Foals are never too young to learn boundaries. They’re cute, but they’re also big horses in training. Like all little children, they have the potential to get sassy while still technically infants.
Foals get their first set of incisors a week after birth. In a matter of days, helpless wobbly foals can kick and bite. Give them a free pass for a month or two and you may discover that you’ve harbored a brat or even a squealer. The longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes to discipline a foal.
Squealers are usually fillies who respond to your first attempts to restrict or correct her, with bared teeth, shrill pig-like vocalizations, and little bitty hooves that pack a solid punch because they’re only two inches wide.
One of our squealers, Turbo, was so mad when the vet did her pre-purchase at two months of age that she bit a rail and broke a front tooth. Three months and a check for $25,000 later, Ms. Squealer moved on with better manners. Turbo’s mama never corrected her.
Introduction to Little Miss Harley
I met one of my best clients (and eventual dear friend) when she delivered a palomino mare with her fancy AQHA chestnut filly to my facility to prep for the big fall weanling futurity. A trainer friend looked at baby Harley, recommended me to her owners, and assured me the filly was a good one.
I wasn’t on the property when they arrived. We were introduced after mama and filly moved into a luxurious video-equipped foaling stall with a small attached paddock.
Harley was an impressive little package, alright. Correct legs, tons of muscle, a tiny diva-esque head, foxy ears, and fabulous chrome. She would be a contender.
With the back stall door closed, I slid the front stall door open to step inside for a better look and was greeted by two little hind feed aimed straight at my head. Harley missed. I stepped backward and slid the door closed.
Harley was spoiled rotten. I returned to the stall with a longe whip, the lash held in my hand, using it as a simple extension of my arm. Gorgeous little Harley wheeled on me again, kicked, and got a rap on her ample rump.
She ran to the other side of the large stall, flipped around again, took a shot, and got another tap on the rump. After heading to the opposite corner, launching her torpedoes, feeling the rap on her butt again, she stopped. Looking at me, Harley took a moment to process the situation. Spoiled, yes; stupid, no.
Our dance took less than two minutes. Harley figured out that I was always one or two steps ahead of her. Game over.
Harley still treated her owner like dirt. Spoiled is spoiled. Harley won her futurity, took Reserve Grand, and went through several pleasure trainers until I got her back as a four-year old. She eventually made a delightful youth jumper, totally reliable and cute over fences.
News Flash: Foals Misbehave
Every year we had one or two little darlins’ that were too big for their britches. All foals understand the methods I use to correct bad baby behavior from birth.
If bad baby horse behavior isn’t fixed, I guarantee you’ll get bad big horse behavior later. It’s easier on everyone to get along from the beginning, whether you keep the youngin forever or sell it.
Leave Your Ego at the Barn Door
If you’re going to train horses of any age, it’s best to leave your ego at the barn door. Being loud and clownish (in the opinion of humans) is often an effective tool with horses to get their focus, put the brakes on escalating emotions, or rocket their brains from reactive to thinking mode.
When a foal’s infraction was a big one, sometimes I squealed loudly and (pre-planned) pitched my hip into its ribcage or shoulder, taking away its balance without knocking it down.
My preferred target is a foal’s hip because it has greater muscle mass than other body parts and is generally a safe place to smack a foal. But, you must evaluate its body position, knowing in a split second how the foal is likely to respond, so you don’t get kicked.
You also need to know how mama will react to someone else schooling her baby. If she’s nervous, have someone else hold her while you mess with the foal. I rarely had a mare get excited because they already understand boundaries from the equine perspective.
Safety first. Don’t try this at home unless you’ve got the experience to back up your correction. Foals are a unique combination of fragility and power.
Fillies Are Sneakier than Colts
When working with foals, I pre-planned for our mutual safety, deciding in advance what tactic to employ if the foal grossly misbehaved. In a herd, mares other than a bad little actor’s mama may correct the offender when it crosses a line.
Fillies are usually sneakier than colts, biting and kicking with their hinds. Little studlets tend to look you right in the face when they bite, or offer to strike you with their front feet.
Once is all a baby gets because that’s all it takes to prove they can.
Great mares teach their foals respect for their mamas as well as how to play nice with herd mates. Sadly, like humans, every mother isn’t a good disciplinarian.
A mare corrects a foal by shoving it with her head, nipping it on the rear, squealing loudly (also works great with adult stallions), or applying a non-lethal kick or push. I did the same thing mamas do.
I don’t remember ever biting a foal, but I’ve sure done the rest.
Reserve Punishment for Life and Death Issues
There are many ways to discipline a horse. Punishment is only used when there is a real danger of injury. Even with the wide range of philosophies surrounding the subject of disciplining children, most folks agree that sure, swift, meaningful punishment should be attached to behaviors that could result in serious injury.
When your toddler or reaches his tender little hand toward the gas flame on your stovetop, you care very little about using a measured tone of voice. You yell like a banshee and snatch his hand back!
Immediately following the rescue, you very sternly and emphatically state, “Never, never, never do that again! Do you understand?”
You intend is to scare the child half to death, making a big enough impression to last the rest of his life. This is an example of psychic shock. You’ll response in much the same way if you see that same little blessing’s sister running into the street as a speeding car approaches.
Save the kid first, then scare the heck out of her so she lives to give you grandchildren.
Choosing the Best Method to Discipline a Foal
The only way to keep order is to always keep order. If you depend on a whip, chain, squirt bottle, or other tool to elicit obedience, respect, or (rarely) fear, then you’re building a time bomb. What happens if your little darlin’ gets to 500 pounds and takes a free shot at you with feet or teeth because you’re unarmed?
Always be armed.
That means, whatever your method, it can’t rely on a tool you don’t always have with you. Until I trust a horse, my faithful sidekick is Ol’ Red, an ancient red lead rope that lost its snap sometime in the last century. (True.)
Many horses bide their time, waiting for the moment when you don’t have your whip, chain, squirt bottle or other tool. Besides, once horses learn to enjoy bathing, or little studlets get their first big shot of testosterone, the squirt bottle loses its power.
If obedience is demanded and not offered willingly, resentment can build. Obedience is earned. Good manners are offered because that’s what you require to offer relationship in return.
Correction is Essential
Correction is essential and beneficial for horses of any age. Training foals to behave makes for safety today and a brighter future for the baby. Well-behaved horses are seldom abused and get far more loving homes.
Providing boundaries to colts is even more critical. If you fail to send him off without excellent manners, someone else will teach him a lesson that may damage him physically or ruin his good will toward people.
Youngsters need people who care enough to commit to doing the hard work. Consistently.
[Excerpted from the chapter “Proper Discipline” in Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace.]
Banner photo used with permission via PicMonkey.