Practice Makes Perfect: Next steps for your young foal

Published on Mon, 06/16/2014 - 2:23pm

If you’ve been following my column over the last six months, you probably have a handle on how to begin introducing a young foal to new experiences. As the horse grows, it’s important not to let these lessons fall by the wayside. Even though he’s too young to begin learning to carry a saddle and rider, there are plenty of little things he can practice now that will make those stages of his training much easier later on. 


Know what you’re working with
In many ways it’s unfair to equate the way a horse thinks to the way humans do, but when it comes to young horses there are a few similarities worth noting. Just like children, their attention spans aren’t usually very long. Even with adult horses, I like to keep my sessions short when possible. I also prefer to end on a good note, i.e., reward a great reaction or “Ah-ha!” moment by rubbing their forehead, blowing on their nose, and ending the training session.

Patience is also key when you’re working on desensitization training. Remember that horses are “flight” or prey animals, so they’re instinctively programmed to flee from a situation they perceive as dangerous or ambiguous.

As prey animals, their senses are also wired a bit differently from ours: Horses’ eyes are on the sides of their head, which enables them to see almost 360 degrees around their body—a critical defense mechanism for an animal that spends most of its time with its head down, grazing. They do have blind spots directly in front and behind their heads though, and have limitations on seeing objects directly beneath or above their heads. 

Remember that even the most well-meaning horse can injure you if he feels he needs to escape something startling, so don’t put yourself in a position to be trampled or dragged. Some people prefer to tie or restrain horses so they can’t escape something frightening. In my experience, that only sets the horse up for injury. Introduce new objects or sensations slowly, and carefully observe the way the horse reacts.


The nose knows
Horses are sensitive to sudden or unusual sounds, and also have a heightened sense of smell. That sense of smell is what helps them detect the presence of a new object or animal, and it also helps them recognize each other. You might notice horses sniffing each other’s breath when they are first introduced, or reunited after being separated. This is a normal form of greeting for them, and is the reason I blow into their noses gently during early training. I’ve found that doing this helps them relax and recognize me as part of their herd. 


Build on what he’s learned
While it’s important to introduce your young horse to new experiences, don’t forget to keep reinforcing the training he’s already had. Although you might have taught him to lead politely and to stand for grooming when he was a few days old, he will test his boundaries as he ages, much like a human child. Keep your methods consistent and praise him for good behavior.


Make a racket
As you accustom the horse to standing for grooming, lifting his legs, tying, and loading onto the trailer, get creative with desensitization training. Whether you’re planning on eventually showing your horse, planning on hitting the trails, or starting out in race training, you never know what types of situations you might encounter. The idea behind simulating unusual sights and sounds is to make new experiences less frightening and to encourage him to look to you for guidance if he encounters something new. I always use my Buck-A-Long apparatus also, which helps me keep the horse moving in a forward direction, reducing the risk of injury.

After adjusting my horses to the sound and feeling of the clippers, I will get them used to the sight and sound of crinkly feed bags, plastic tarps, and even power tools from a safe distance. If we’re out at a show and a piece of trash comes flapping by or a piece of machinery starts up, this will ensure it’s not the first time they’ve seen something like it—familiarity not only keeps the horse calm, but also keeps us both safe.