Foal training is such an important beginning to your foal’s future and good training will establish a relationship while also teaching your foal the basics to cope with the domestic life of a horse.
Since my training using positive reinforcement has been so successful with my older horses, I now training my foals that way.
This is simply reinforcing a behaviour that the horse has offered with something they like such as food or scratching their favourite itchy spot.
Positive reinforcement is what clicker trainers use, marking the behaviour with a ‘click’ so the horse knows exactly which behaviour it was being rewarded for once it associates the ‘click’ with a treat being delivered. This is called ‘conditioned reinforcement’ and enables us to reward a very specific action then deliver the treat sometime after the action occurred.
This is the removal of a stimulus that caused a behaviour. The removal of the cue or stimulus is what reinforces the desired behaviour.
Negative reinforcement has nothing to do with punishment, in fact, most people mistakenly refer to the removal of a stimulus (pressure) as a reward, when really, a reward is something a horse finds pleasurable.
It’s actually better to think of negative reinforcement as taking something away (removing pressure).
Many dog and horse trainers use positive reinforcement paired with negative reinforcement knowingly or not. Each time they ‘reward’ their horse or dog with a ‘good boy’ (the marker) and a pat or a treat (the reinforcer) they are using conditioned reinforcement.
But most horse trainers use negative reinforcement to get what they want and sometimes this involves a lot of pressure in order to teach the horse to ‘give or move’ to pressure. This can cause resistance and reluctance in the horse unless they get the occasional positive reinforcer (a treat or a pat/scratch or even a rest).
This has been an accepted form of training within traditional and natural horsemanship – but now I can see the horse is much happier ‘being positively rewarded’ than working out what he needs to do to avoid pressure.
Changing My Approach:
So, when my Arabian filly, Aria was born, I decided to experiment with her education to see if I could teach her all the necessary things a foal needs to learn in their first year using mostly positive reinforcement. And if I had to use some negative (pressure) to get the message to her, that it would be as light as possible and also rhythmic.
I started by habituating her to the reward that was being scratched (which she loves).
Every time I went to scratch her, I gave a tongue click then delivered the scratch.
Pretty soon, I could ‘click’ for a specific behaviour, like nuzzling me back (desired) rather than nipping (undesired).
Then I introduced the tiniest amount of rhythmic pressure to indicate a direction I wanted, followed by a click and a scratch for each thought or step in the right direction.
Pretty soon I had her moving forwards to a press forward at the base of the wither, backwards to a light touch on the chest, moving hindquarter and forequarter to a light touch on the respective parts and stopping when I stopped my feet.
Leading at Liberty:
We achieved ‘leading’ with me walking beside her with just my hand resting on her neck near the wither – no halter or ropes needed at all. Now she evens runs beside me at a trot when my energy lifts, just connected to her with my hand.
I was very proud of her and me – for not having to ‘force’ her to accept too much pressure or get into a ‘fight’ when scared or confused by the pull of a rope.
Leading with a Rope:
I realise this type of leading is not practical for outside the paddock so I then started to introduce the rope – just a light string around her neck that replaced the feel of my hand. She did get a bit worried at first, but I just went back to using my hand and resting the string there, gradually incorporating it as she grew more confident.
This took the same amount of time as I’d normally spend on teaching a foal to lead, and was far more pleasant for her – she had choices – if she got scared she could run away without getting a pull on the rope that could then set off a more negative reaction.
More Lessons at Liberty:
I taught her to have her hooves trimmed and be wormed in the same way and at liberty, so by the age of 3 months she was ready to teach float loading (this can be done at an earlier age but I just hadn’t gotten around to it).
By this time, I had also taught her about food treats when she started taking an interest in them while I trained her big sister and brother.
So that she didn’t ‘butt in’ looking for treats, she learned to step back and hold her head straight (not nudge the treat bag) to receive her reward.
I put a halter on her and pretty soon she was used to the feel of it going on and off. I had previously used the string to get her nose to come round for a treat so she accepted the halter without fuss. With the string around her neck, I ran the ends of it through the halter loops/ring so it gave some direction to her head without pulling on her poll or dragging on the ground if she ran away.
Once she realised she could get paid for the job, she showed up every day for some ‘work’ – quickly offering me the required position to receive her treat!
So I then parked the float in the paddock, with hay stored in it. I fed them from this every day and Aria watched her big brother and sister march straight on at liberty to get at the hay – even when there were piles in the paddock for them.
When she was trying to squeeze in from the side to eat her share of the hay, I removed her brother and asked Aria to step up on the ramp next to her two-year-old sister.
When she did, she also got a treat – I use sunflower seeds and the horses love them!
The first time, I had to lift her hoof onto the ramp as she had no concept of stepping up, but after that, she worked it out herself.
When she had two feet on, I asked her to back up and rewarded her for that so we got backing off calm and straight. In the second session, we got four feet on and backing off nicely.
By the third session, she marched all the way up confidently, standing quietly, munching away at the hay with her big sister alongside who was doing her best ‘look’ to get her share of the treats too.
After 4 sessions of loading, Aria was ready to have the tailgate closed, so I enlisted the help of her mum and a friend.
She handled this without fuss so she was taken for a short drive to a new paddock. As she had not been taught to tie up yet, Aria was loose in the completely enclosed float and had turned around to face the back during the journey.
Now it will be time to repeat the loading without going anywhere to reinforce the float as a comfort zone. Eventually, I will do this at liberty to check that she is really happy to be there.
You can read more about teaching trailer loading here.
This video shows some other basic tasks to train for.
This little ‘roadmap’ for training a foal can also be applied to any horse of course, and if you’d like to learn more my page on Horsemanship has many helpful articles and resources.