A foal’s first lessons

Even the ear­li­est train­ing ses­sions can set a young­ster on the path to be­com­ing the sen­si­tive, will­ing horse you want him to be one day.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Jonathan Field Pho­tos by Angie Field

Even the ear­li­est train­ing ses­sions can set a young­ster on the path to be­com­ing the sen­si­tive, will­ing horse you want him to be one day.

Ilove han­dling foals. Each time I do, I feel like I’m touch­ing the fu­ture. I think about what a young­ster will be like to ride one day and how he’ll re­late to peo­ple. And I put a lot of thought into every in­ter­ac­tion be­cause I know that how a foal or wean­ling is han­dled early can have a last­ing ef­fect on what kind of horse he be­comes.

When my stu­dents han­dle foals and wean­lings, I al­ways re­mind them that horses are a pre­co­cial species, which means that they are rel­a­tively ma­ture and au­ton­o­mous at birth. Within a few hours of com­ing into the world, foals are up and mov­ing, sort­ing out quickly where to nurse and how to in­ter­act with the herd. Why is that im­por­tant? Be­cause it means that they are

Even when a foal is lit­tle and cute, I en­cour­age peo­ple to in­ter­act with him in a way that would be ap­pro­pri­ate when he is grown and weighs 1,1PP pounds N

neu­ro­log­i­cally ca­pa­ble of learn­ing.

Which ex­plains one of the two big mis­takes that I of­ten see peo­ple make when work­ing with young horses. They as­sume foals are sim­i­lar to hu­man ba­bies and treat them ac­cord­ingly, which un­der­es­ti­mates a young horse’s ca­pac­ity. Un­like hu­man ba­bies, who can’t do much for them­selves, equine ba­bies are ready to ab­sorb informatio­n.

The se­cond com­mon foal-han­dling mis­take is al­low­ing young­sters to act pushy or en­croach on space be­cause they are so small it doesn’t seem to mat­ter. Re­mem­ber, that baby will soon be much big­ger and more pow­er­ful.

Al­low­ing one kind of be­hav­ior when a horse is young and pro­hibit­ing it later when he ma­tures cre­ates con­fu­sion and con­flict---and may lead to se­ri­ous train­ing is­sues. A horse will un­der­stand­ably think, “All this time this be­hav­ior was OK and now it’s not?” It’s far bet­ter to set bound­aries from the start. So even when a foal is lit­tle and cute, I en­cour­age peo­ple to in­ter­act with him in a way that would be ap­pro­pri­ate when he is grown and weighs 1,100 pounds.

This doesn’t mean, how­ever, us­ing tech­niques that take ad­van­tage of a foal’s small size. Re­ly­ing on phys­i­cal force with a young­ster in­stead of pa­tiently teach­ing him what is re­quired sets some dan­ger­ous precedents. For starters, these tac­tics soon be­come in­ef­fec­tive as the young­ster grows larger and stronger. Worse, us­ing too much force can take away a young horse’s nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity and sen­si­tiv­ity, mak­ing him dull and hard to mo­ti­vate when in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple.

If you keep all of this in mind when you start a young­ster, you can avoid in­ad­ver­tently creat­ing prob­lems that will have to be dealt with later on. Ed­u­ca­tion and feel are the key. And, above all, as you han­dle a foal or wean­ling, try to imag­ine the dream horse you’d like him to be­come one day.

About the au­thor: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clin­i­cian from Ab­bots­ford, Bri­tish Columbia. His pro­gram, Jonathan Field Horse­man­shipZ In­spired by Horses, teaches the skills nec­es­sary to build a re­la­tion­ship with horses. Field grew up rid­ing both English and Western and worked as a cow­boy on one of the largest cat­tle ranches in Canada. Field reg­u­larly does pre­sen­ta­tions at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia.

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I stand at a slight an­gle hold­ing the lead with­out pulling. The colt is step­ping to­ward me on his own while keep­ing slack in the rope. Grad­u­ally, he takes more steps in my di­rec­tion.

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