I’ve spent a lot of time recently working with weanlings. It’s always very rewarding giving a young horse a great start to working with people! It has inspired me to write an article about handling youngsters. If you have a young horse, here is a bit of guidance to help you get started on the right foot.
In California, I lived, boarded and worked at an American Paint Horse breeding farm for about 7 years. I was the one who handled all the youngsters from birth until they were ready to be shown and sold as 3 yr olds.
This gave me a fantastic foundation for working with young horses. At the farm I imprinted all the babies within a few hours of being born. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce a young horse to people, but certainly has to be done properly.
I actually don’t recommend people new to young horses to imprint their foals. Most people who know me, know that I put safety above everything else, and imprinting foals can become dangerous for a number of reasons.
Firstly, most mares (especially new mothers) are very protective of their newborn babies. They can become quite agitated and aggressive if they feel their foal is in any kind of danger.
All the broodmares on the farm were extensively handled by me, and never felt threatened by me working with their foals.
Inexperience with babies can cause undue stress, both mentally and physically, to a new born and it’s mother. People tend to spend to much time, and be to goal orientated to imprint properly. Because of this, I recommend skipping it, unless you really know what your doing.
Not to worry! Leaving your new foal and its mother time to bond and relax around people will only benefit everyone in the long run.
The most important factors in spending time with youngsters, particularly when still with their mothers, is patience, time and safety.
This is true for weanlings or foals. Patience and time are your best friends. Never hurry, never set an agenda. Always let the foal set the learning pace. This will keep you, them and their mother safe.
Initially just spend time sitting in the stable corner. If this is stressful to the mare or foal, stand or sit in or near the door to allow an easy escape.
Try to seem disinterested. Let them become curious about you. Gently play with the bedding, look interesting, but be disinterested in them. Eventually the foal will become curious about you and come for a sniff.
Just sit. Patience!!!! The temptation to reach out and touch will be overwhelming, but don’t! Over the course of a few days, let the foal or weanling sniff you. If he goes for a bite, then you can gently raise your hand and shush them off. Slow movements always.
After the youngster comes to understand you pose no threat, you can put out your hand and hope for a sniff. At this time you can gently rub their muzzle.
If you have been sitting, its time to stand and try to continue with what you have been doing. Once you can touch the muzzle and cheek, its time to try to rub the wither.
The foal/weanling will understand this as a gesture of friendship.
This will lead to rubbing up the neck, under the neck, and near and around the ears. Try to do both sides! Keep it even.
You want to get the horse used to seeing you in both eyes. This will help you immensely in the future.
Once you can approach and rub your youngster, its time to start thinking about a head collar. Incorporate the head collar into your rubbing. Let it become part of you. Do not attempt to put it on for several days.
Rub around the poll, the ears and the nose. Put it in a bucket of feed (or carrots and apples) and let him eat around it. This will get him used to the feel and sound, and understand these things are unrelated to you.
Be sure you spend time doing the “hugging” move required to put on a head collar. Most weanlings panic at this, as it feels very restrictive. Be sure to practice it.
The day you decide to put the head collar on will be exciting. Your heart rate will be up. Try to stay calm and patient. Don’t let it all go out the window now!!
I have a trick for this. Choose a head collar larger then you need. You won’t be leaving it on long, so don’t worry about the size. Do your normal routine.
Approach, rub, slowly, gently, buckle the head collar over the poll. Leave it dangling under the chin. This way if the foal goes to leave, you can allow it, but the head collar is now attached.
If the foal/weanling goes to leave, allow it. You should never hold him against his will. This will create problems down the line.
Once he has settled, approach and rub. Rub the nose/muzzle. You can then very gently slip the nose band over the nose and muzzle.
Continue rubbing and stroking, and tighten the head collar up. By following this technique, you can make your horses first head collaring experience a non-stressful one.
Leave the head collar on for a while, under supervision, then remove it. Do this a few times over a few days, and it will become easier and easier.
I have to stress that patience is your best friend. If you take time during these first experiences you will be setting yourself up for easier training later.
As a professional, I can accomplish all of this in under 2 hours. On the breeding farm, I’d spend 3 days. As someone new to youngsters, you could spend days or weeks. Don’t feel like you are in a hurry. If you plan on spending time with this youngster for several years, a few weeks is a drop in the ocean.
I must also add that I don’t advocate leaving head collars on horses unattended ever, at any age.
Good luck, and remember, Patience!!!