As a breeder, I think it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity foals give us in their early lives to prepare them for a productive place in the human world. For me that involves four sets of lessons in the first few weeks of a pony’s life: desensitizing to the halter, accustoming them to foot handling, teaching yielding to pressure, and rudimentary leading. If you’re interested in the article I wrote for Rural Heritage magazine entitled “Early Foal Training,” click here.
Every foal is different in how they respond to these early lessons. Willowtrail Mountain Prince has just turned two weeks, and I’m seeing a tremendous difference right now compared to just a few days ago. Halter desensitization, in my experience, can be difficult in the first few days because a foal’s whiskers are so extraordinarily sensitive. If they have difficulty accepting the halter over their nose, then I at least make sure I rub them all over their bodies with it, including down their nose. Since I use a rope halter, the ‘tail’ of the halter is also handy for early desensitization to ropes. I gently toss it across their backs, over their necks, and around their legs. (You might be interested in the similarities here to “A Litmus Test for Riding.”)
Using a rope halter on foals is a pretty good test of their acceptance of it, too, since there isn’t a way that I’ve figured out to put it on and take it off quickly. The foal has to be trusting enough to stand quietly for it to be put on and tied and then to be untied and removed. I’ve learned it’s always best to not put it all the way on unless I’m confident that I have the foal’s trust to let me take it off slowly and calmly, too. Once it’s on, I can start applying pressure to it backwards and sideways to teach yielding to pressure and the beginnings of rudimentary leading.
When I hired my first professional farrier, he asked that he be the one to teach foals about foot handling. Now that I do my own trimming, I understand his insistence on it being done right. The same can be said for halter work, leading, and yielding to pressure. Earlier this year I reaped the benefits when training a four-year-old of the early work I’d done with him. I’m enjoying spending time with Prince in these early days, ensuring he gets a start that will serve him well all his life.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012