by Cynthia Cooper
Fortunately, many horse breeders now recognise the pay-off for spending time with the foal in the early days. And many like myself have also realised that socialisation and education is the most important part of human interaction, not the imprinting.
Although imprinting helps initially and forms a much stronger bond between foal and humans, it is not an issue if you aren’t there at the birth and miss that small window of opportunity (true imprinting happens during the first 2 hours of a foal’s life only).
In fact studies have shown that the mere presence of the human at birth, either passively or gently rubbing and touching the foal, is enough for acceptance of the human in the horse’s world. Frequency of time spent with the foal after the mare/foal bonding seems to be the vital element.
In those first few days and week, spending short periods with the foal many times a day, just being friendly and finding all their ‘itchy’ spots will encourage their natural curiosity. When the foal is confident with having you around and providing something they enjoy, then education to pressure and de-sensitising can begin. It may only take a few hours on the first day of frequent visits to reach the stage where the foal trusts you enough to allow things like a towel, or plastic bag rubbed all over it. De-sensitising to clippers, tarps and more can be part of your foal’s ongoing education and will be readily accepted if the foal trusts you first.
The quickest way to destroy any trust you have built is by reverting to the “I’m stronger than you” mode where you force the foal to accept anything, or any pressure.
They are a horse first and foremost and have the same reactions and responses of a wild horse. We must treat them with respect and not grab, push or pull them around just because we are stronger. This sort of education will teach the foal to push against pressure and will set up resistances both physically and mentally.
Good horsemanship starts by ‘asking’ the foal/horse with a mental picture of what we would like then to do. You can say it out loud if it helps – “Can we see if you can move backwards?” for example, would precede a light touch on the chest that becomes rhythmic pressure until the foal responds.
“Can we walk over there, back to mum?” – “Can I rub this halter all over you before I put it on?” – “Can you take one step this way?”.
Always ask…. only ever ‘tell’ if it’s a life threatening situation.
When you ask the question and are not in a hurry to get a response, the foal is given a chance to understand what you’re wanting. So often we are tempted to just grab that leg and lift it up because we can use our strength, or pull on that rump rope to move them forward, ….because we can.
Remember that you are not only training the foal to respond to pressure, you are training their attitude as well. Watch your foal’s expression – are they flicking their ears back or switching their tail at lot? If so, they are trying to tell you something – possibly to not be so rude or rapid with your requests. Many ‘imprint trained’ foals get a bad name for being pushy, dull or un-interested in their training because they learned to push back (reflecting your ‘pushiness’) or switch off totally.
By the time they are ridden, they can be so zoned out to their rider’s requests their apparent quietness turns into stubbornness, grumpiness or dullness.
Who wants a horse like that? Quietness yes, but I’d rather have respectfulness and responsiveness in my young horses while retaining the interest and enthusiasm for being with me.
A foal is strongly influenced by the mare, who ideally should trust you and be educated to the basics of being caught and handled herself before she has a foal.
Sadly, some people breed from a mare because she’s not good to handle or ride and this then sets up a pattern with the foal, of negative learned behaviour where humans are concerned. If your mare is worried about you, she will transfer that worry to the foal so it’s very important to develop the relationship with her too. She should also trailer load well and tie up, in order to be helpful when teaching the foal these things.
If the mare becomes over-protective (which is natural), then you will need to have a good yard to work in for the first week or two until she is not in the habit of running off with the foal whenever she sees you. Feed her in the yard and she will realise it’s a friendly place to be.
It is well worth spending time with the mare before she foals and then reinforcing things with her after the foal is born. It will make handling her in case of a
problem such as needing to be milked, veterinary attention and so on, that much easier.
Think carefully about the sort of education you are giving your foal. Look upon training a foal as a privilege and an opportunity to refine your horsemanship skills.
A foal is a blank canvas, brand new and ready to absorb everything we do with them, be that positive or negative. Above all, enjoy the wonder of having a new foal and the process of educating them.