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by Kim and Kari Baker


Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Handling Foals
From Nursery School to Kindergarten
In Safe Hands - Part 2

by Kim and Kari Baker

 Additional In-hand Lessons

      There is a great deal more you can teach the foal before it is old enough to start under saddle. "We teach our foals a lot since we don't start any of our horses before they are four-years-old, so there is more in-hand time to fill," says Frei. 

     Along with leading, basic handling manners are the most valuable lessons you will ever teach your horse. These include patience, respect of handler's space, standing tied, picking up feet for cleaning and trimming, bathing and clipping, as well as loading and trailering. 

     "You want to keep your youngster mentally fresh with new in-hand work rather than rehashing the same routines you've been doing since they were a couple of months old," Frei adds. Think about including a trick or two such as bow, lay down, or the polka walk.  "Adding tricks to the repertoire helps add in some fun lessons to break up the otherwise normal lessons."

Training Methods

     For a period of several months after birth, the foal is very easily influenced. Several training methods that are promoted nationally such as John Lyons, Pat Parelli, Richard Shrake, Buck Brannaman, as well as others that are referred to as "natural horsemanship," support the early handling and training of foals. All of these methods have a number of thoughts in common.

* Gentle handling

* Understanding and acknowledgment of the foal's natural behavior

* Clarity and simplicity in communication

* Positive reinforcement

     Also among the popular training methods of today is a technique well known as "imprinting." Developed by Dr. Robert Miller, imprint training takes

 advantage of the foal's particularly impressionable first day of life. 

     During this "critical time" the intense handling of foals involves a thorough desensitization accomplished with repeating sets of rhythmic compression on, or flexion at, specific body locations. Also presenting objects of various stimuli such as clippers, plastic bags, and spray bottles are to have the effect of teaching the newborn to tolerate all sorts of stimuli. Be sure that the intense handling of the newborn is gentle to avoid injury and does not stress the mare or interfere with mare/foal bonding. It has been shown that "critical time" imprinting has not been successful in itself so it is important to continue with regular gentle handling throughout foal-hood.

      Another training method new on the horizon that can be used in the education of foals is clicker training. Clicker training was originally developed by dolphin trainers and then adapted for horses. The clicker is a bridging signal and gives the horse a clear "yes" answer that says "you did well and you get a reward."

     The reward for the adult horse is generally a treat. We've all heard the arguments against feeding treats to horses, but with the rules imposed by the clicker the haphazardly handing out treats doesn't get out of control. However, if you're still not sure you want to give treats there is little to worry about with foals, the best reward often as not, is a good scratching in their favorite spot.

      Training the foal takes a lot of patience and good judgment as well as safe humane practices. Early experiences can readily shape the foal's attitude toward future training. 

     The first encounters with restraint can turn into emotional as well as physical battles that end in injury and all too often end with the foal afraid of the handler.  For this reason, knowing your foal's limitations and your own capabilities will go a long way.

Placing the Foal in Lateral Recumbency

     If you have ever "cradled" a very young foal, you may be familiar with the "flopping foal" reaction.  This occurs when enough pressure is applied to the body of the foal and the foal begins to sink towards the ground.  At this point, the handler often releases some of the pressure and the foal suddenly is aroused and springs back up,  effectively giving the handler the slip more often than not.  This is an inborn reaction of survival; and you the predator have just lost your prey.

    This little bit of knowledge can come in handy.  For prolonged procedures, the foal can be easily and safely laid down on its side, preferably in a softly bedded stall.   

     To place the foal in lateral recumbency, you must first restrain the foal by placing an arm around the chest and the other hand behind the rump holding the tail.  Then by moving the arm up from the chest, your forearm will be placed against the foal's head. 

     Gently bend the foal's head back toward the rump while pressure is applied to the rear quarters with the other hand. The foal should sag backwards toward you at this point. Without releasing pressure, allow the foal to sink to the ground.  

     The foal should be kept in this position until it is completely recumbent and relaxed.  You should then grasp the rear legs with one hand and the front legs with the other, placing the forearm on the foal's neck.  

     At this point, the foal may start to struggle, but you should calmly continue to restrain the foal in this position until the foal again relaxes before beginning any other procedures.  

     A second handler may be required, and be sure to protect the foal's down eye from the ground by placing a soft pad under the head.

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