Instilling basic handling skills in young horses as early as possible ensures an easy transition to the horse’s 2-year-old year.
A well-mannered adult horse doesn’t happen overnight. Teaching foals good ground manners and handling skills has a lasting impact throughout the horse’s lifetime—it increases resale value and creates a respectful horse that’s easy to handle and enjoyable to be around. Starting early is the biggest factor in ensuring your weanlings and yearlings learn a correct foundation, making their first year easier on you and helping them transition to being started under saddle. Three well-respected barrel horse breeders shared their advice on handling young horses from foal-hood until their 2-year-old year.
Foals need to become accustomed to human touch within the first few days of their life. Lacey Harmon, who trains and futurities her family’s homebred horses at Split Bone Ranch in Bluff Dale, Texas, with her mother Kathy Donegan, says this process begins as soon as the foal is born, as long as it’s a normal, healthy baby. Foals born with weaker legs or health problems may need more time on the ground before you begin handling.
“My mom foals everything out, and we love all over them and get them used to people, but not overboard—you want to make sure the colt is still attached to its mom and not you,” Harmon said. “We start halter breaking them the next day and get them used to everything early.”
Kenny Nichols stands Frenchmans Fabulous at his Waco, Texas-based breeding operation Nichols Quarter Horses. He says desensitizing foals to touch and pressure early keeps halter breaking from becoming a battle as the foal gets older. Nichols allows foals to wear halters and lead ropes during the day but recommends supervision in case something goes awry. He also begins teaching the foal to pick its feet up at several days old.
“At about three to four days old, we start putting the halter on them and letting them drag a short lead rope during the day, and we take everything off at night,” Nichols said. “We’re around during the day when we’re doing that. We pick up their feet, letting them learn about holding themselves up and that they can’t take the foot away. They learn so much easier at that young age.”
Lead the Way
Actually teaching the foal to lead on a halter and rope begins at about 10–15 days old. At this time, it’s important that foals learn to understand yielding to pressure, which is a skill that will carry into their barrel racing career. Nichols prefers to teach leading, pressure and release with two people to help the foal feel secure.
“We start working with them learning to give and release pressure, turn their head, and give back,” Nichols said. “We have someone there to move a shoulder over when we move the head. We work on turns before we start leading. When they’re 30 days old, all our babies are leading and turning both directions. We like two people when they’re young—it helps them from being scared. I’m not against using a rope around their butt to get going, but usually two people helps take that fright away because you can have someone stand behind and help move them forward and move that shoulder over while you’re pulling the head.”
If you don’t have someone to help you, Harmon suggests using a lead rope like a harness to secure the whole body rather than pulling the foal directly on the lead rope.
“We put lead ropes on and wrap it around their butt, but with slack so you’re not pulling their head but pulling their whole body. This way you have full security of their whole body, because sometimes if you pull on a baby with a lead rope they can flip over and freak out, but if you have control of their whole body they can’t get away from you and get hurt,” Harmon said. “It teaches them how to move forward, and every day they get better and eventually learn how to lead on their own without using the rope as a harness. We do it from the get-go, that way they don’t get out of hand.”
“Just try one [foal] first. A lot of people think they want to get into breeding, and they get too many and it becomes work rather than fun. Keep it small and enjoy it.” —Kenny Nichols
Introducing the Basics
Cody Earnest, who manages breeding and foaling at Jeff and Andrea Busby’s Busby Quarter Horses in Millsap, Texas, says horses should be completely manageable by four months old—easy to catch in the pasture, stand to be haltered and lead readily.
“Our goal is to get the babies to where they’re handled good, halter broke, going on and off the trailer, stand tied to a degree and be accustomed to the farrier by the time they’re four months old,” Earnest said. “That way when they’re sold and someone picks them up at nine months old or a yearling, we can just walk out there and put a halter on and load them up on the trailer to go off to their new home knowing how to be led, ride in a trailer and stand for the farrier.”
Around or before weaning, foals should learn to stand tied patiently and begin learning to load in the trailer. Nichols uses the mare as a security blanket until the foal becomes comfortable without her.
“Before they’re weaned, we tie mom up and baby is going to be tied next to her so they learn patience,” Nichols said. “Then we load mom and baby in the horse trailer and let them stand in there, get used to it and learn how to back out. Baby will learn to load up and back out without mom usually when they’re three to four months old.”
At this age, you should begin letting the foal get comfortable with independence and being away from its mother. However, moderation is key. Nichols stresses the importance of reading your horse and knowing how much the foal can take.
“People sometimes forget learning to read your animal,” Nichols said. “You’ve got to get their trust when they’re young, but you might need to back off and let them gain confidence.”
“Learn, read books, ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to ask. If you have a friend who breeds, go spend a day seeing what it’s like, be around the foals, get an idea of what it’s actually going to be like.” —Lacey Harmon
Jorge Tarango does the majority of handling and groundwork with foals at Busby Ranch, where he takes each foal’s progression on a case-by-case basis.
“When we can take the baby on the trailer without mom, we’ll take them for walks away from the pen and away from mom for five to 10 minutes,” Earnest said. “Jorge is really good at judging how much they can handle and tolerate without panicking.”
