AND EDUCATING THE FOAL
by Cynthia Cooper
Fortunately, many horse
breeders now recognise the pay offs for spending time with the foal
in the early days. And many like myself have also realised that socialisation
and education is the most important part of human interaction, not
Although imprinting helps initially and forms a much stronger bond
between foal and humans, it is not an issue if you aren’t there
at the birth and miss that small window of opportunity (true imprinting
happens during the first 2 hours of a foal's life only).
In fact studies have shown that the mere presence of the human at
birth, either passively or gently rubbing and touching the foal, is
enough for acceptance of the human in the horse’s world. Frequency
of time spent with the foal after the mare/foal bonding seems to be
the vital element.
those first few days and week, spending short periods with the foal
many times a day, just being friendly and finding all their ‘itchy’
spots will encourage their natural curiosity. When the foal is confident
with having you around and providing something they enjoy, then education
to pressure and de-sensitising can begin. It may only take a few hours
on the first day of frequent visits to reach the stage where the foal
trusts you enough to allow things like a towel, or plastic bag rubbed
all over it. De-sensitising to clippers, tarps and more can be part
of your foal’s ongoing education and will be readily accepted
if the foal trusts you first.
The quickest way to destroy
any trust you have built is by reverting to the “I’m stronger
than you” mode where you force the foal to accept anything,
or any pressure.
They are a horse first
and foremost and have the same reactions and responses of a wild horse.
We must treat them with respect and not grab, push or pull them around
just because we are stronger. This sort of education will teach the
foal to push against pressure and will set up resistances both physically
Good horsemanship starts
by ‘asking’ the foal/horse with a mental picture of what
we would like then to do. You can say it out loud if it helps - “Can
we see if you can move backwards?” for example, would precede
a light touch on the chest that becomes rhythmic pressure until the
“Can we walk over there, back to mum?” - “Can I
rub this halter all over you before I put it on?” - “Can
you take one step this way?”.
Always ask…. only ever ‘tell’ if it’s a life
you ask the question and are not in a hurry to get a response, the
foal is given a chance to understand what you’re wanting. So
often we are tempted to just grab that leg and lift it up because
we can use our strength, or pull on that rump rope to move them forward,
….because we can.
Remember that you are
not only training the foal to respond to pressure, you are training
their attitude as well. Watch your foal’s expression –
are they flicking their ears back or switching their tail at lot?
If so, they are trying to tell you something – possibly to not
be so rude or rapid with your requests. Many ‘imprint trained’
foals get a bad name for being pushy, dull or un-interested in their
training because they learned to push back (reflecting your ‘pushiness’)
or switch off totally.
By the time they are ridden, they can be so zoned out to their rider’s
requests their apparent quietness turns into stubbornness, grumpiness
Who wants a horse like that? Quietness yes, but I’d rather have
respectfulness and responsiveness in my young horses while retaining
the interest and enthusiasm for being with me.
A foal is strongly influenced
by the mare, who ideally should trust you and be educated to the basics
of being caught and handled herself before she has a foal.
Sadly, some people breed from a mare because she’s not good
to handle or ride and this then sets up a pattern with the foal, of
negative learned behaviour where humans are concerned. If your mare
is worried about you, she will transfer that worry to the foal so
it’s very important to develop the relationship with her too.
She should also trailer load well and tie up, in order to be helpful
when teaching the foal these things.
If the mare becomes over-protective (which is natural), then you will
need to have a good yard to work in for the first week or two until
she is not in the habit of running off with the foal whenever she
sees you. Feed her in the yard and she will realise it’s a friendly
place to be.
It is well worth spending
time with the mare before she foals and then reinforcing things with
her after the foal is born. It will make handling her in case of a
problem such as needing to be milked, veterinary attention and so
on, that much easier.
Think carefully about
the sort of education you are giving your foal. Look upon training
a foal as a privilege and an opportunity to refine your horsemanship
A foal is a blank canvas, brand new and ready to absorb everything
we do with them, be that positive or negative. Above all, enjoy the
wonder of having a new foal and the process of educating them.
