I love 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 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.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 487, April 2018