Kenny Nichols and Dale Barron share their process of halter breaking young horses.
Halter breaking does not have to be a three-ring circus. For years, Kenny Nichols and Dale Barron have raised young horses bred at their farm, Nichols Quarter Horses, in Waco, Texas. With few fireworks and a lot of gentle handling, their horses graduate seamlessly to saddle breaking and on to training to become champion all-around horses: barrel racing, roping and steer wrestling mounts. They shared their process with advice on how to make the experience a positive one for your weanlings.
Nichols says halter breaking your horse is a crucial step in its overall training.
“As this is the first experience with the young horse, this sets the stage for what you’ll be doing from here on out,” Nichols said. “Everything is a building block. We want to promote confidence in the foal at all times, plus have that foal respect us and respect pressure.”
Start ‘Em Early
Nichols and Barron start working with the foal as a newborn, eventually introducing the halter at an early age. Rather than waiting until the horses are 6 months old or even older, they feel this is a good way to get a jumpstart before the scales are tipped in the horse’s favor.
“We want to start them young when they don’t have a weight and size advantage over us,” Nichols said. “We work in a way that helps promote trust with them, and for us, that means starting them when they are young.”
Each Baby is Different
Soon after the foal is born, Nichols and Barron introduce themselves in a low-stress way. They rub the colt’s neck and back, pick its feet up, scratch under its belly—building confidence in the horse toward the handler. These soothing rituals continue throughout training. Picking up the feet is important—your farrier will appreciate the time you spend on this important step.
“Different horses are going to require a different amount of time at each stage,” Barron said. “They have their own personalities and their own character. You have to read the character of that individual baby to decide how much time and effort you’ll need to put in at each point. You’ll have some babies that naturally want to follow you around. Others are a bit more shy.”
Nichols emphasizes that they’re not advocating for full-on imprinting on the foal as soon as it’s born. They let the mare and foal bond, and when the foal is 12 to 24 hours old, they’ll work on petting the foal all over to get it used to being handled. Then, at 3 to 5 days old, they’ll work to take the foal halter on and off, picking up feet and rubbing on the foal’s head and body.
“Depending on how they’re coming along, by the time the horse is 5 days old, we’ve already got a halter on the foal and we’re working with it,” Nichols said. “You never know when one of these babies are going to get sick or you’re going to need to do something with it, so we want to introduce the halter to the horse as early as possible.”
Much of the halter-breaking process happens in the first few weeks of the horse’s life. It is reinforced consistently as the baby grows into a young horse.
Aim to keep your sessions brief, because Nichols says young horses have a very short attention span.
“Doing something several times a day, taking a little bit of time working with the horse, is usually better than trying to spend an hour drilling something into them,” Nichols said.
Nichols and Barron keep the mare with the foal while working with the youngster, saying it helps to keep both calm and can help encourage the foal to cooperate.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Nichols and Barron do a lot of the early halter breaking together as a team.
“Two people keeps the baby from getting away from you and getting in a bad position,” Nichols said. “It also keeps them from moving backwards on you, and it helps them relax.”
If you don’t have another handler to help you, it’s even more important to begin in a small space. They start with the mare and foal in a 12-by-12-foot stall or pen. Once the foal is receptive to halter breaking, they’ll move into a 12-by-24- foot stall or pen.
“Use the fences to your advantage,” Nichols said. “It helps guide them to walk and follow you.”
Desensitize to the Halter
Nichols says after scratching on the horse’s neck, they’ll put the halter on the horse’s head to get it used to the feel of it around the nose, going up and down the face. He reminds you to work on both sides of the horse at every step.
The halter is attached to a short lead and left on the horse for a couple hours at a time during the day. Make sure to use a halter that won’t rub the horse’s head, that the lead is not too long, and never leave the foal unsupervised with the halter on.
“I don’t like putting on a halter and leaving it on for two or three days,” Nichols said. “We like a lead rope long enough for the mare and foal to step on some while eating morning and evening in the 12-by-24 stall, but not too long or they get hung up. We prefer no knots on the end of the lead rope for them to get hung up on.”
Yielding to Pressure
Once the horse is used to the feel of the halter, you’ll want to teach it to respect pressure.
“Start by putting some pressure on the foal. On the left side of the baby, pull the head to the left,” Nichols said. “Once the baby gives to me, I’ll release that pressure—give-and-take.”
Don’t worry about the feet moving in response to your cue right away, Nichols says. Focus on yielding in the neck and head first.
“It needs to be a give-and-take, slight pressure, not a fight,” Nichols said. “When they give to you, release it back. Manhandling them doesn’t build suppleness. I don’t want them being stiff-necked right off the bat.”
Repeat the process on the other side of the horse. If your foal wants to get away from you, Nichols and Barron recommend finding a corner of the pen and positioning the horse’s hindquarters in the corner, with the mare on the other side of you.
One thing Nichols and Barron avoid is asking the foal to turn away from you during this training.
“We want their attention on coming to us,” Nichols said.
Add the Feet
Once the horse is comfortable yielding its head and neck in response to your pressure, foot movement is next. With Barron standing behind the horse’s hip on the other side to block backwards movement, pressing on the horse’s shoulder on that side, Nichols will pull the horse’s head and neck toward him.
“I’m not worried about the hind feet moving, I just want them to move a front foot,” Nichols said. “They’re all going to be a bit different, but I want them to understand when somebody is behind them pushing their shoulder over, they need to follow their head.”
Repeat the process on the other side.
