Initial Handling with a Foal

If you choose to start breeding your own horses, whether you just have one brood mare or a number of brood mares, I believe it is extremely important that the brood mares are easy to handle and are not too frightened when working around them.  When handling the youngsters, it is important to get them handled and understanding some of the basics BEFORE you wean them.
I like to handle foals to start initially with the Mum in the same yard in hand. I begin with only using a long lunge type stick (approx. 1.8-2m long, not too heavy).  First it is good to walk around with the mother and make sure she is comfortable with the stick and can gently move her hips around so that you can control the angle that she is standing so that you can move her around by controlling her hips and put her where you need her. I may spend 5-10 mins doing this with the mother while the foal is in the same small yard. It gives the mother chance to get comfortable with me being in there with her foal and also comfortable in moving her around.
Generally when you get in a yard with foals that are a bit wary, they will try and hide behind Mum and try and get a drink. So the first part of the lesson, try and move Mum gently out of the way, similar to the way that she would move in the paddock when she doesn’t want her foal to drink. In moving mum out of the way I try to position her behind me. The foal will get a bit worried because suddenly Mum isn’t there to hide behind and you are, so expect to keep moving mum behind you and soon enough the foal will stand on its own. When it does, don’t do anything, just try and let it relax.
Over time, the foal will get comfortable standing on its own and will pay you some attention. You can choose to have a stick or not to have a stick but I find that most foals will be a little bit more threatened by the presence of your hand than a dead object like a stick.  It also is an extension so we don’t have to be so close to introduce the foal to feel.
Once the foal is standing on its own and Mum is comfortably behind me, I gently offer the stick or my hand. If the foal tries to look and tries to understand or puts its thought in any way towards me, I lower the stick and step back to give the foal space and show that that was the answer I was looking for.
If the foal gets a fright, generally, it will go to Mum. So you just go back to getting Mum behind you and the foal standing comfortably on its own.  You should only keep Mum moving away gently to keep the atmosphere calm.
The foal may sniff the stick, it may just offer its shoulder – so gently work your way in rewarding the tries of the foal, using approach and retreat. When you are first able to touch the foal, touch it for a tiny bit and then give it space. Over time you can build the length of time you touch it up. To start with, it is more important that the foal get used to you walking in and out and in and out than how long you can be with it in one go.
Once they are not threatened and they have an understanding of you and feel safe around you they will let you stay with them for a longer time. You must move away from them before they lose interest in you and move away from you.  Keep them curious.
When they first let you touch them with the stick, some may sniff the stick and offer their face, some may stand a bit to the side and you at first you may only be able to touch them near their shoulder. Don’t force their face or start where you think you should start. Start where they let you. Some even let you touch them on the rump first. You will start in this area until they get comfortable and then using an approach and retreat method you will slowly work your way over their body.
Every so often, let the foal go back to Mum for a break.
Once they become calm and not so reactive, they will move away and you can keep a gentle pressure of the stick on them until they stand, then release the stick to show them that standing was good.
Generally by this time, once you have touched them all over with the stick it is not very hard to get in with your hand and start to rub them – first where they let you and then move your way from there around the body.
Getting the foal to face up is not that important. It is much more crucial to be able to walk around your foal with them being comfortable no matter where you are.
Once you have got to the stage where you can put a rope on a foal and work it, then I would separate them from Mum. Teaching a foal how to understand a rope and pressure and release is a fairly big thing and you don’t want it to go wrong. These initial teachings affect how a horse assesses pressure from the start. If you can get it right, future training is less offensive and much easier.
A little bit each day is better than one big lesson. Don’t over do your foals.
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Knowing when to take a break in your training

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Often, ‘taking a break’ is put in the context of your horse having a rest. But a lot of the time, it is so that the trainer can take a break. In general, if the horse is at a stage that you think needs a rest from the lesson then the rest that you have will prepare you more mentally for the next lesson that you have with your horse. There has been times in education where I have been busy with horse after horse, and the tough one comes through. The day is hot and the hours are running short. The lesson pushes on, the horse seems to have roughly done things that would seem like progress but you would have liked a better try or more progress so you ask again and for more. The horse starts finding the things that it has just done a little more difficult, suddenly your patience levels seems to have shortened and your stress levels are up. The ideal would have been that you reward the horse with a good rest when it first showed some signs of try, no matter how small they may have been. So, once you realise that your horse isn’t going that well, that you aren’t going that well, do you try to push the lesson to finish on a good note (which probably wont happen because you are already red in the face) or do you stop, go and have a cup of tea and come back in 5? Think about it. Think about the lesson. Think about other positive things, and re-start it when you are calm and ready.  And then maybe, you might just go in, reward the horse for its small try’s and both leave on a happy note.

