How early should we start to handle foals?

By Ross Cooper

How early should we start to handle foals?

Ross Cooper tackles the subject of foal handling, should we handle them early or leave them be?

I have always enjoyed working with foals; it is so very rewarding to be part of their early stages of training. They are a complete canvas, with an innocence yet the mischievous quality that can never fail to make you smile. Though being as blank a canvas as a young foal is, it does put a level of responsibility on us as handlers or trainers to do them justice and to do the best by them, for them. Here, I hope I help you to do just that!

The psychology of the horse works the same, whether you have a miniature Shetland or a Suffolk Punch, regardless of age; the horse is a horse. The equine brain is designed for movement first and thought later; a horse that thinks first doesn't last very long. The horse has three natural responses to danger; fight, flight or freeze. Flight is the most common response you will see and associate with horses. A foal is born with a strong flight response, ready to be on the move a short time after birth. The following months for a foal are crucial for learning; it is during this time that the pathways in the brain for movement and learning develop at a rapid rate, which is influenced heavily by the way the horse learns. There are many different ways of learning that can occur for a horse, during training or in the environment. Some of the most common include; imprinting, conditioning, operant conditioning, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. Learning is heavily influenced by past experiences, both the positive and the negative. 

There are many people that will quickly write off a young horse until the horse reaches a certain age that the human deems as acceptable to begin their ridden education. I often meet horses with this background, usually around the ages of 3-5 years that have had the very basics (sometimes not even that!) of handling since a foal. The problems that can potentially arise here are that these horses have no education to refer to in their relationships and interaction with people; they are essentially just maximised versions of what they were a few years previously, with no knowledge, or the 'wrong' knowledge of how we interact together. This does the horse an injustice and does not set the horse up for success in later life; quite often being incorrectly labelled as 'rude', 'bargy' or 'disrespectful', when in reality-do they actually know any better?

All this can easily be avoided by being active in your horse’s life from the very beginning, giving them a more secure start. It is important to become involved in a foal’s life, though not too early.

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