“You’re trying to build confidence with them—not make them nervous,” Nichols said. “You won’t ask them to lead until they get comfortable moving sideways in response to your cue.”
Introduce the Rope
The next step is encouraging forward movement. This is an important step to include extra help. If you’re by yourself, Nichols says you can use a rope around the horse’s hindquarters, but make sure to introduce it to the baby multiple times before ever using it.
“Get the horse used to the rope being around its rear end, around the legs, draped around it—you need the horse to get comfortable with that before you just start putting the rope around its tail to make it lead,” Nichols said.
Get Ready to Lead
With two people, Barron will stand beside and behind the horse and drape his arms around the youngster’s hindquarters while Nichols stands at the head. Nichols will ask the foal to walk forward by putting pressure on the lead rope, and Barron reinforces with pressure from behind the horse with his arms.
“You just want to get one or two baby steps of the horse following you, then stop and relax, and reassure them,” Nichols said. “The person pushing behind helps the horse learn that when you put pressure on the lead rope, that doesn’t mean go backward. It means come when you apply that pressure.”
Again, keep the mare in close proximity so both mare and foal will stay calm.
“The mama is the safety zone,” Nichols said. “The mare can walk beside you. Keeping them apart will not work—let the mare help you with the process.”
The horsemen don’t worry about teaching the horse to back at this stage. They just want to be able to lead the foal around and handle it.
“I am not expecting them to be puppy dogs, but we want them to be receptive to our handling, which helps build a foundation for future training,” Nichols said. “I don’t need them to walk 50 feet. We just work with them at the stage where they are, keeping in mind every horse is different.”
When a foal wants to be dull or not very responsive to training at a young age, working with two handlers can help. The person behind helps to ease it along to help eliminate a desire to sull up or become flighty.
Teaching to Tie
Once the horse gives to the pressure of the halter and rope, when the foal is 2 to 3 months old, Nichols and Barron will work on tying the foal up. Starting at that age allows you to teach tying before the horse gets too stout but is old enough to understand patience.
Tying the mother close by, Nichols and Barron will tie the foal with a short length of rope up over its head—a key position.
“Don’t give them too much rope, because they can run away and hurt themselves really easily,” Nichols said. “You don’t want to give them enough rope to where they could jerk on the fence. Avoid tying lower than their head because they can leverage to pull against the halter and hurt themselves.”
Tie with a couple of wraps of the rope so you can release it easily, and stand beside the horse. Aim for five to 10 minutes, max, of the horse standing calmly while tied. During this time, scratch, rub and groom the foal with what should, by now, be a familiar routine for your horse.
“We want them to learn to stand there respectfully. Once they understand that, stop for the day,” Nichols said. “Stop on a good note.”
Diffuse Tense Situations
At times during halter breaking, foals can get fractious. A small space like a stall helps contain them when they get nervous.
“Foals are going to rear up and they’re going to get excited, but they’re less likely to flip over [in a stall],” Nichols said. “Just remember—don’t panic. Don’t turn them loose and let them flip over. Focus on keeping their head from hitting the ground, should they pitch a fit. You want to watch out for their safety.”
You also don’t want to allow the horse to get away from you if you can help it. Starting in safe, small pens can reduce the chances of the horse running away. Never let the foal nip at you, even if it’s as a playful gesture.
“You don’t want to teach the horse bad habits,” Nichols said. “They’re smart— they’ll remember that stuff.”
Refresher for Older Foals
Around 3 months old, Nichols and Barron work with foals to remind them of their halter training. This is just a refresher. The foals generally remember how to lead. This is also when they load the foals in and out of a horse trailer and let them learn how to stand tied.
“If they’ve never been handled, we can start right in with the same things we did with a 5 day old foal,” Nichols said. “We need to make sure they stay relaxed, particularly with older foals. It’s harder to get them relaxed because you don’t want to make them afraid or start a fight with them.”
For older foals, Nichols and Barron will teach the foal to load in a horse trailer.
Lining up the entrance to be as low to the ground as possible, one will lead the mare into the trailer while the other leads the foal in close behind her. Then they stand in the trailer, scratching the baby for a few minutes, and then back the foal out of the trailer. They repeat this process a couple times during each training session.
Sometimes, even horses started this way need a refresher course. The horsemen take it in stride and keep their process and cues the same.
Don’t skip any steps, and don’t forget to work both sides of the horse each time.
“Stay consistent with the horses, that is the biggest thing,” Nichols said. “They’re young. Take baby steps.”
Avoid working with your babies if you’re not ready to be calm and patient.
“If you’re in a bad mood or having a bad day, that’s not the time to be working with a foal,” Nichols said. “You’ve got to be patient and in a good mood. Don’t push the process. Take it step by step.”
Meet the Experts
Kenny Nichols has been in the horse business his entire life, having been raised by his dad Nicky Nichols and grandpa Buck Nichols. The Nichols family has raised horses for four generations, and stood such great horses as Clabber and Driftwood. Dale Barron is a civil engineer who has been in the horse business for 27 years. Located in Waco, Texas, Nichols and Barron have bred and raised barrel horses for 27 years. Named the 2018 No. 12 Leading breeder of the Decade and 2017 No. 4 Leading breeder by EquiStat, Nichols Quarter Horses stands Frenchmans Fabulous (“Fab”) as its main stallion, as well as junior sire Tripping On Fame. Fab’s offspring includes No. 23 top barrel Horse of the Decade and 2017 No. 5 Horse of the Year KN Fabs Gift Of Fame, known as “J-Lo.” For more information visit nicholsquarterhorses.com.
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.