by Cynthia Cooper (Photos by Suz Haywood).
You know, I was thinking just recently that bringing up a young horse has delights and pleasures not experienced with older horses.
Our role as their human ‘leader’ is such an important one. To be entrusted with shaping the life of a young horse has responsibilities similar to that of raising your own children.
You can feel proud of your horse’s achievements, knowing you helped make them what they become. And as our level of knowledge increases, we can take pride in helping our youngsters become calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic horses, faster than ever before.
I’ve raised foals since I was 10 years old but only now, can I appreciate just how sensitive we can be to their needs and in their training.
Just for fun, I thought it would be nice to share the experiences I have with Zach, my Quarab gelding who is now a treasured family member.
Zach who has the best attributes of all three genetic pools. His Quarterhorse genes give him the strength and gentle nature, the Thoroughbred has given him length of leg and the Arab, his good looks and flashy movement.
He was born on October the 24th, delivered into human arms as his front leg was back and had to be straightened before he could make his grand entrance to the world.
Those legs were so long he looked like a big spider to start with. He wasn’t ‘foal imprinted’ as such (he was born on a stud farm as Suz and I were away) but he got plenty of friendly game and gentle yielding with the porcupine game in the first few days.
At the age of 2 weeks, he had to be moved from the stud so he received a crash course in leading and loading onto a float.
By using a savvy string around his girth, the leading was achieved without too much trauma.
Ideally, we would have had him and mum in a small yard to allow him to drift without escaping, however we had to make do with the situation.
The pressure he encountered from the string around his girth was released as soon as he looked in my direction or stopped trying to move away.
It didn’t take him long to figure out how to get me to release pressure.
From there it was just a matter of time to convince him to take a step or two then more and more.
By moving his mum away a few feet (she was kept in a position where she could always see him), it encouraged him to try some forward steps after responding to a step to the left or right.
Pretty soon he was able to follow the feel of the string forward, then backwards with an extra string around his chest, so I could walk beside him to the float and maintain control.
By using my hip against his side, I could move his hindquarters a bit if he tried to go too fast or needed to change direction.
He made the walk to the float (about 150m) quite calmly and was then allowed to smell and look at the float.
All was OK until mum stepped on the tailboard and it made a big noise.
We loaded her slowly, pausing halfway in to encourage Zach to stay close and follow her.
After a few tries he got used to the sound of hooves on the ramp and walked in beside his mum. We’d removed the centre divider so he could lean close against her.
As he hadn’t been taught to tie and I didn’t want to risk him getting scared and jumping out over the tailgate, I rode in with him.
He was a little jumpy to start with so I was able to reassure and him, helping him to cope with the stopping and starting, traffic coming up behind us and balancing for the corners. He handled the 20 minute trip quite well and once unloaded, was led to his new paddock, allowed to drink then released when he was quiet and relaxed.
For the next month he was given lots of friendly attention and the occasional short session with the string to reinforce his first leading lesson.
Then a halter was introduced and I added another string to the one around his girth, and ran it up through the halter.
He would gradually become accustomed to some pressure on it, but by having the string around his girth I had a way of keeping strong pressure off his poll which is where foals have the most opposition reflex.
In the past, I’ve experienced foals flipping over or fighting the pressure terribly because it is such a strong instinct. Its so much easier to hold them with the girth string (it comes out between their front legs) and it has the added benefit of teaching them to handle the pressure of the girth for riding later.
At the age of 6 weeks, Zach had his second experience travelling on the float as Grady was being returned to my stallion, Mandala Royale for service again.
This time the trip was an hour long which was tiring but he coped quite well.
It’s a blessing to have a mare who handles the float with ease, relaxed and munching on hay all the way.
They were put in a paddock adjoining the stallion so they could become acquainted with him and the other mare he ran with.
In a few days Grady was in season so with Roy (the stallion) tied up, we introduced Grady and Zach into the paddock to meet Pepsi, another Quartehorse mare.
She turned out to be very keen on having Zach to herself but Grady is a good mum and kept herself between Zach and Pepsi, until she could trust her more. After a few days, the foal was spending more time with Pepsi and Roy than his own mum – she was just the milkbar!
Once the mares had figured out their pecking order, Roy was released to meet his new herd members.
As a mature stallion he knows the rules and after the initial charge towards them with keen greetings he kept a polite distance.
