by Mitzi Summers
There exist tried and true axioms concerning the schooling of a young horse, and then there are acceptable deviations which are clearly open for discussion and interpretation. This article will concern the education of a riding horse, as we are all aware of the time limit imposed on horses who exist mainly for the profit of their owners.
Unfortunately this practice, of riding a horse much too early to benefit him psychologically or physically, and often strictly determined by the bank account or gratification of the owner or trainer, has also become an accepted facet of the horse industry. But this writing will be following the tenets of classical methods which allow the horse to gradually accept his unnatural place in our world — to be somewhat confined, usually have changes in his herd makeup, and submit to a rider on his back.
I want to make it clear that I totally agree and understand our need to have a horse as our companion, to use him for our pleasure, to take him to shows and to ride him. But intelligent management of the horse must be our objective throughout the entire process, indeed, riding and training a horse correctly is one of the most challenging goals for which a human can strive, no matter what the next-door neighbor may think.
For the foal, the process of socialization with his own kind can not be overstressed. Here he learns boundaries of behavior, bonding, affection and corrections from his dam and other members of the herd. It is also important, of course, to start his relationship with humans, to learn to interact with them, and to learn the basic lessons of haltering, grooming, and leading. All of these lessons need to be given with patience, but also with the quick correction that one of his herd members may utilize. A bite is met with a sharp retort from his handler and an immediate pinching motion on neck or body. A horseman should never hit a horse on his head. Besides making the animal head shy, a bad aim could damage the very vulnerable eye. A physical punishment should be very quickly administered seconds after the misbehavior, and then forgotten about.
Use care and common sense when dealing with young horses. They have not yet completely understood their boundaries. I have seen people making baby noises to a youngster and kissing him on his nose, and then reacting with anger and surprise when they are rewarded with a nip to their face. There is veracity to the term “Horse Play”. Never lose your temper with a horse, including a youngster. If a correction is to be given, it is given with the consideration and well-defined deliberation of a horse trainer.
Remember that in the beginning your youngster has no knowledge of proper behavior with his human handlers.
His dam and other horses in his herd will be teaching him socialization skills, and much has been made of your horse understanding that you are the “boss mare”. This line of thinking can be overdone, however. Your baby still fully realizes that you are definitely NOT a horse, and usually already understands the predator-prey relationship. Yes, he must understand safety and obedience boundaries but this is when you start to develop the necessary trust. I dislike that the words “dominance” and “submission” have become the primary goals in some types of horsemanship training methods. The key elements are still partnership and trust. This is not obtained by flooding, negative reinforcement behavior techniques or causing the animal’s obedience only through exhaustion.
It is necessary to prepare your young horse for his first experience with a farrier, but that preparation can take many days. Your baby is a flight animal. The ability to run quickly away from danger saved the lives of his ancestors or he would not even be here as a species. Then suddenly you take one of his legs away and hold it! He is trapped… he cannot get quickly away. Then, to make matters worse, if he struggles, which he invariably will, he may be punished for it.
Get your youngster used to your stroking his legs. Lean a bit into him but do not demand any more at first. When you do pick up a leg it can be only an inch off the ground and only for a few seconds. Then gradually build up the time. Be certain that your farrier is good with babies. Be willing to even pay him a bit more money for his time so that the first trimming can be a fairly laid-back experience. Then you will have build up the foundation and you will not have any more trouble.
There are many massage and leading techniques that can be employed at this stage of working with your baby, before he is weaned. Unless mama is an overly protective mother you can work with your youngster with her at liberty, or for safety have her tied nearby. This serves as a mild method to prepare the pair for the trauma of weaning. You should accustom him to being led from both sides, stroked all over his body, pick up all four legs and have them held for short periods of time. He can learn to walk over ground poles, learn to go around you in an 8 meter circle, and GRADUALLY learn to tie without trauma. This needs to be done with a person holding the rope which restrains him. Do not actually tie him up. Give and take as he learns the restraints of a rope not allowing him freedom. This can be very traumatic for a horse for the first few times — loss of flight meant loss of life when his ancestors were wild. Have the dam right next to him. Remember, he has no right or wrong. He is working from a “clean slate”.
All of these sessions should be very short. His main job right now is to mingle with the herd, and to run and play and strengthen his muscles. The socialization of other horses is of primary importance.
The weaning process should contain as little trauma as ipossible. Some people have the facilities to allow the mare to do the weaning herself, but especially if the foal is a colt and the mare is carrying another foal or not in her prime, this can be wearing on the mare. I like the foal to have a “baby sitter”, another foal to keep him company or an older horse with whom he has bonded. I start the separation process gradually. There are different ways of accomplishing this. If you have them out at pasture and they come in once or twice a day to be fed and looked over, you can put the mare and foal in adjoining stalls. They can not touch each other, but can communicate through the bars of the stall and smell and talk to each other. Gradually build up the time that they are separated. If the stall is large enough, have the baby buddy or horse with the foal.
Graduate to opposite ends of the barn, then bring them in at separate times. Weaning can be managed so it is relatively stress-free. It just takes some planning and extra time. Never just suddenly separate a baby from his mother permanently all at once. I know it is done, especially at breeding barns, but I cannot imagine subjecting an animal to that much anxiety if there is another way around it.
So now you have your foal weaned, leading, allowing himself to be groomed, going over safe obstacles never meant to scare him, picking up his feet, and walking around you quietly in a small circle.