So, when you next set out to give your horse a lesson, have no preconceptions of where you want the lesson to end.

You do need a system in place for your training, but the system has to be flexible to tailor for individual horse needs, ability & mood swings. The system – or plan – is only there to keep you & the horse on track.

How to use your surroundings to stimulate your horse

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose.

Training and riding your horse is about building a happy two-way partnership.  You can use your surroundings to make your relationship with your horse beneficial for you and also stimulating for your horse.

I want to encourage all of you to get out and about; and when you are out, to still train. And here’s why.

Be consistent
There’s nothing like having a nice, secure and safe area with a good surface to work a horse in. And sometimes we need this to work on some of our areas of foundation and high level performance training. It’s not good to put a sliding stop on a horse on a slippery grass paddock!  But something that happens quite often is that people become too secure in the arena. It’s easy to do all of our training in the arena and then when we ride outside we just sit on our horse on a trail ride. There are 2 problems with this: we can become a bully in the arena and just a passenger outside; a passenger with no leadership.  And we become inconsistent leaders.

Riding outside creates stimulation & reduces restrictive reactions
It is easy for horses to shut down in the arena – we are only riding from one fence to the next. After a while, there can become no purpose to the horse. Every animal needs some purpose and stimulation in its life. Riding outside can provide that purpose. I have found that horses that work cattle and muster or ride out with other horses generally seem to be happier.
Horses need time outside; the confinements and associated anxieties of not getting this can make them feel unsafe outside. But without this exposure they will never settle or become in partnership with us.  An example of extremely restricted horses are stabled horses and confined stallions, which are often treated with caution because of their extreme behaviours.  If only they could get more of what is natural to them by being outside.  This concept follows through to our regular horses and affects the way they are able to be trained.  Someone once told me about their horse who could cope with being tarped and desensitised to a range of objects but who still jumped at things outside. All the ground work and desensitising in the world won’t make you a better leader which your horse will feel safe under or rely on. Sometimes, you have to get on, get out and ride.

And if you do all of your training in an arena or enclosed area, don’t be surprised if your horse gets sour. Doing all your training in one area doesn’t expose your horse to new things which means when you get to a show it may not cope just because the arena might be different.

Harness their outside energy and forward focus for training
If you are training your horses for performance, there is no problem with doing a lot of the foundation outside on trail rides.  Over the years of starting young horses, nearly all of my foundation has been achieved on forest trails, in paddocks and out on our property. It’s easy to find rhythm and energy in our horses outside – they generally have more of a forward focus. We can harness this rhythm and energy and use it in our training.

So here’s what I’d like you to think about trying. Don’t let your horse go too long on a trail ride without giving them little jobs to do. Keep in contact with their brain and remind them that we are still up there, showing some leadership.  By giving them a little lesson, then letting them ride for a bit before another lesson, we are giving them time to relax. This break in stimulation avoids the drain that lesson followed by lesson can produce in an enclosed area. These jobs can be working on their foundation, giving purpose to what you are doing.  Whilst walking up a track, move sideways, walk straight and relax and then move sideways the other way.  If you stop to look at a view, stop and back up a bit, working on getting a couple of soft back steps.  Flex your horse before you ride off. Bend around trees.  Find a nice grassy flat spot and do some flat circle work. Remember though, riding outside is supposed to be enjoyable so don’t over do it.

By the time you go back to working in the arena, you will find that because of the consistent work that you have been doing outside, some of the areas that you have been working on have improved.

Remember, the arena is just another tool to advance some areas of performance.  It’s what you do in that saddle that counts – whether that’s inside or out.

Questions to ask when buying a horse

Not all of these questions will be relevant to all horses but I hope it will help in avoiding you being caught out and buying a horse that is unsuitable for you.

  1. Why are they selling it? Is is because they don’t have enough time (a common answer) because they don’t have enough time to educate it or enough time to enjoy it?
  2. When was it last ridden?
  3. What is it like in a group?
  4. What is it like in traffic?
  5. Has it been ridden or worked today?
  6. What is it like around other horses?
  7. Can it be shod/ lead/ rugged/ floated?
  8. If it is unbroken – why?
  9. What type of bit/ bridle do they use?
  10. How long have they owned the horse?
  11. Has it had any serious injuries or lameness after work?
  12. Is it up to date with its vaccinations?
  13. If you are on the coast, does it suffer in the summer?

