Catching and Handling the Foal, by Clinton Anderson
I’m a firm believer in working with foals as soon as they are born because the earlier you can start to work with them, the less fearful and more respectful they become. Catching your foal is the first step to desensitizing him to human touch. Before you can begin teaching your foal fundamental exercises, he first must trust you. In this exercise, you’ll catch the foal and then teach him to stand still and relax while your arms are wrapped around his body. You’ll find that the more you practice walking up to the foal and catching him, the quieter he’ll get.
Teaching Stage: Before starting this first lesson, it’s important that you can trust the mare and she can trust you. In this lesson, you’ll use an assistant to hold the mare while you work with the foal (or tie the mare up if you have no assistant). Before you catch the foal, you should be confident that the mare is not going to get worked up or aggressive when you try to touch the foal. If she still show signs of aggression or gets worried when you enter the stall, spend more time reassuring her and just hanging out in the stall. Once she’s comfortable with you in the stall near the foal, then you can begin the first lesson. I recommend teaching this lesson in a stall because it’s easier to work with the foal in a small enclosure. You’ll find that some foals like to run around and play games with you. The bigger area they have to run around in, the more difficult it is to catch them. Playing a game of “catch me if you can” can easily turn into a habit for foals, so you want to discourage that behavior as quickly as you can. You want the foal to realize that you can get a hold of him whenever you want. If you don’t have a stall, create an enclosed 12′ by 12′ area in which you can safely work with the foal.
1) Have your assistant position the mare next to the stall wall so that you’ll be able to easily reach the foal. If you don’t have an assistant, use an Aussie Tie Ring to tie the mare up so that she won’t be moving around the stall making the foal anxious. The quieter the mare stands, the calmer the foal will stay throughout the lesson. If the mare is pacing in the stall and getting worked up, the foal will mimic her behavior. I recommend positioning the mare next to the wall because you’ll find that when you go to catch the foal, he’ll duck under his mother’s belly or try to hide behind her. By putting the mare next to the wall, even if the foal tries to sneak under her, you’ll always be able to get a hand on him.
2) Walk up to the foal with passive body language and scratch his hindquarters or withers. It’s important to approach the foal in a casual, relaxed manner. Pretend that catching him is the furthest thing from your mind. A common mistake people make is to walk up to the foal like a predator. They enter the stall and walk straight over to the foal. That sounds simple, but to the foal, you look like a predator on the hunt for his next meal. He’s not going to wait around and think about the situation because even at this young age Mother Nature is telling him to run! Horses always run first and think later. To seem less threatening to the foal and less like a predator, relax your body language and spend a few minutes scratching his hindquarters or withers. Horses love to be scratched on their withers, and the more the foal associates you with pleasant a feeling, the better.
3) When the foal is standing beside you, slide one hand up under his neck and then grab the base of his tail with your free hand and lift it straight up in the air. Lifting the foal’s tail up in the air is similar to a twitch because it subdues the foal. By applying pressure to his tail, you’re making it uncomfortable for the foal to move his feet and try to get away from you.
4) As soon as the foal stops moving his feet and relaxes, release the pressure on his tail. When the foal relaxes, he’ll show one of five signs: he’ll lick his lips, cock a hind leg, take a deep breath, blink his eyes or lower his head and neck. If he doesn’t show one of those five signs, but stands still for at least 15 seconds, he’s telling you that he has no intention of trying to get away and you can go ahead and release the pressure. When the foal stops moving his feet, make him feel comfortable by releasing the pressure on his tail. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. The quicker you can drop the foal’s tail when he stands still and relaxes, the faster he’ll understand that he did the right thing. However, if you drop the foal’s tail and release the pressure when he is moving his feet, you’re teaching him to struggle against you. Be very conscious of your timing and what you’re rewarding the foal for.
5) Any time the foal goes to move, immediately make him feel uncomfortable by lifting his tail up. As soon as his feet stop moving and he shows a sign of relaxing, release the pressure on his tail. You’ll make the wrong thing (moving his feet) difficult, and the right thing (standing still and relaxing) easy.
