Affirmative Training for Colts and Fillies

 

Foals are irresistible. They are precocious and lively; they cavort and air gallop and sleep flat-out. When they wake up, they’re an inch taller and even more curious about the world than before their nap. They have newborn piaffes and sliding stops. They jump like frogs. They are a fresh start, a whole new life. Who doesn’t want that?

My first professional training job was at a breeding farm. I had a flock of weanlings, some feral. I had the time of my life introducing them to leading, picking up their tiny hooves, making trailer loading a game. In the years since then, I’ve worked with mostly adult horses, many who don’t lead or feel safe enough to pick up their feet or flatly refuse a trailer ride. When healthy midlife horses are re-homed, it’s usually because of training issues. Some horses land with a patient new owner, some get worse through several owners, and some fall through the cracks, their lives disposable. I do know they were all brilliant foals.

We had a plan. We were challenged by our last horse so we want to start a foal, confident that we can handle problems of our own making. As if those problems are easier. Or we want a youngster so we can have the horse longer.  Clearly a newbie, human plans are confetti in a barn. Or we want a horse to grow up with our kid, one of the most dubious parenting choices ever. Some of us just want to try.

If it was easy to start a youngster, we’d all have flawless riding horses and we could squander money on new boots instead of supporting rescues. It isn’t just backyard-bred horses started by novice riders that get into trouble; it’s famous trainers turning out horses no one can ride. It’s the knowledgeable Quarter Horse owner who ends up with a Thoroughbred who turns their toolbox inside-out. It’s an imported warmblood with impeccable bloodlines who can’t live up to our hype.

All were beautiful foals, perfect in every way. No blame intended, just to say that training is an art that comes with a serious responsibility. Their life is at stake, nothing less.

Still, I understand about fillies and colts and humans who can’t say no, so here are some thoughts about starting a young horse.

Many farms wean foals at about six months old. Statistics say the vast majority get ulcers; 98% within two weeks after weaning. Take this part seriously; pain will make the transition much harder for the foal and could contribute to a life-long gastric issue. Are you certain that your last horse wasn’t struggling with gastric pain? Can you leave the foal longer with his family or perhaps bring the mare home, too, for an extended stay? Can you give the foal gastric support? Patience with your new horse might start with waiting longer to bring him home.

Let’s define training as gathering good experiences where the horse feels safe. Safety equals trust. Now, replace the word training with the word nurturing and hold yourself to that standard.

I want this young horse to have a calm strong mind, so regardless of what I’m teaching, I will model calm and quiet conversations. I’ll laugh because it relaxes both of us. I’ll challenge him but never frighten him. I’ll keep breathing, teaching myself as much as him, that a cue to breathe is a cue to relax. I’ll trust breath above training aids because connection happens, not with flags and spurs, but inside warm exhales

Most important of all, I know that when a horse is curious, he builds neuropathways which literally create a strong mind. Giving him time to think means he can stay in his parasympathetic nervous system where he can make good choices and be rewarded. Curiosity grows into mental health which turns into confidence and a confident horse will see challenge as a fun game. I’ll always prioritize curiosity over a training technique because if a horse is always frightened, flooded by erratic, confusing cues or intimidated by threats and corrections, he will stop being curious. He’ll shut down; pull inside himself as if playing dead. If we don’t listen and keep pushing, eventually he’ll get almost hard-wired to respond with his flight or sympathetic nervous system. He won’t be reliable because we’ve sacrificed trust for fear-based obedience. When you look at it that way, pushing him too hard creates a real mental dysfunction. We know horses like that, don’t we?

I’ll remember and do better for this young horse in front of me. Youngsters can be so bright and quick; they can make you think they’re capable of more than they are. Then we get excited that they’re such geniuses and ask for just one more repetition. A baby horse will try. We know we should go slow, but it’s hard to let it be good enough. When the youngster hits a wall, we think their overwhelm is resistance. “You know how to do this!” we threaten but maybe that day he can’t. As an apology to generations of homeless horses, if what I’m asking isn’t working, I’ll stop. I won’t repeat the useless cue louder. I’ll make peace and let it go that day. I’ll find a better way to ask because training requires us to be more creative than demanding.

