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Handling a Weanling


Foals enter the world as blank slates. From birth to weaning, they rely on their dams and humans to teach them the ropes of being a well-mannered horse. That's why it's important to try and make every experience as positive as possible. These first interactions are key, as they will lay the groundwork for how the foal interacts with humans throughout its lifetime.

There is no one correct way to handle foals. Ask two different horsemen their thoughts and you will likely get two different theories on what is the best way. Use whatever methods work best for your circumstances and your level of foal handling expertise. Regardless of how you approach foal handling, the number one consideration should always be safety of foal, mare and human handlers.

Getting to Know Your Foal

Ideally your foal will be introduced to human interaction and touch from day one. This can be accomplished one of two ways, through imprint training or regular daily care. Dr. Robert Miller, the pioneer of imprinting, believes that the imprinting period gives us a singular opportunity to permanently mold a horse's personality as foals will never learn skills as fast as they do during imprinting. Start by rubbing and touching your foal from head to tail. You can also introduce items such as brushes, blankets and clippers at this time. Take care not to interfere with the attempts of mare and foal to interact during this important bonding period.

The jury's still out on whether or not imprinting has a lasting impression on foals. However one thing is certain, the earlier you handle a foal the more his fear of humans will reduce and the ease with which you can handle him in the future will increase. When teaching a foal new concepts remember to keep your sessions short and repeat the concept several times. Horses learn best with a consistent, repetitive approach when learning new skills.

Haltering

Haltering and leading are two skills a foal needs to learn during his first few months. Haltering can start as soon as the foal is born. In fact, many breeding farms outfit their foals with halters shortly after birth. When introducing it, let him sniff it and rub it on his body. Then slowly try to put it on his face, take care in easing his muzzle and ears into it. A slow and steady approach will not only show the filly or colt there is nothing to be scared of, it can help him get bored and fully accept the halter.

When choosing a newborn halter, select a leather one. This way should the unexpected happen and he gets caught in something the halter will easily break. As the foal rapidly grows he will probably go through several halters in his first few months. Ensure that each halter he wears fits properly. You should be able to fit one finger under the noseband and all other areas. If you have a safe area, let the foal wear the halter for extended periods of time while you keep an eye on him.

Leading

Once you have your foal in a halter it's time to start thinking about teaching her to lead. Your mare can be instrumental in helping your foal learn to lead as her instincts will tell her it's ok to follow her dam. You will gradually build up to using a halter and lead rope.

The first attempts will require a handler to hold the foal with one arm around her chest and the other around her rump. The handler will walk with the foal as she follows her dam. This concept can be introduced in the first several weeks.

When your foal is comfortable with her handler, introduce the halter and cotton lead rope. Put the end of the lead rope behind the foal's rump with the end at the foal's withers. The rope will help guide the foal to move forward on her own. Once the foal gets comfortable with this method, you can then try to lead "normally" with the lead rope attached to the halter.

Alternatively, you can try to teach your foal to lead in a small paddock while following mom.  As the foal will want to follow his mom he will likely move forward without hesitation. Therefore your job as a handler will be steering rather than forward movement. After a few sessions with mom, try leading the foal without mom's help.

Take Your Time

The skills you teach your foal in the first few months will build the foundation of his ground manners for the rest of his life. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to instilling proper behavior. Make every interaction a positive training experience. The time you spend working with your foal now will pay dividends in the years to come.

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