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.