There is so much in the equestrian press at the moment which is aimed at putting amateur owners off breeding from a mare. Yes, of course we all know that there has been massive over breeding resulting in a glut of poor quality horses and ponies that the general horse owning population is now trying to soak up. However, there is still a market for well-mannered and experienced horses with good conformation. And sometimes it is a good idea to breed from a much loved mare if you want to produce a youngster from her.
Regardless of whether you are breeding horses or ponies for your own needs, or for sale it is important that you produce a youngster who is well mannered, respectful and friendly. There is nothing worse to deal with than a horse or pony who is difficult to handle because they have been spoilt as a youngster.
This years’ crop of foals will shortly be ready for weaning and to go on to begin the lessons that will eventually see them becoming well-mannered adult horses. From the time foal is a week old it is time to begin the lessons which make the foal a pleasure to handle when it becomes older. From these early times it is important that the foal learns obedience, to stand quietly when held, to lead from either side, to be groomed and to have its feet lifted and handled.
Young foals can be quite shy and difficult to catch so the early lessons will usually be done in a stable. The foal will usually follow its mother into a stable. Here you can position the mare against a wall, with an assistant helping. The foal should be encouraged to take up a position beside her which will then allow the handler to catch the foal. Place one arm around its quarters, just beneath the rump and one arm around the front of its chest. Initially the foal will jump about, but one it realises you mean it no harm that that you are determined not to let go the foal will usually settle down.
At all times keep the foal close to its mother, this will give it confidence that it is safe. Over a period of a few days the foal will become accustomed to this handling and will gradually stand quietly. Once the foal will stand happily to be held, the assistant can slowly lead the mare around the stable, while the handler gently guides the foal after her. Push slightly from behind and be ready to restrain any sudden forwards movement. After a few days, when this lesson is going well, you can use a soft cloth around the foal’s neck to guide it. This will teach the foal to go forwards from a light pressure from behind. These lessons should only ever be of a short duration, but once you are progressing well you can lead the foal, to and from the field, beside its mother, using this method.
The foal should have been wearing a foal slip from a week old, this will help you to catch the foal and will lay down the lessons for later life when the youngster will wear a bridle. The foal slip should be adjusted so that it is not too tight – this can cause the head to become sore and possibly cause the foal to become head-shy in later life. A loose foal slip is dangerous as a foot could become caught in it if the foal scratches its head. Adjust the slip so that you can insert two fingers in the noseband and so that the noseband lies just below the cheek bones. Make sure that the foal slip is adjusted as its head grows.
Great patience is required when a foal slip is first put on. Back the youngster into a corner if you are alone, or have an assistant to hold the foal. Hold the foal slip, by the nose piece over your hand so that the headpiece dangles away from the head. Standing at the foal’s shoulder, facing forwards, lowly and gently bring the nose piece over his nose. This can cause panic in the foal as it is unused to anything touching its face. The last thing you want to happen is for the foal to throw itself backwards in fear. Once the nosepiece is in place bring the head piece over the ears and gently fasten it in place. An alternative way is to undo the foal slip and fasten the head piece over the neck first and then gently manoeuvre the nose piece over the foal’s nose and then fasten it. For goodness sake please don’t ever leave a foal slip on a foal for any length of time, there have been some horrific images on the internet recently of young horses who have literally had head collars growing into their skin as they have been left on too long.
The next stage is to teach the foal to move forwards to a light pressure on the foal slip. Use one hand to encourage the quarters forwards while applying a gentle pressure to the foal slip. Once the foal learns to move forwards use the command ‘walk on’ as it moves. The foal will very quickly learn to associate the spoken command with moving forwards, one of the most important lessons for later life when the youngster is old enough to be ridden.
Try to spend a little time every day working with the foal. Gradually the foal will learn to lead from a light pressure on its foal slip. The pressure should be released as soon as the foal walks forwards. This way the foal learns that it should follow in a relaxed and unforced manner. Teach the foal to lead from both sides and to walk at either side of the mare. This will go a long way to prevent the foal becoming one sided which can cause problems when the youngster is old enough to be broken in.
From as early age as possible introduce the foal to having its body handled all over. Start by gently touching the neck and gradually let your hands travel over its body, once the foal is happy to let you stroke it all over move onto handling its legs and picking up the feet. Start by gently touching the legs, letting your hands move from the top, down to the knee and then down to the fetlock joint. Once the foal tolerates this procedure you can progress to picking up the feet. Great tact has to be used for this as you don’t want the foal to snatch its foot away, but neither do you want it to struggle and panic as you attempt to hold the foot. Aim to make slow and steady progress with your early handling to ensure the foal will be confident and yet polite.
Cheekiness in a foal should not be tolerated, especially in colt foals who can quickly become obnoxious and actually dangerous if such behaviour is not checked in time. Habits which are amusing in a foal can quickly become unpleasant in a large, fast moving young horse or pony. Never, ever encourage a foal to rear, chase anyone in a field, or to back up to you with its quarters. Whilst a foal might not cause you much damage if it kicks you, a large young horse or pony certainly could cause considerable harm. A sharp, light tap should be enough to discourage this type of behaviour, without making the foal afraid of you. With careful management, patience and discipline you will produce a young horse or pony which will be easy to break to saddle and a pleasure to handle.
Weaning foals should be an easy stress less transition if at all possible. Once the foal is 5 to 6 months old it should be eating solid food and the quality of nutrition in the mare’s milk will have diminished. If the foal is lacking strength and development or if there have been problems with its health, more time with the mare may be needed. Conversely, if the mare has lost a lot of condition, weaning earlier may be necessary to ensure that the mare has time to recover before the onset of winter.
By five or six months old the foal will already be fairly independent and will be spending time away from its mother. Once you feel the foal is at this stage it is easy to just remove the mare from the field and put her in another one a good distance from the foal. This means a few miles away rather than a few fields away. Mare and foal must be out of earshot of one another, otherwise they may panic and try to get through fences to join again.
With any luck the foal will hardly aware that it’s’ mother is gone. Everything is exactly as it has been other than the fact that his mother is no longer there. In an ideal situation if you can have mares and foals together the foals will be company for each other. The foal generally realizes what has happened and may do a little running and calling, but generally this is over within a day or two.
Another method is to have the mare and foal in adjoining fields. This way mother and baby can still see each other, but the foal is unable to feed and will eventually tire of his mother and become independent. It is a matter of deciding what works for you and your set up.
Some people prefer to stable either the mare or foal and remove the other, but I’ve found this to be very stressful to both and do prefer to do it more naturally in a way that will protect the foal from injury and will minimize stress to everyone – you especially.
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