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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