Unfortunately, Pepsi became so possessive over Grady and the foal, she had to be caught and tied out of the way to allow Roy to mate with Grady. Zach was a little unsure about things to start with but soon learned to stay out in front of mum when dad was having his fun!
There’s nothing better than to see a family of horses, doing what comes naturally.
Zach really enjoyed playing with Roy who was eternally patient and very gentle with his discipline.
And in the process Zach learns about pecking order and most importantly, how to be a horse.
Foals grow up quickly and that’s exactly what Zach is doing.
He’s going to be quite tall, probably 15.2-3hh and he has a lively, bold nature.
It’s so important in these early months, to continue the education we started so our young horses are able to cope with many situations we humans will expose them to in the future.
Apart from playing with him at liberty every day, mostly being friendly and moving him back when he pushes into my space, I’ve also had to use a bit of rhythmic motion to convince him I’m not a plaything.
Most colt foals like to play rough and while his dad calmly puts up with nipping, rearing and chasing, its not acceptable to do this to humans.
One thing I need to watch for is when I walk away – he is likely to chase after me to play so I always carry my ‘savvy string’ and swing that around my shoulders which is enough motion to show him the boundaries of my personal space.
The same with feeding time, by swinging a string or stick around as you approach with the feed, you are reinforcing your ‘alpha’ horse status by not allowing them to push into your space and grab the feed until you place it down and invite them in or step away.
Preparing him for hoof care with regular handling of his hooves. Don’t leave this for the farrier – it is your responsibility to have your horse trained before he gets there to do the job.
The next steps in Zach’s education were to teach him about hoof trimming and being wormed.
As he has very long legs which he spreads wide to reach the grass, he was wearing down his front hooves unevenly, requiring a small amount of rasping to keep them straight while his legs are developing.
With one person holding/distracting him with lots of rubbing, the transition from lifting up each hoof for a short period which he was already coping with, to holding firmly for a period of time to rasp was smooth.
Taken in small steps and ensuring that I released the leg only when he was relaxed, enabled me to gradually increase the length of time he would hold each leg up.
Then a little rasping followed by a release, soon had him de-sensitised to that sound and feeling so the whole job was accomplished in around 30 minutes.
To prepare him for worming, I spent some time each day playing with my fingers in and around his mouth until he was relaxed and confident with this. I did this at liberty so the temptation to hold him against his will was removed, and I had to use plenty of approach and retreat.
Then I used a syringe containing water to de-sensitise him to the feeling of that around and in his mouth, followed by releasing some water which he didn’t seem to mind.
The next step was changing the water to apple sauce which he didn’t seem to mind either.
Once he was comfortable with this, using the real wormer was no hassle- it just tasted a bit like a bad apple so I followed it up with some apple sauce again.
At the age of 10 weeks Zach was gelded as he had both testicles down and it would be much easier on him at this age. By gelding him with just a sedative and a local anaesthetic, he was able to remain standing and recover quickly.
Whenever your foal meets someone new, he will be a little cautious, even quite scared, so get them to be friendly with him before trying to proceed.
He was also given his first tetanus injection.
Gelding colts while they’re still on their dams, reduces the likelihood of swelling and infection as the foal is moving around, getting up and down etc. all of which helps keep the wounds open and draining.
All I needed to do the following day was run my fingers along the wounds to clear any blood clots and keep a check on the swelling which was gone completely with a few days.
Tying and Travelling.
Zach has travelled on the horse float twice and in preparation for his third trip, we taught him to tie up.
He accepted this without any fuss which I’m sure was due to all the preparation he had.
This included regular leading sessions and learning to follow the feel forward with steady pressure.
I made sure to test that he could cope with the pressure of the halter on his head by putting him under gradually increasing amounts of pressure while leading him from in front.
He reached the stage where I could get him to trot behind me by following a feel on the ropre, without any resistance.
The next step involved being in a yard where there was a smooth round rail I could loop the rope over a couple of times.
He was positioned alongside his mum but not so close he would get tangled in her rope.
This way, if he pulled on the rope, it would slip a little so he got some gradual pressure rather than a sharp sudden jerk which could instigate the fearful reaction we so often see when a horse pulls back.
I asked him to back up so he could feel some pressure and his willingness to step forward when he felt that told me he was ready to leave there for a short time.
Its important when first teaching a horse to tie, to make the sessions short and release them when they are standing quietly, not when they get agitated.
Also, by having Zach tied in a small yard, if he did pull away, he would not be able to get far or scare himself by dragging the rope while in a reactive frame of mind.
