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The Importance of good handling
Mares & Foals taking cover from the midday sun in Co. Wicklow
Handling a foal early breaks the barrier of fear of humans. It also cuts down on labour in later years as well as being less risky. It is safer for you as the handler and safer for the animal. It also allows you to use the foal’s natural teacher the dam, to aid them along. If you have a good calm mare, use her to your benefit. She will teach her foal quicker than you. Foals are copycats at this stage and their natural sense of curiosity means they will watch the dam and her handler and often want to copy. If you are learning to handle young stock yourself, learning with a foal is probably best for you. They are a lot more receptive than yearlings and are quicker to forgive and forget if you do make a blunder. Also, safety issues such as trampling on feet won’t hurt the beginner handler as much as when they have bigger toes and heavier bodies. Handling little an often as to not sour them is good advice. 10 minutes every day will have a far lasting effect than 2/3 days of full on handling. Teaching the foal respect from the offset is very important. Although you need to befriend the foal, over handling or molly cuddling it will only cause a big issue later when the animal is much bigger and stronger. Animals know their personal space, but it is important that you make them aware of yours. Always finishing up the session on a good note is a good reward for both them and you. A simple itch on the withers or a little handful of foal cubes will be enough of a treat to say job well-done. Doing all this early on is known as imprint-training.
- Teaching to Lead
The dam will excel at teaching the foal to lead and the natural response for the foal if you are to lead the mare is to follow. However, it is advisable to get the foal slip on in the first few days so you can start handling them directly and teaching them to lead. At this early stage in a foal’s life, their visibility isn’t 100% and their peripheral vision hasn’t yet developed. It is important to be aware of this because the animal can easily spook when suddenly confronted by a human hand or an innate object such as the head collar. Standing on the right side of the foal let the nose of the foal slip into the noseband. Then carefully slip the head piece over the poll and tighten it so you can get 3 fingers in behind. Always use leather headcollars as these will break if the foal accidently gets caught in something unlike the synthetic ones.
Horses are pressure release response animals so you should teach the foal to lead initially by pushing rather than by pulling. At the start of the leading training it is advisable to have 2 if not 3 people present. Two people can cup hands both behind the rear of the foal and across its chest and successfully be able to move it along behind the mother who is being led by a third. If the foal is quite big and your hands can’t meet you could use a cloth or a rope to bond your hands together. Once you have graduated this stage you could lose the third body and with one handler on the mare the other could aid the foal along from the nearside with their hand on their chest and the other on its tail. This will successfully direct the foal. Once things are running smoothly, you could start to put a slip rope through the headcollar of the foal and start to introduce it to moving forward without something on the bum. Make sure though that the rope is still a slip rope as you do not want to frighten the foal if it was to take a start backwards.
Letting the mare instinctively lead the foal
There are many pros to teaching the foal this basic lesson in life now. It is far less dangerous for handler while the animal still has reached its full strength but also it is safer to have the foal led instead of running behind the dam where it can easily get knocked into gates and stable doors. The quicker you are at teaching the foal to be confident as well means that the foal will maintain a healthy immune system – less stress, more health.
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If a mare and foal have been turned out in a field on their own it is always good advice to teach the foal to follow its mother to a bucket of feed at the gate. This happy and rewarding welcome for both will be gratefully received and you will teach a foal about rewards when it responds to you in a positive manner. Don’t take on this approach however if they are grazing in herds as the foals will get hurt.
- Desensitising to Touch
As training progresses with the foal, it is important to recognise any behavioural weaknesses in the dam. If she has certain vices or weak spots in her own training, it is likely that she will teach the foal them too. Head shyness’s, poor lifting of feet or loading will all have a negative economic impact further down the line at the sales. So, you need to take extra time on the foal ensuring that it is fully comfortable with you touching its ears for example or lifting the feet if the mare is temperamental when shoeing. Not all mares are role models, but you can train these vices out. When commencing feet training, have someone else present and ensure the foal is facing the dam so they don’t fret. Glide your hand slowly and confidently down the front leg, maintaining a regular pressure so they understand what is happening. By the time you reach the foot the foal should be comfortable with you. Pick up the hoof and give it a rub, preparing it for similar movements from the farrier. Gently release soon after, placing the foot back down on the ground and reward the foal for being so co-operative. A happy experience like this will make the foal more willing in the future and you will need the foal seen to by the farrier at around 6 – 8 weeks old. If a foal has bad conformation however they should be seen earlier even if the farrier at that point wishes to advise you that the foal can/will in this instance correct itself.
Desensitising can be introduced in many ways such as above, and you will be teaching them skills they will need for life. Grooming with your hand initially allows them to become familiar with your touch and the heat of your hand will be far more welcomed than a cold brush. Once you have advanced this stage you will need to start using a basic grooming kit. Remember the foals coat is there to protect them. It contains plenty of natural oils that act as a natural rain barrier and prevent your foal from getting cold. You do not want to run the risk of grooming them out of the coat with over soft brushes or by washing with a strong wash. Keeping it simple is best and most natural at these early stages.
Often foals will wear rugs to teach them about coats as well as keeping them warm. Make sure it is a snug fit but a rug that won’t rub them is very important.
