Young horses need good leaders. Teach your foal to go where you want her to with trust- based leadership.
Training your foal to lead is more about leadership than training. At Medicine Horse Program, we work with some of the roughest of rescued foals – Premarin foals, manhandled and abused, foals headed to slaughter, scared and confused, and mustang foals off the range, untouched by human hands. If we are lucky, these foals had a few good months with their mothers being taught the basics of leadership.
Trust is Key
When training horses, I prefer to look more closely at the leader’s role rather than the horse’s response. Advance and retreat, pressure and release, and stalking the foal are warlike terms. I base my philosophy of training the young horse on more herd-friendly, mare-based methods. Put simply: come, go, and whoa, as the mare might want the foal to do.
A good leader, like a good broodmare, provides a safe physical and emotional container for the foal. We start in their runs, where their food is. We take many baby steps before venturing into unfenced territory. The smaller and more familiar the space is, the less likelihood for big explosions.
If your foal is still with his dam, you can use the mare to model behavior, as you lead her and the foal follows. Soon, you will want to put the mare someplace where they can see each other, and work with the foal alone. This is because following is not being led. I think of the scene from Shrek, in which the angry soldiers follow their leader to confront the ogre. Shrek roars, and the “leader” of the soldiers looks back to his followers, but they have vanished. Without trust there is no leadership.
An Invisible Connection
Foals learn to follow their mothers because they trust them. If they do not follow their mothers when expected to, the mares get behind them and push, nip or bite them in the direction they want them to go in. Good leaders lead from several directions, from the back or the front.
I begin this work before putting the halter on. I want an invisible connection with the foal before we`re physically connected with a rope. I find which reward works for each foal as an incentive to come to me. Our foals often don’t know how to eat grain, because they were never taught by their mothers – but they will come forward out of curiosity.
To teach the concept “come”, I bend my knees and get low, so I am less threatening for the foal. I have found that bending forward puts me in a more horse-like, quadrupedal stance, less scary than standing up. If I need to stay down longer, I will sit or lean on a feed bin until the foal comes forward for hay or grain. As the foal comes forward of his own accord, I use the words “come” and his name. He needs to associate walking forward with being called to come, and with some reward – a scratch if he enjoys that, or a bite of food. If he accidentally stops, I say “whoa”, so he can learn to associate the word with this action.
To teach “go”, I start by giving the foal a place he wants to go, back to his mother or to his feed. I stand as far behind as needed to exert the least amount of pressure. I stand, get bigger, swish my arms gently and say “go”. The foal must understand both verbal commands and body language. A common vocabulary is key to communication and therefore training. Use consistent verbal and physical cues from day one that will carry over to catching, leading, longeing and riding. As much as we wish we could, we never truly control horses; we can only communicate.
The most compelling and wonderful look will come to your foal’s face the moment he realizes you are trying to communicate with him. Once he knows that, half your battle is over. Watch for that moment – it only happens once in a horse’s life and you are the lucky witness.
Introducing Halter and Leadrope
When the foal’s eyes go wide and soft, when his ears turn toward your voice, when the wheels spin in his head, you are communicating. If you have been handling your foal from the outset, you have a halter on already. If you haven’t haltered, start with gentle ropes running around your foal’s head and neck while he eats. Over time, move all over the foal’s body with the rope (our foals are so wild, we start with twine as it is less threatening). We introduce the halter by setting the feed bucket on our laps, holding the halter inside the feed bucket. The foal has to put his head in the halter if he wants the feed. Haltering can take a few seconds to a few weeks, depending on the foal.
Once the halter is on, I attach a leadrope. Still sitting at the feed bin, using the bucket of grain, I teach the rudiments of come, go, and whoa, using a gentle pull or push of the leadrope. When the foal brings his head forward to eat, I pull gently and say “come”. When he pulls his head back, I push gently on the halter and say “back”. If he is okay with that, I stop him from coming forward with his head and say “whoa”. I practice dropping the rope and allowing the foal to drag it, to prevent panic if it’s accidentally dropped. I set doable goals, take small steps and stop early.
When it’s time to get up off the feed bin and start leading, move slowly. Some foals prefer to be led from the front, some from behind. You’ll know. As you begin walking, say “come” and give the foal a chance to move forward. Follow up with a gentle pull on the halter. When he comes forward a step or two, reward by saying “whoa”, stopping and praising. Avoid pulling matches.
If the horse won’t come when you lead him from the front, use a long lead rope as a butt rope and push him gently from behind, or have an assistant safely behind, shooing him to “go”. In the beginning, reward every small step.
You are not just teaching your foal to lead. You establish his entire relationship with human beings. You show him how to respect leadership. You teach him inter-species communication. You set the foundation for his riding career and for his entire future as a good equine citizen.