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Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson


Foal training questions


I recently recieved these questions from a foal owner who was beginning to experience the common difficulties of training a young horse. Obviously every situation is different and environment,genetics,learning etc all play a part in the training solutions. This foal live with its mother, with other horses in the next paddock.

The foal whose name is Mary is coming on in leaps and bounds (quite literally). That is where the problem lies - when I go to walk away from her she bounds after me like Tigger! She seems to look on me as a play thing. Also, when scratching her she moves right in really close to me -sometimes so I have to move my feet or get them stood on. I have just started to push her away a little then rub her when she is standing a sufficient distance from me. As of today I have just got her leading with a rope round her neck. I started near her shoulder yesterday and after 5 mins she was going left and right. Then today I moved it up to where the headcollar would be and after a slight hesitation - with enough scratching to praise her she had that down too. She seems to learn very, very quickly.
Interestingly, when the mare was having her feet done, the mare had her foot up on a block for rasping. Betty came along several times and almost kicked the trimmer in the face whilst trying to give the trimmer her foot too (she has never shown this behaviour before or since - only whilst her mother's feet were being done too. Which leads me to my next question - how much do they learn from watching others being ridden/tacked up, etc?

She does bound after you because she wants to play just as she would another foal. Problem is if you turn to interact with her or give her attention then she discovers bounding after you works. Try to work with her to a point where she has had sufficient time with you then set back away from her. At first she will step into you for more attention. Try not to give her any as even your hand on her neck is considered attention. Be very boring until she walks off, then you can leave. If you “I’m finished signal” such as stepping back with crossed arms is establish she will learn no more play to be had from you. If necessary engineer yourself to be next to the electric fence as you finish the session so you can step away from her with out her following. There is no need to punish her behaviour, “conventional wisdom” will say you must punish her and let her know who is boss. The problem is she is trying to communicate her desire to be with you which is something you actually want. If you use punishment she is likely to begin the fear of unpredictable humans conditioning. Just find ways for her to learn that bounding after you does not work while quiet behaviour does get attention. If you need to stay safe change your body language to a harsher square type that is less inviting. Remember all her behaviour is natural and she is learning to be a domesticated horse.
She moves close to you to get more scratches, even your hand to push her away is close to a scratch as far as she is concerned.  Avoid her feet and wait for her to find a safe distance from you before scratching rather than trying to position her. Allow her to solve the problem of how to get scratches through polite correct behaviour. After all when she is fully grown do you want to have to push her away to get her in the right place. Obviously stay safe and because behaviour has to get bigger before it changes you may need to walk away or change your body language to a harsher square type that is less inviting, to encourage her to step away.

Scientifically there is no evidence to suggest that equines can learn through observation alone. It would be nice if they could. There are however many stories such as this which indicate there may be more going on than we realise. However, given that she almost kicked the farrier in the face, which I presume her mother had not done I think it more likely that with the situation of the farrier spending time around the feet of the mother betty was exploring her environment and possibility seeking attention. When the farrier did the mares back feet did Betty stand and lift her hind legs?


Guess what ... Another question.

The cute little filly - I am sure you saw this one coming - has now learnt to lead. You will like the way I taught her - one day I had a lead rope with me and thought I would put it around her neck. But I put it low down as I knew she had an issue with higher up. Within 5 mins, a lot of scratching and some gentle asks she was moving beautifully away from pressure with the rope round her neck by her shoulders. So next day I put it where the head collar would go - higher up. Again, within 5 mins she had that down perfectly. So today I put the headcollar on her and she understood that one too. Now the downside. She seems to be a little prone to rearing. She did not seem stressed. It seems more playful. Although if I have put a little too much pressure she will rear then too. But she will rear near me when I am walking away from her - like I am a play mate. So my question (finally) - how do I deal with that?

Equines are naturally into pressure creatures and this is demonstrated best when teach the foal to lead. It feels the pressure on its poll and rears pulls its head back into this pressure (various theories exist to explain why this might happen.) if the pressure is released as the foal pulls back it learns pulling back works, if it doesn’t work it innately pull back harder, this develops in to the rear. It is most likely that she is rearing in response to being restricted in her movements of her head. This is part of the process of domestication that every successfully domesticated horse has gone through for the last 6000 years. To avoid this young foals should be trained using a figure eight rope to help ensure safety and guidance. In your case Mary is already to big so very small steps must be taken to avoid an escalation for the rearing.

You must first begin to gently control her head, small movements to position her head where you want it, left right up and down. Down in important to teach with the hands because she can learn to come off pressure from your hand on her poll. Then use two hands to move and control her head. For this to work she must trust you and wan to be with you, if she doesn’t then you need to work on this first. Use plenty of scratches for good work. Using a rope next as you did around her next is fine in a safe area but practise for several days before moving it up her neck try to get her to understand being with you gets scratches. Once comfortable with this move the rope up the neck and repeat. From there have her wear the head collar but repeat leading with the line on the neck. Then at the end of each session use just your fingers on her head collar to move only her head. The begin to lead her with just you fingers on the head collar and the neck rope with no pressure on it. From here move on to rope on the head collar and leading from there,

If she pulls back don’t fight with her if she escapes from you during fight she will learn her own strength. I always use a double length on line, slipped through the head collor ring but not clipped on, if the environment is safe so, that the foal can be released before it rears or fights the line. Again “conventional wisdom “ will tell you not to let go or the foal will win. But provided that should the foal be let go that you just walk up and continue to work it has actually learn that running away is unsuccessful at removing the two legs from the picture. This presumes that you credit horses with the ability to learn, which I know you do. Those who tell you different aren’t thinking with the horses’ brain.
She may not have to be “stressed” to rear it is due to her breeding a genetic predisposition of the Spanish breeds to be spirited especially when young. Try to prove her with as much mental stimulation as possible while she is in the field.

If you get stuck at any point take a couple of steps back down the shaping plan and build back up again.

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