At this point you could introduce then to hosing. Plenty of breeders find that water is a quick way to gain a foal’s confidence. They can find it playful and fun and it will become necessary for them in later life. If they have white socks, they need to get well used to the hose as keeping those legs clean will be a constant pain in their lives. If your foal suffers an injury or if it just gets a puffy leg, you will need to be able to hose it and it is at that critical point when you don’t need a foal hopping about on its bad leg. Both the vet and farrier will thankyou for helping them get on with their chores.
Having a foal comfortable with running water and wiggly hoses is a good desensitising aid.
If your dam is a good loader, she should be your no.1 tutor. If you have a front and rear loading horse box, start by teaching the foal to follow the mare in and through the trailer. You can then advance further by closing the trailers front ramp and leading the mare up with foal by her side and closing the back ramp. When unloading, be careful the mare doesn’t turn as she could cause harm to you or the foal. Reversing is the safest method here. The foal will still be small enough that he/she can turn. Using boxes without partitions is the safest for young stock so they can lean and balance on their mother. Make sure the mare is always tied when travelling. The young stock can travel free.
Teaching a foal from early on with her mother by her side will give her good confidence and she/he will learn to trust well. Once they are weaned however, they won’t have the natural guidance and can often become easily stressed and agitated. Stress has been identified as reducing the animal’s natural immune system, so it is important to avoid all stresses at any point. You do not want the foal to lose condition at this stage because it is a weight that is not easily put back on.
Working with a mare you know well also reduces your chance of injury. If she is calm and trusts you, she will understand that you are trying to teach her foal too so she naturally will co-operate. However, if the mare is new to motherhood or new to you as the handler, be cautious, she could very well get protective and not understand what you are intending to do.
Foals relaxing in their natural habitat
- Economic Benefits
There are so many economical positives to training a foal young. A young foal is receptive and easy to overpower compared to one that has a couple of months on it. To start from the very start of handling, only one set of hands are required. Gentle stroking and rubbing as well as putting on and off the foals slip. After those first couple of sessions it is wise to introduce a handling companion or two to help you teach the foal to lead. After that if the foal has understood it can go back to being just one. Having one set of hands is far cheaper than two, but if you leave training till the foal is older and is more of a threat to you it is vital to have two sets of hands on deck.
If you don’t have the confidence, time or manpower to do the initial training, the possibility of sending it away to be trained could have serious financial implications up to € 140 per week. This can also cause stress to the dam and foal and the condition of the foal could suffer.
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A foal will never forget being handled. It lessens their natural flight or fight mode around humans and teaching them to lead, load, pick up feet at this early stage in their life will help them when they are older.
Buyers are time and cost efficient. They are less likely to buy stock that have not been handled. In a sales type situation, an unhandled foal will look more stressed and scared than a relaxed handled foal so it could directly affect the sale value of the foal. Buyers also understand the time and invariably the costs incurred for such training as well as understanding the benefits of training foals early. Very few people would buy unhandled by choice. The skill set base is low in some cases and a lot of cases nowadays, horses are for pleasure outside of 9-5 work hours and need to be ready to wear off the peg!
- Deviant Behaviours
It is easy to consider the financial implications of the sale of an unhandled foal, but we must also consider the potential sales price of a foal that has been handled badly. Bad handling can cause irrational fears and certain vices to come on from an early age. Thus, this will have a knock-on effect on the sale of the animal. No one is keen to buy a difficult horse. Easy horse, easy sale we must remember that.
Working with an animal from an early age teaches them trust. Horses are natural human companions so becoming their friend early on will teach them good behaviour and easy cooperation later. It will also alleviate potential vices if they are treated properly from the start.
As handled yearlings they will come forward to people easily of all shapes and sizes.
Horses tend to show stresses in a variety of different ways. Crib biting, weaving, wind sucking, and box walking are very common practises for an animal that is not feeling comfortable in its surroundings. Not only do we not want to introduce such vices into our own yard, but with duty of care practise, all these vices are to be declared at point of sale. This will have a considerable impact on the value of your animal, and you may find that you don’t achieve the sale price you were intending your animal for.
- Safety Precautions
Personal protection is vital when handling any stock. It is always a good idea to use gloves when leading a foal or the dam. They will prevent rope burn and you will have a better grip if they are to take a sudden pull in the wrong direction. Also, the wearing of a skull cap and steel toe caps are certainly advised for fear of feet darting your direction or if you were to take a spill when leading foals on hard surfaces. Remember, they are young and unpredictable, and all animals are quick to react. If in doubt when doing any procedure make sure to call for back up. If a situation between a foal and mare gets out of control, not only can you end up injured but so too may the foal and this is not ideal if you are intending to sell it.
If it is not always possible to have a second handler on standby, installing a crush or stocks into your yard is safe practise. Also using a mare and foal crush reduces the risk of getting in a row. Putting on head collars or administering vaccinations and dosing can all be done safely in a crush and reduces the manpower for these kinds of activities. If you don not have access to a crush you can always use a stall in the lorry, but first you must teach them to be confident loaders.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1 Mares & Foals taking cover Co. Wicklow ………………………………………… Page 1
Figure 2 Mare instinctively leading the foal ………………………..………………………… Page 2
Figure 3 Having a foal comfortable with running water ………………………………… Page 3
Figure 4 Foals relaxing in their natural habitat ……………………………………………… Page 4
Figure 5 Forthcoming Yearlings ……………………………………………………………………. Page 5
All photos are with kind thanks from Greenhall Sport Horses, Tinahely, Co. Wicklow.
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