Youngsters are imperfect learners. They can be loading fine and then get a fright and refuse. They can take a canter cue or lead from behind brilliantly one day, and be hopeless the next. We must stop seeing immaturity as a failing on the horse’s part. Ask for small things in short sessions. Allow him to move out; moving is thinking. When he comes to stillness, he understands. Praise generously and stop when both of you hungry for more.

Behaviors come and go, but I won’t let myself make one misstep an issue for my horse by drilling or over-correcting. If he makes a small effort, that’s enough. He was curious so let him figure it out. Since I rewarded his try, he’ll feel confident to try more the next time.

It’s years before a horse becomes dependable. Affirmative training is hoping for the best but accepting some days fall short. One lesson can’t be more important than another, just as one rough day can’t ruin either of you. Let it go. See every moment not as the work of training but an opportunity to be worthy of a horse’s trust.

How to start a young horse is no different than how to rehab a troubled horse or connect with an old campaigner. Never lose sight of them as foals. Remember their true nature; the things you love about horses. Then, say yes to remind them of who they were born to be.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

43 thoughts on “Affirmative Training for Colts and Fillies”

  1. Anna,
    This was brilliantly timely — a friend is just about to start an Afghan Teke foal, and this knowledge will be invaluable.
    Thank you so much.
    Nuala

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  2. When I was about 18 – my mare was bred & she had a beautiful big colt. Considering the fact that I really didnt know what I was doing – the credit for how Silky turned out must have been all his. I spent a lot of time just handling & “playing” with him. We started when he was just days old – by the time he was 3 months old, he would lead, stand tied (short periods of time) pick up all 4 feet – his only vice (?) was he was quite mouthy. I think not knowing how hard it could be – apparently made it easy for both of us. Years later, I did get to be around other young foals – it was so enjoyable just being with them & handling them – they learn so quickly.

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    • The thing I wanted to squeeze into this blog, but didn’t have enough room, was my usual nag about leaving their muzzles alone. They are hyper-sensitive on foals, we know not to clip whiskers now, knowing they are nerve endings. But I’m sure he did what you wanted and you were kind.

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      • Nope – at that time, I didnt own a pair of clippers & wouldnt have had any reason to use them on my mare or the colt.

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    • Maggie, Warwick Schiller recently posted a video on mouthy/nibbly. Our filly was that way, first ever for me, she got over it in 3 days with his method. Just now, dawn (again, out to relieve the dog) we spoke over the fence, almost came a nibble but his system absolutely works. Anna, you would be amazed.

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  3. Oh, Anna, thank you for this! Such a wonderful way of staying connected to the true spirit of the horse. Though I am an elderly newbie to the hands-on joy of horses, I can feel and see all those amazing manifestations of life energy that you describe. I’ve been fortunate enough to have four babies in the herd I acquired en masse, and it’s been a fascinating peek into horse development. To be honest, I feel relieved that I don’t “have to” start them with the idea of riding them, but just with the idea of developing a trusting and accepting relationship.

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    • Thank you Anna, such a beautiful blog. My baby is 20 months now and boy do I feel ill equipped at times. How right you are when you say they learn so quickly, it’s easy to want to do more just one more thing😜
      It’s been a huge lesson for me, slow and right….and oh I should breath.

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  4. “As an apology to generations of homeless horses, if what I’m asking isn’t working, I’ll stop. I won’t repeat the useless cue louder. I’ll make peace and let it go that day. I’ll find a better way to ask because training requires us to be more creative than demanding.”
    Amen, sistah.
    That little slice of sentiment perfection is getting shared with the link, I’ll tellyawhat.
    xox

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  5. Thank you! I wish I could have you in my head all the time instead of words on a page that are hard to remember constantly. I have changed quite a bit over my short journey with horses (10 years) and definitely agree with what you write about. In the process, I do believe if you remain open to learning and listening to the horse rather than the negative advice from others, you will make a positive impact on the souls and lives of our dear horses.

