by working from the good spots toward the not-so-good spots. Keep your hand flat. If your foal reacts, try to keep your touch lightly on the foal. When she stops moving, immediately remove your hand. This will teach her that moving away doesn’t work to stop people from touching her, but standing still does.
- Keep your temper Ideally, you won’t push your foal to the degree that she’ll react poorly toward you, but sometimes foals react unpredictably to new experiences. It’s your job to keep your temper, even if your foal bucks or kicks out at you.
- Never pull against your foal Work with her rather than against her. If she balks while you’re leading her, don’t give in to the temptation to pull against her with the lead. Instead, send her forward by raising your hand or the end of the lead toward her hip. Teach her that balks end with forward movement rather than opportunities to dance.
The First Step
Work with your mare before the birth of her foal. Teach her all the exercises that comprise leading well. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Lead, to learn how to teach these skills.) Continue to interact with her on a regular basis to keep her skills fresh. A mare’s behavior and attitude before she foals doesn’t necessarily predict what her behavior will be like when she has a new baby standing at her side. However, well-learned responses to touch and pressure cues in general will be of great benefit should your mare become anxious and overprotective of her baby. Remember that your mare’s attitude is the most important factor in shaping the newborn foal’s attitude toward her human guardian.
If your mare is agreeable and you don’t interfere with any interactions between mare and foal—particularly nursing or nuzzling—your first interaction with your foal might occur immediately after birth. It‘s important that your mare remain in the stall with her baby. It’s best to have someone familiar and adept at handling horses hold her while you work with the foal. Follow these two guidelines if you wish to interact with your new foal immediately following her birth:
- Wash your hands before you enter the stall.
- After the mare has passed the placenta, the stall will be dirtied with birthing litter. Talk softly and encouragingly to your mare as you calmly and quietly clean out the stall. Have a friend hold mom if the fork disturbs her. If she resents your presence, other than dressing the foal’s umbilical stump, wait to interact with the foal until 24 or 48 hours later.
If the mare accepts your presence, follow these general guidelines while you interact with the new baby:
- After your mare has delivered, she’ll likely rest. If she doesn’t object, take this opportunity to interact with the foal. Towel off the baby with clean, soft, dry towels. Touch the foal in as many places on her body as the mare will allow. Use your hands to touch sensitive areas, like her muzzle, nostrils, hooves and tail. Put the halter on and take it off a few times.
- Use the word “Yes,” to mark desired behavior. As you towel or touch your foal, she may resist you. Keep your touch on her until she stops her resistance, even if it’s just for a moment while she rests her new muscles. The instant she pauses, say “Yes,” and release her. This will teach her that your voice precedes good things and brings comfort.
- Use as little restraint on your foal as possible. However, if she reacts by trying to pull away, keep your hands on her until she stops struggling. If necessary, increase your restraint to keep her from getting away, but try not to hold her too tightly. Say “Yes,” and release your foal the instant she relaxes, even for just a moment. Like adult horse training, baby training is about teaching the horse in a way that develops trust, understanding and compliance. It isn’t about physical domination.
- Never continue to restrain a foal who’s accepting your touch, standing still or otherwise being compliant.
- Don’t interrupt interactions between the mare and her foal, especially nursing or nuzzling.
- If the mare reacts poorly, stop interacting with your foal. If you’re in the middle of handling the foal, work only until the baby relaxes momentarily, say “Yes,” and then release her. Immediately go calm your mare.
- Never use force or discipline against a nervous or interfering mare. At most, ask her to drop her head (please see Teaching Your Horse to Lead to teach your mare this skill), but rely mainly on soothing, stroking and a calming voice. Once your mare is calm, leave the stall.
Second and Third Interactions
Use second and third interactions as opportunities to introduce your foal to essential skills, such as acceptance of a lead and lead pressure. Incorporate the following tactics to help you minimize the stress of compliance and maximize the learning benefits for your foal:
- Have an experienced friend who’s familiar and accepted by your mare hold her for you.
- When teaching your foal to accept and give to the pressure of a lead, begin by allowing the foal to investigate the lead. If your mare will accept it calmly, hold the line against her side and encourage the foal to notice it. Alternatively, sit or stand and hold the rope out to the baby. Next, gently run the rope against the foal’s body.
- Use decreased distance to the mare or sight of the mare as a reward:
To introduce lead pressure, attach the lead to the chin ring of the baby’s halter, and gently turn her head slightly away from her mom. Support her body if she starts to struggle to minimize the tension on her neck. The moment she gives to the pressure, even slightly, say “Yes,” and instantly release the pressure so she can turn back to her mom.
- As you teach your foal to walk on a lead, work slowly, accepting small steps as big achievements. Move her parallel to her dam’s body, walking from the mare’s head toward her hindquarters so that the foal is moving away from the sight of her mom’s head. Begin by rewarding just a single step away from the dam. Put light pressure forward on the lead, and gently touch the foal’s hip with your other hand. When she moves forward, even a tiny bit, say “Yes,” release the pressure and allow the foal to turn back and join her mom.
- Use treats as rewards as your foal matures. (Please see our articles, Teaching Your Horse to Lead, Training Your Horse and Teaching Your Horse to Target, for more information about using treats in training.)
Subsequent interactions should expand your foal’s familiarity with you and teach her the fundamentals of husbandry behaviors, such as leading. Follow the steps outlined in our article, Teaching Your Horse to Lead, to teach your foal complex skills, being careful to adapt them for use with foals by following the guidelines listed above.
Many studies indicate that the timing of the initial interaction with a foal isn’t as important as continuing to work with the foal. No amount of post-natal handling has been found to negate the necessity of periodic handling of a growing foal. It appears that the dam’s attitude toward people in the presence of her foal during her post-natal period has a greater impact on the foal’s attitude toward people than the mare’s attitude toward her handlers when the foal is six months of age. But this may not be the case in regards to the foal’s own experiences with people. In fact, some studies indicate that handling a foal post-weaning is actually more influential on her trainability and tractability with people than early handling experiences are.
Foals need routine, consistent interaction with sensible handlers to grow up to become well-behaved, relatively fear-free young horses. Their educations should be progressively expanded in-hand to include things like accepting all grooming and tacking procedures, tying, trailering, standing quietly for the opening of gates and doors, leading through tight places, coming when called, accepting the sights and sounds of dogs and motor vehicles, and remaining calm when separated from pasture-mates or barn buddies. Consistent, calm and fair training as your foal develops is the best way to maximize her potential as a mature equine companion.