Should we bring our horses down to our level?

Mark Langley riding

Mark Langley riding

We got asked an interesting question recently: Are we training our horses to come down to our level so we can handle them or are we rising up to match the potential of our horses so they can be at their best and happiest? 

This question sounds like it should have an easy answer but the answer is actually requires quite a high level of understanding of a horse – both mentally & physically. As every horse and rider has varied personality traits we also have different body rhythms.

Body rhythm ??  This is what I mean. When you get up in the morning, how long does it take you to put butter on your toast? Do you have a short shower or a long shower? How quickly do you walk? These sorts of personality traits and movement routines are found in horses too: some horses trot up to their feed, some walk – match a horse’s rhythm with yours & you’ll get a better training match.

I believe that when we ride a horse we need to like its natural rhythm and its natural unspoilt personality.  But both of these things can only be found when our horse is happy. Is our horse happy? 

Sometimes we can be stuck trying to train a horse not only to perform advanced manoeuvres but also trying to bring them up or down to our rhythm. If you are always asking your horse to walk faster and no matter how much you practice, every time you stop asking, your horse slows down, you are out of rhythm. If your horse always walks fast but you think that it is rushed and anxious and you try to always slow it down, you are fighting against your horse’s natural body rhythm – it’s just naturally fast.

Personality is another big player in this relationship but sometimes we focus so much on trying to change our horse’s personality that we forget about our flawed personalities.  And this is probably the one that needs to change the most to build a trusting relationship.

Our training should be focused on building a trusting relationship so that when we are with our horses, they are relaxed and happy to work with us. This may mean that you bring your horse down, relax them – in order to get that trust.

It is only then that we may get a feel for their natural rhythm and personality.  As horses can feel rushed most of the time, (due to a number of anxieties) or lazy most of time (due to sourness of repetition), their personalities can be erratic, frightened, or malicious but none of these are any indication of the true horse that we are riding.  And, unfortunately, most of these traits have been caused by people failing to rise up and better themselves or recognise the mismatch.

Horses are capable of meeting our rhythm too, though. I have trained quite a lot of horses which required me to spend a lot of time matching their rhythm but after some time, they were happy to match mine.

I feel privileged when a horse allows me to hang around it.  All the feelings that I want the horse to feel for me I have to reciprocate.   All of my training is presented as help.  As a horse owner, it is my responsibility to bring happiness into my horse’s life and to give my horse as many opportunities as I can to help my horse have an interesting life whether that be work with meaning, companionship with other horses, or breaking up its everyday routine.

So, ensure your horse is happy  and relaxed – then their natural personality will have more chance to show – and you have more of a chance to work out if you are matched together or not, naturally.

Should there be a right way / wrong way with our training?

Mark explaining at a horsemanship clinic

Mark explaining at a horsemanship clinic

When training horses your mindset generally determines how the lesson will unfold.  Sometimes to keep your calm, consistent outlook, you may have to have a few motivating and guiding words floating around your head.

Most of the time, the words I think about to keep my focus and my judgements fair and consistent are: Why?What happened? What’s needed? & How can I help?

There is a term I hear a lot around horsemanship – “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard”.

This phrase – if used right – can be effective but if it becomes the mindset of the lesson things can deteriorate and we run the risk of making education uncomfortable and in some cases can shut the horse down.  Rather, education should be something that we use to relay, soften, build and trust, and better the body function of the horse.

One particular lesson where I see an abuse of education is float loading.  I will use this as an example of a mindset.

When teaching a horse to load I commonly see horses getting shown that it is easy at or in the float and hard away from it.  This is done to an extent that the float becomes a safe escape for the horse.  But what is the horse escaping from? The person and their education.  This happens purely because of the lesson mindset.  And with this approach, subtle tries from the horse may get missed.

So, the other way to look at this lesson is: I would like to see my horse near the float and close to it or in it.  I will give it plenty of mental space for it to assess and relax. If it pulls away from the float I first ask why (it has a fear of the float); what happened (it pulled against the lead, braced in the head, neck and jaw and went backwards); what’s needed (more work on soft forwardness to lead cues and more time near float to become comfortable); how can I help (show the horse how to soften, become more forward, and not brace to the halter, work around the float and stand near it until the horse feels more comfortable with it).

The main key is that as soon as the horse tries and softens to the lesson we soften and reward no matter where we are in relation to the float.  Education is just help. Once the horse understands and its focus is with us we just continue what we were doing by going back to the float.