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      • We have a new 8 week old colt, Jamie, and are fortunate to have been able to bring the good mare, Raz, to our farm to wean. She is a kind and loving mare and her son, of course, is a copy cat! This time interacting with them both is a gift and the bonding sweet. The breeder has given us a priceless gift.
        I know that when mama goes home, it will be a sad day. I love her, too, and want that day to be as ‘smooth’ (What word can I possibly use? To me, no word encompasses this day. My eyes tear up just thinking about it.)
        Any suggestions for that day to ease the transition and acknowledge the change, sacrifices and new beginnings would be much appreciated.
        Lise Morgan

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        • Advice… ok, but I’ll be blunt. Put the weaning day off as long as you can. In the meantime, be a place of calm and strength. No tearing up, please. When the day comes, be cheerful and confident. He will have plenty of emotions that day, try not to add your’s on top… (Sorry, but yes.) Great that the mare can be there, but the breeder didn’t give you a gift, there was no choice. 8 weeks is impossibly early for such a big change. (Location I mean.) Lots of breathing, and good luck. Thanks, Lise

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  6. I am lucky enough to board my three Morgans at the farm they were born on and every spring we see the new generation join the earlier ones, play wildly with each other and each other’s mothers and when weaned, stand together in that now motherless field (the calling that goes on for the first days is hard to take sometimes, so heartbreaking!). They are handled by the barn staff every day, with all their leaps and silly steps. As they join the herd, we are often watched over the fence by the youngsters while we ride their elders in lessons. They line up and observe. The owner and her daughter don’t start them at all until they are nearly four–they learn about feet trimming and grooming, but that’s it. My gals are still friends with those they were born with and spent those first months of life with–it’s an amazing bit of horse life to get to see. So yes, everything you said here so resonated–there’s a foal in each horse we take on, with their mixture of curiosity and verve.

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  7. I don’t know how you know what’s going on in my life from so far away. Last year my neighbour brought a mare for her children to ride. Unbeknownst to anyone two weeks later the mare had a beautiful Cremello foal. To cut a long story short they didn’t want the foal and I was given two weeks to decide if I wanted him. One morning I went out to feed my two horses and the foal had jumped the fence and was in with my two horses. He decided for us.

    Thanks to you Anna Blake, both he and the mare were put on gastric ulcer powder and the mare and foal came to our property before we weaned the foal at about 8 months old.

    Thanks to you Anna Blake, we breathe and laugh together a lot.

    I don’t know how big he will be (Shire unknown). He is now 10months old and I can see he is going to be a “good citizen of the world” so we are off to a good start. Keep those blog messages coming.

    Thanks Anna

    Thanks Anna

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    • Oh Hana… What a hoot. He’s hijacked you and your herd… but nice catch and well done. A big smile and I hope I get to meet him one of these years. Thanks, Hana

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  8. This is a great topic. What would you recommend for a 15mo. old filly who had early handling but never was completely willing to lead? Or leading tips for foals in general?

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    • I could write 50 pages on this, but I’ll be brief. Lead from behind. Leave her head alone. Let her make the choice. She is resisting something, I’d need to see a video to say more. Hope that helps, Kristin.

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  9. “Replace the word training with the word nurturing and hold yourself to that standard.” I so very much wish that there were so many more of you in the world. I am going to post this on my bathroom mirror. 🙂

    I am in the habit of rescuing senior horses, but two weeks ago I rescued what has turned out to be a very sweet 8 yr old mare a day away from a truck ride to Mexico. I have wondered at how her journey brought her to a kill pen. I have pondered her as a newborn filly…this particular post of yours just landed magically into the center of our world right now. Always I am at a loss to thank you or express how much I appreciate finding you and your way with words and horses.