After a couple of short sessions with the rope wrapped around the rail, he was ready to tie to an inner tube which has some give but is more of a solid feel.
To test that he was OK with this, I stimulated him a little by causing him to move left and right with the flag on the stick, being careful to only stop the stimulation when he came forward to release the pressure on the rope.
If we stop the flag moving while he is putting pressure on the rope, it teaches him that pulling back is the best way to get rid of the scary flag!
Well, in true form, he coped so well that I felt confident he was ready to be tied in the horse float.
The added bonus of tying him in a confined area is that he’s unlikely to be able to pull back with a lot of pressure as he would come into contact with the back of the float, providing you judge the length of rope just right for this to happen.
From here it’s just a matter of repeating the process in a number of different situations and gradually increasing the amount of time he can tolerate being tied.
To start with I would only expect a few minutes, but after 2 or 3 sessions, this could be increased to 15 minutes then 30 minutes.
Like young children, young horses get bored quickly so if tying for longer periods, maybe a little hay in a bag will help him get the idea that tying up can be a comfortable thing. (Don’t use a net for the hay as the halter clip could get caught on the net and scare tham).
Well Zach’s 3rd and 4th journeys in the float were straight forward and uneventful. He loaded like a pro, stepping up willingly beside his mum then came out slow and steady at the other end.
I must say, having a mare who’s relaxed and confident in the float is a major part of the process in developing that in a foal.
For the past 3 months Zach has been paddocked with his mum and another gelding for company. As the colder weather developed he learned to enjoy the extra grain feeds his mum was getting and so had daily contact with people. It was not that necessary to do much more with him except a regular hoof trim until weaning time which will be covered next.
I get a lot of people asking “what is the best age to wean a horse”?
I think if you can look to nature you have the answers – most mares who are foaling every year in the wild would wean their foal off drinking just prior to having their next one so natural logic is the key.
The age I mostly wean my foals at is between 9 and 12 months, taking into account the following factors:
the mare being empty or back in foal, the pasture conditions, the weather conditions and the availability of time to commit on a daily basis for a period of 2-3 weeks.
Weaning can be traumatic for the foal especially when it’s done too early (less than 7 months old) and approached normally with instant separation!
Done naturally, the mare would start to wean her foal when her hormones change in preparation for the birth of her next foal.
Her reluctance to feed the weanling would increase gradually to the point where the foal was no longer feeding, but still allowed to share the close bond they have.
Once the mare had foaled, the weanling (probably close to a year old) would form closer bonds with other herd member, most likely other youngsters.
In order to replicate this as closely as possible, I started the process with Zach (now 8 mths) and his mum, Grady, being joined by a gentle old mare who could be a surrogate mother to Zach.
Any quiet, gentle horse will do the job. They were pastured together for a few days before I started separating Grady from Zach and Sara (his surrogate) for short periods (30 minutes) to longer ones of a few hours.
The separation was done over a double tape electric fence with Grady kept in a smaller area so she was constantly visible to Zach.
By increasing the time daily, it only took a week before he could go for the full day without a drink.
At this stage I would put them back together during the nights.
The next stage involved moving them to larger adjoining pastures and giving Grady a friend.
I also introduced another young gelding to Zach and Sara in the hope that Zach could relate to him a little more in play.
For the next week, I allowed Zach to suckle once a day which helped to ease the tightness of Grady’s udder.
Her diet was reduced to very little pasture and a small amount of hay.
Then the daily suckling was decreased to every 2nd day for a week .
By then Zach was enjoying the company of the others and seemed to be independent enough to cope without his mum.
As Grady’s bag had mostly dried up, she needed to be moved to more pasture as did Zach so they were taken to join separate herds.
Ideally, these would be in adjoining pastures but as this wasn’t possible, we put Zach in a secure yard with his herd mates while Grady was led away to her new herd.
After a couple of whinnies Zach settled quickly and a few hours later was pastured again with his mates.
Apart from trying to suckle a few of the other horses, he showed no anxiety from being separated from his mother and he has since formed a pair bond with Ruby, a 2 year old filly.
Another big benefit in the whole process was the confidence Zach gained in being caught and led a little each day.
He also became accustomed to wearing a rug as the weather was pretty horrible and probably due to the combination of being cold and coping without mum’s milk, he developed a cold which he overcame quickly.