6) Be sure to keep the foal as close to the mare as you can, even if you have to physically move the foal next to her. In fact, it’s best if you can put the foal in the nursing position so that his muzzle is close to the mare’s flank. This position is familiar and comfortable to the foal and will help ease the tension in his body and make him less defensive.
7) When you can successfully catch the foal on one side of his body, and he doesn’t struggle against your hold, practice catching him from his other side. Remember that horses have two sides to their brains, a left side and a right side. Whatever you teach to one side, you have to teach to the other. Act like you’re training two different horses and be very thorough with each side.
Not keeping the mare in one place positioned next to the wall. If you let the mare walk around the stall, chances are the foal is going to get upset because you won’t be able to keep him next to the mare at all times. The advantage of having an assistant hold the mare or tying her up in the stall is that it keeps her in one place and makes it easy for you to keep the foal next to her side. Keeping the mare against the wall also makes your job easier because you’ll be able to reach the foal even if he tries to hide from you.
Holding the foal away from the mare. While you’re working with the foal, be conscious of keeping him next to the mare at all times. When you first catch the foal, you might have to physically move him back to the mare’s side so that he can see her and she can see him. It’s best to put the foal in the nursing position because it’s familiar and comforting to him. Allowing the mare to see and touch the foal will keep her relaxed.
Approaching the foal like a predator. Remember that horses are prey animals and have a flight or fight response. If you approach the foal like a predator, his reaction will be to run away from you. If he can’t escape you, then he’ll do whatever he can to fight you off and survive the situation. However, if you relax your body language and pretend that catching him is the last thing on your mind, he’ll allow you to approach. Not releasing the pressure on the foal’s tail when he stops moving his feet and relaxes. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. So the quicker you can release the pressure on the foal’s tail when he stands still and relaxes, the quicker he will learn he did the right thing.
The foal rears when you try to catch him. If the foal rears when you first put your arms around him, stay in position and move with him. As soon as you possibly can, get your hand on the base of his tail and lift straight up in the air to make him feel uncomfortable for struggling against you. Keep a steady, consistent pressure on the foal’s tail until he stops moving his feet and relaxes. Don’t punish him for rearing because he’s not being bad on purpose, he just doesn’t understand what you’re asking him to do. Through repetition, you’re going to teach him that when you catch him, he has nothing to worry about.
The foal gets worried when he can’t see the mare. Be sure to keep the foal next to his mother throughout the exercise. As long as he can see his mother and she can see him, they’ll both stay relaxed. Ideally, the foal should be kept by the mare’s side so she can bend her head and neck around to see or even touch him if she wants.
The foal kicks or strikes out at you. If the foal kicks out with his back legs or strikes at you with his front legs, keep applying pressure to his tail and wait for his feet to stop moving and for him to show a sign of relaxing. By kicking out or striking at you, the foal is just letting you know that he isn’t comfortable with what you’re doing to him. But with repetition, he’ll soon learn that you’re not trying to hurt him and he can’t get rid of you by kicking out or striking. The only way he gets a release of pressure is by standing still and relaxing.
The mare gets aggressive or worried when you try to catch the foal. If the mare gets aggressive or overly worried when you try to catch the foal, stop the exercise and go back to gaining her trust. Spend time sitting in the corner of the stall just letting the mare and the foal get used to your presence. Prove to her that she has nothing to be worried about when you try to touch or catch the foal. It’s important that the mare isn’t worried about you when you start working with the foal because if she is, she’ll upset the foal making it impossible for you to accomplish the goal of the exercise.
Catch the foal when he’s nursing. The easiest way to catch the foal is to do so when he is nursing. He can only think about one thing at a time, so if he’s thinking about nursing, he won’t have time to be worried about you. And when you do catch him, he’ll already be in the perfect position next to the mare.
About Clinton Anderson: An Australian native, he began his quest to become the best horseman he could be by apprenticing under top Australian trainers Gordon McKinlay and Ian Francis. In 1996 Clinton moved to America to continue training horses and apprenticed under Al Dunning, winner of multiple AQHA World Championships, before beginning to train under his own name. Clinton loves training reiners and cow horses and has been successful in both competitive arenas. Find out more about Clinton at www.downunderhorsemanship.com
[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 3, Issue 7.]
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