Nichols says one of the biggest mistakes he sees is people neglecting the upkeep of young horses’ hooves. Regular trims are a must to keep the foal’s feet correct and encourage proper development of the legs. A horse should have at least one trim by the time they are four months old, or more depending on hoof growth and the terrain the horse lives on—for example, the sandy ground at Busby Ranch requires horses to be trimmed at least every five to six weeks. If your weanling doesn’t stand tied well or gets frightened having its feet handled by a farrier, Harmon says sedation may be necessary to make the process safe for both horse and farrier.
“We trim our weanlings early so their feet stay up-to-date. We want them to stand tied and be good for the farrier, but sometimes that can get Western,” Harmon said with a laugh. “If they’re pretty bad, we’ll sedate them for trimming the first couple times—it always depends on the individual.”
Once your weanling is handling easily, it’s time to back off and allow them to just be a horse. Letting your foal socialize with other horses and learn herd dynamics is equally as important as human interaction. Turning mares and foals out allows the foal to play with other babies and foster development of strong bones, muscles and joints.
“To raise them in a stall is not conducive to the foal’s development and growth,” Nichols said. “They need an area to run and play; that’s how those bones strengthen is playing on them.”
Nichols, Earnest, Harmon and Donegan all advocate turnout and minimal groundwork and handling once young horses have mastered the basics at several months old.
“After that, it’s smooth sailing. As soon as we feel confident about how they’re handled, we just leave them alone and turn them out in a group with other mares and babies, and when they’re weaned, with other babies,” Earnest said. “I think it’s important they socialize so they learn that herd dynamic and learn how to interact with other horses. Horses can teach other horses respect in ways that humans can’t.”
The horses at all three breeding operations are kept in pastures or large pens with their mothers until weaned and then turned out with other weanlings. They stay out at pasture during their yearling year and are brought up intermittently for routine farrier work, veterinary visits, deworming or a quick refresher course.
“We want them respectful of our space and not too dull around us,” Nichols said. “We change gears during the yearling phase. Our yearling phase is letting them grow up, run and play and learning foot action. We bring them up to grain them and then kick them back out to pastures. We bring them up so they get used to walking on mats in the barn and going in and out of stalls, but they don’t stay stalled up. They get exposure but not a whole lot of handling. They are going to get a bit of a refresher with tying out and being brushed and trimming their feet.”
Grouping horses by age for turnout helps them learn herd interaction with other horses of similar size and maturity and can prevent injuries that could occur from fights with older, stronger horses.
“We turn all ours out together in the same age groups,” Harmon said. “They’re able to be a horse, but they do let you walk out to the pasture and catch them— they’re not wild.”
Donegan warns to keep a careful eye on mixed-sex groups, however, as colts can get aggressive toward fillies and accidental breeding can occur as they reach yearling age.
“If they’re not beating each other up, I don’t have a problem keeping them together. Sometimes the colts get too tough on the fillies, so then I separate by sex,” Donegan said. “For sure by the start of their yearling year, you need to separate colts and fillies, because they can breed each other.”
Extensive groundwork or lungeing in the round pen typically isn’t necessary, and Nichols cautions against it because of the premature stress it puts on yearlings’ still-developing joints. Earnest and Donegan do teach yearlings to respond to a lunge rope in the round pen, but in short, light sessions and not for drilling or fitness purposes. This is typically done late in the horse’s yearling year or right before the horse is started as a 2-year-old.
“I don’t keep drilling them—once they’re halter broke and good, I turn them out in groups and don’t do much more until late in their yearling year,” Donegan said. “We might do some round pen work then, but we turn them back out and bring them up a few months later to break them.”
“Halter break as soon as possible. It makes your life easier, because you never know what’s going to happen. When you need it, it’s too late—you can’t cram.”
Cultivate Confidence and Independence
The end goal is a respectful yet friendly horse with polite manners that is easy to handle. This begins with daily handling and continues as you teach the foal to listen to you independently of its mother and look to you for guidance. However, there is a fine line between building trust and friendship with your young horse and creating a big pet—annoying at best and dangerous at worst.
“Too many people make a pet out of them and don’t understand how big and strong of an animal this is going to be,” Nichols said. “They need to understand boundaries and that it’s not okay to nip and not okay to kick—you’ve got to nip that in the bud when they’re young. It is not cute.”
Don’t be afraid to discipline your foal for bad behavior. A common rule of thumb is to not let a baby do anything you wouldn’t let a full-grown horse do, although it may seem cute when they’re little. Earnest says knowing each individual is key to gauging how much discipline your young horse can handle without damaging confidence or trust.
“It’s so important to have confidence when handling young horses. One of the things I see that Jorge is so amazing at is there’s such a fine line where you have to discipline them, but they still need confidence,” Earnest said. “Finding that balance is so important, where they respect you but also want to be with you and be your friend.”
In addition to respect, fostering independence from the get-go will help the foal learn to cope away from the mare, especially in case of an emergency. Earnest cites an example where a filly lost her mother due to colic and had to ride home from the vet clinic without her.
“She just turned three months old and was just old enough to make it on her own,” Earnest said. “Because she was so broke and handled, we put a buddy horse on the trailer and took baby home without mom, and because of the time Jorge spent with her doing those basics and taking her away from mom, it was an easier transition because she knew how to be away. That was a bad situation that went incredibly well.”
By instilling basic manners and handling skills in addition to trust, respect and confidence from the day the foal is born, your horse will be primed for a positive experience when it’s time to start under saddle.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BHN.