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  10. Once again, a wonderful post which speaks to my soul at dawn.
    I see foals as a blank page. All their cavorting shows us that we ask nothing in education which cannot be exhibited loose in the paddock. Re-homed and training issues? The very best are rarely sold, we keep them for ourselves and then yes, they can hardly accept anyone but their super-sensitive and famous trainers (viz, Totilas). Kids and youngsters? Takes a good horse to make a good rider. Takes a good rider to make a good horse. The veterans, be they horses or people, are the best teachers. No repetitions. Once he catches a new move, I end the session, beginning the next with the whole repertoire, never in the same order, and if all goes calmly to my satisfaction, may add something new, then quit. “What? Are we done? Is that all?” Someone once said to me “All horses are crazy!” I disagreed, said “Not at all, but they are easily driven crazy.”
    I hope the world has learned its lesson regarding Totilas, where ability could not live up to the $21m he cost. This sort of thing happens all the time. A great horse separated from a great rider, ruined, all because of money.

    Thank you Anna, for this strong and meaningful post.

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  11. With every post you write, there is at least one – if not more – passage that makes my eyes widen, starts my head to nodding, and brings me that much closer to understanding. I wish your blogs were required reading for all of us so-called horse lovers. I venture to say the need for rescues would surely be reduced. No pressure. You could stop writing today (but please don’t!) and we would still have plenty of material to draw from.

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  12. We were blessed to be able to leave our foals with their dams and in with their sire, and in all cases they were pasture bred. When it came to weaning we did it slowly at about 8 months and the foals would spend the night in the corral with Mom outside and then spend the day with the herd. Gradually we would increase their time in the corral and after about a month they would go out with a good “Uncle” gelding and any foals from the previous year. It seemed by the time they were weaned their dams were happy to see them go lol. So interesting to see their sire was the most active babysitter, going to find any who may have wandered out of his acceptable distances for them to explore. It was wonderful to see how different personalities came from the same combination of genes, and to help and encourage those little creatures to enjoy and trust their human caretakers. We raised 47 foals over the 20 years we were breeding and in that time we never had a mare not conceive and we never lost a foal. As I said we were blessed.
    Thank you again for your ALWAYS wonderful insights!

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    • So well done, there are those who would tell you you can’t make money this way. 🙂 What a blessing indeed, for the horses and for you, thanks for commenting, Jane.

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  13. Another great piece! Just love your blog. I have never tried training a weanling, but when I trained my Morgan 3 y.o., I was lucky to have to go slowly because of his OCD problems. When I hit the usual block in learning, not only would i not keep trying to get him to do whatever it was, but I’d give him something to do that I knew he could do easily, so we could end on a good note. Also, with older horses with training fears, I find some acupressure Heart 7 and Pericardium 7 seem to help decrease anxiety/fear/agitation and build trust.

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    • Thanks, Therese, for the tip and also mentioning that easy thing to end on. Too many people think it’s cheating somehow if they do an easy thing, but it’s affirming.

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  14. So interesting. In my work as a Horse Communicator & Healer I routinely check for ulcers in my sessions. Of the horses that work with, 50% test ‘yes’ for ulcers. (I wrote about my findings here https://www.trishawren.com/does-my-horse-have-ulcers/ ). The early months and years are so important for setting a horse up for success and happiness, and many of us buy horses whose weaning and upbringing we have little knowledge of unfortunately; thanks for the great advice for those considering starting with a foal <3

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  15. I have been learning more about horses since discovering the calming signals and would love to learn more about them as i have an older mare Gemma that has always turned her head away from me when i approach her and lately I’ve been stepping away when i see this and she becomes more relaxed to after a while she allowes me into her space and stays relaxed and will lick and chew. Thankyou for allowing me to read your blogs Anna.

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    • Even if nothing more happened, that short instant is so very huge to horses… at another time, I would have doubted such a thing but it’s just undeniable. Thanks, Debra.

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