Blue Cross blog
Handling your foalPosted on 17 Aug 2011
The first few days, weeks and months of a foal’s life are really important and play a big part in their development. Our advice will help you to ensure that your youngster grows into a happy and healthy horse…
Deciding to breed from a horse is a big decision and one which needs a lot of thought. You need to carefully consider the potential quality and life span of the foal – genetic disorders can be passed on, as can a dubious temperament. The UK is overpopulated with horses already so think about whether you really want to add to that stockpile. If you’re thinking about taking on a youngster it’s important to ensure you have enough time, money, facilities, experience and, above all, patience and commitment.
It’s never to early to start
The world can be an exciting but intimidating place for a young foal. The early days, weeks and months are a crucial time for learning and will have a huge impact on shaping their view of life. Handling a foal properly from an early age is essential because this will lay firm foundations for the rest of their life and will increase their chance of becoming a happy, well-rounded horse in the future.
Socialising and early human contact
Foals learn constantly from their mums. Allowing mares and foals to interact with other mares and foals will provide a great learning environment. We all know it’s fun to watch foals playing but it’s also more than this. Through play, foals are developing acceptable social skills, building confidence and understanding natural behaviours and body language.
Whilst foals are learning to socialise with others of their own kind it’s important to remember that they need positive human interaction too.
It’s usual for the foal to be handled during, or very soon after, their birth. In the next 24 hours the foal’s natural instincts, like their flight response, become stronger. It’s important that mum and foal are allowed time to bond and try to prevent the mare from becoming anxious and stressed as this could be passed onto the foal. The foal will take reassurance from their mum so the more relaxed she is, the happier and less intimidated the foal will be.
Mares will generally be very possessive of their foals, especially in the first few days. This is a very strong, natural instinct and you need to remain mindful and respectful of it.
It’s usually not necessary to handle the foal without an actual reason because they’ll generally receive enough handling during their daily routine (especially if they are stabled and turned out each day). However, you should always approach any interaction with the foal as a training session because they are very impressionable at this stage and it’s important that you remain focused and purposeful in your handling and clear about what you hope to achieve. All handling should be brief as a foal’s attention span is short.
All interaction must be confident and firm, yet quiet and calm. Use your voice to reassure both mum and foal and remain mindful of their natural instincts.
Although you may handle each foal slightly differently to suit the situation, don’t forget to be consistent in your approach with each individual youngster.
Where possible have someone to help you. Approach the mare as normal while keeping an eye on the foal’s reactions. Don’t place yourself between the mare and her foal. Always approach the mare first, reassure her and restrain her before attempting to catch the foal.
Approach the foal in such a way that if they walk away from you they are steered towards the mare. Place one hand around the foal’s chest and one around their quarters. It’s important that the foal doesn’t get away from you. Any struggling should be met with continued restraint until the foal stops, which then makes any release from the pressure a reward.
If the foal continues to move away from you, use the person holding the mare to help you. Position the mare in such a way that the foal can be guided between her rear end and the stable wall. The person holding the mare can prevent the foal from running forward and you can approach them from behind before catching them in your arms.
Catching from the field will be easier once the above technique has been practised. However, it’s best to lead the mare into a more confined area of the field, again allowing the foal to follow her, and positioning her carefully before attempting to catch the foal.
When releasing the foal make sure they are relaxed and not struggling against you. Bring the foal to the front of the mare and always allow the foal to go before releasing the mare.
Begin the leading process by catching the foal in the stable and restraining them using both arms – one in front of the chest for steering and one behind the quarters for sending forward. While leading the mare around the stable, allow the foal to follow within the confines of the handler’s arms. You should have a firm enough hold on the foal to help with direction but it’s important that you don’t restrict them too much as this may lead to confusion.
Once the foal is moving confidently behind the mare a trip to the field should be pretty straightforward. Always allow the mare to go first at this stage.
The mare may want to turn around and check on her foal, so make sure that both handlers are in a safe position and that if the mare does swing around the foal’s handler is not going to get knocked over.
When the foal is accustomed to their normal routine, you can start to introduce more formal leading. Catch them in the stable as usual and introduce a rope or soft cloth around their neck. Use the cloth or rope to stop the foal by applying pressure (using the mare as the buffer). Release the pressure the moment the foal stops.
The next stage is to get the foal used to wearing a slip. Use a soft leather slip so that it will break if snagged and introduce it after catching the foal in the stable. Leave it on so the foal becomes accustomed to it but don’t forget to check the fitting regularly because foals grow fast. At this stage don’t apply any pressure to the foal slip – lead the foal as explained above.
When the foal is confident being led using the method above and is happy wearing the foal slip, you can start to lead them from the slip. Thread a rope through the back ring of the foal slip and continue to lead the foal as normal with a cloth around their neck. Then gradually introduce a little pressure to the rope at the same time as the cloth around the neck. Slowly increase the pressure on the rope and decrease the pressure on the cloth until you are no longer using the cloth at all. Continue to use your arm around the foal’s rear to encourage them to move forward and don’t try to pull the foal forward using the foal slip. Always use a slip rope – never clip the rope onto the foal slip.
Picking feet out/preparing for the farrier
Always work in a secure area, clear of any hazards and with a non-slip surface. You may want to start in a stable with plenty of bedding in case the foal does slip over. You’ll need two people, one to restrain the foal and one to pick up their feet. At first you’ll need to restrain the foal using both arms and you can then progress to using a cloth around their chest and an arm around their quarters, and then eventually to using the foal slip. It’s really important that the foal does not learn to struggle and get away. Make sure the mare is restrained and allow her to see the foal to reassure both of them.
The person picking out the feet needs to work quietly but firmly and be as swift but as patient as possible. Begin by running a hand down the foal’s legs and if they go to move away keep your contact. When they stand still, take your hand away. You can then progress to picking the foot up. If the foal resists and snatches their foot away keep hold of it because it’s really important that the foal doesn’t learn to snatch their foot away from you. Keep hold of the foot until the foal stops resisting and as soon as they relax you can place the foot back down as smoothly as possible. Only hold the foot up for short periods of time. Unlike with an older horse you’ll need to stand on the opposite side to the handler so make sure you communicate clearly with each other.
You need to be consistent in how you handle the foal from day one. Using the method of pressure and release is integral to the foal’s understanding of acceptable behaviour and keeping these techniques consistent will help to ensure that the foal develops into a manageable and confident youngster, leading to a rewarding experience for both horse and handler.
Always be aware that a mare’s natural instincts will kick in after they give birth. Their drive to protect their offspring will be very strong and this may mean they act slightly out of character. To ensure handling is kept as safe as possible wear suitable clothing like a hat, gloves and protective boots. Keep an eye out for any signs of stress that your mare and foal may be showing and act sympathetically to their needs. This will mean training and handling can be both safe and fun.