Weaning need not be a traumatic experience if done gradually. This also decreases the risk of injury to mare and foal, and allows the youngster to suffer less anxiety in the future when they need to be ‘ ‘weaned’ from their pair bond. Of course you could approach their next separation in much the same way.
Really, it’s just a matter of looking at it from the horse’s point of view.
How would you feel if you were a child, suddenly locked in a cell away from your mum, and in the case of some young horses, away from everyone else too?
Since being weaned, Zach has been on supplementary feeds as well as plenty of good pasture.
As the winter progressed, his feeds were increased to twice daily and consist of lucerne chaff, boiled barley, Equisoy, and a quality mineral supplement.
He has paired up with Ruby, a 2 year old filly also being fed daily and it was lovely to see the two of them work out when to leave the herd and wait by the gate to be led across to the yards for their feeds.
This daily catching and leading has been a nice way of consolidating Zach’s education and while being fed he is groomed and has his feet checked.
As the weather worsened I relented and put his rug on as he is growing so quickly he needed to get the most from his feed, rather than using it to keep warm.
He seems to be quite comfortable in the herd, accepting his lowly position and sometimes tries to entice Manny, an older gelding, to play who interestingly was very much like Zach as a youngster.
Apart from this daily handling, the occasional hoof trim and worming which he loves thanks to apple sauce, nothing more is asked of him except to remain respectful in all situations.
One of those is when feeding carrots by hand. His buddy, Ruby, has been getting homeopathic drops twice daily in carrot so it was hard to resist giving Zach the odd piece.
He then became a little too demanding, even though he only got carrot randomly, so I’ve had to cease giving him any at all.
Feeding by hand to youngsters can promote nipping unless you approach it with some clicker training, so its better to give them a scratch or a rub in their favourite spot (except the rump as they will often turn it to you unexpectedly).
It is pleasing to note Zach’s calm, thinking nature when he is faced with various natural obstacles. He’ll put his head down and look at things, before carefully stepping over or through.
With an inquisitive and friendly nature, he is a delight to have around and come summer, I can’t wait to start taking him places to broaden his life experiences.
INJURY AND CONFINEMENT
Well it seems to be inevitable that if you have a young horse, you have to deal with some sort of injury at some stage .
Zach almost reached a year old unscathed but then after galloping around a new paddock with the herd as they do, he showed up lame the next day.
With no signs of swelling or stone bruising, I gave him a week to recover thinking he may have just pulled a ligament.
He was no better after a week and being in the herd meant he was having to move (out of everyone’s way) too much for healing to take place so I confined him to a yard with his friend, Ruby.
He appeared much better after a week and with the help of treatment with Photonic therapy (Laser light on acupuncture points) I thought he was on the mend.
But then after some playing and running with Ruby he became lame again so I separated them and he improved after another week.
By that time he was really looking for some grass as a change from the hay and lucerne diet so I made a little electric fenced area, but as he hadn’t had some recent reminders about electric fencing, he and Ruby charged through, galloping into a big paddock and once again he was lame.
I then suspected there was something else going on so took him to the vet for an ultrasound and proper diagnosis.
He hardly showed any lameness but when pressure was applied above his left hip, he told us that’s where it hurt.
The ultrasound showed a fracture in the pelvis which is a common injury in young horses as all they have to do is put their foot in a hole or slip over when running to have this happen.
Fortunately, the prognosis is good as young bones usually heal well so with constant confinement to a small yard for a month then gradually moving him to larger areas should see him heal.
All the extra handling while confined is completing his education and he’s learned to respect electric fences so I can graze him on small areas for part of the day.
So now that he is a yearling and knows how to lead, tie up, have his hooves trimmed, be wormed and travel in a float, the only thing he needs is more experience of different situations in the big wide world and to leave his buddy without being herd bound.
When he’s recovered my goal will be to teach him some more ground games so he is confident and controllable in the varied places we go at home and away from home.
Well the good news is that Zach has made a full recovery from his fractured pelvis and is now enjoying life with the small herd in a huge paddock.
He graduated from a small yard to increasing sized areas up to 60 x 60 m with his friend, Ruby over a period of 3 months.
When it was obvious he could cope with a bit of a frolic without showing any lameness they were both taken back to the herd.
I anxiously watched as the went for a flat out gallop around the big paddock and relieved when Zach showed no lameness in the following days.
Now he has been weaned off his rug and daily hard feed so he can just be a young horse and enjoy the freedom of youth.