For more information on
educating foals and weaning, get Cynthia’s Young Horse Education
Double DVD set for just $45 through the Natural
Horse World Store
I get a lot of people asking, "What is the best age and way to
wean a horse"? I think if you can look to nature you have the
answers - most mares who are foaling every year in the wild would
chase their foal off just prior to having their next one so nature
holds the key. Weaning too early or too late can cause behavioural
issues that will affect the foal for the rest of its life.
The age I mostly wean my foals is between nine and twelve months,
taking into account whether the mare is empty or back in foal, the
weather conditions and the availability of time to commit on a daily
basis for a period of around two weeks.
Photo: It helps a foal gain
confidence if they can explore the world with their mum close by.
can be traumatic for the foal especially when approached traditionally
with instant separation and often isolation!
Done naturally, the mare would begin to stop feeding her foal about
a month prior to birth when her hormones are changing to signal the
development of colostrum. At this stage her foal will be about ten
Her reluctance to feed the foal and actually stop them from drinking
may only take a few days, but the weanling is still allowed to share
the close bond they have with their dam.
Once the mare has her new foal, the weanling (probably close to a
year old) will develop bonds with other herd members, most likely
other youngsters. The dam of this yearling will still be a comfort
zone if needed when the youngster is unsure or frightened. Perhaps
this is one reason mares don’t appear to discipline their foals
very much – they need to be seen as the safest place to run
to – always trusting that they will be accepted and protected.
In order to replicate natural weaning as closely as possible, I start
the process with the foal (now 8-9 mths) and mare being joined by
a gentle old companion if they aren’t already part of a herd,
which hopefully they can be. Any quiet, gentle horse will be suitable
so long as they tolerate or enjoy youngsters.
They should be pastured together for a few weeks before starting to
separate the mare from her foal and the companion for short periods
(30 minutes) that then progress to longer periods of a few hours.
It is always best to confine the mare so the foal can see her and
has the choice to move further away. If the foal is confined, it can
panic when the mare moves away from its comfort zone, possibly causing
itself injury and at the least, emotional panic.
For those familiar with ‘Paddock Paradise’ or a track
system of restricting grazing, this works beautifully with the mare
on the track and the foal on the inside with other herd members or
companion. This way the foal and mare can ‘travel’ together
but not suckle.
Photo: This 8 month
old filly learns about natural herd behaviours such as mating and
birthing by being able to remain with her mum in the herd until she
is weaned naturally prior to the birth of her next foal.
The separation is best done over a double or triple tape electric
fence, or if you’re not using a track, solid wooden or pipe
rails on the yard holding the mare. Never separate a mare and foal
with wire initially as in panic, the foal could try to run through
it or jump it – at least electric tape will stretch or break.
By gradually increasing
the separation time daily, it only takes a week before they can go
for the full day without a drink. At this stage I would put them back
together during the nights.
For the next week, allow the foal to suckle once a day as this helps
to ease the tightness of the mare's bag, making life more comfortable
for her too. Her diet should be reduced to very little pasture and
mostly hay (no grain) to assist in slowing the milk production.
The daily suckling can be decreased to every 2nd day for a week. By
then foal will be enjoying the company of the others and seem to be
independent enough to cope without mum.
Finally, extend the suckling to once every 3 days before not allowing
it any more.
In order to teach the weanling that it can leave sight of it’s
mum, take it for walks in the company of the steady companion, gradually
increasing the distance and time out of sight, using approach and
retreat, always aiming to return to the comfort zone (the mare in
sight) before the youngster gets concerned.
When it comes time to take the mare away, which may be necessary to
re-breed her or move pastures, ensure the weanling is kept in a small
safe yard with their companion until they are settled. If you don’t
need to keep the mare and weanling separated, then wait until the
foal has not suckled for 6 weeks to ensure the mare’s milk has
properly dried up. They can then live together again to replicate
a natural herd situation where the progreny of a mare will stay with
the herd until it is at least two years old.
Weaning need not be a traumatic experience if done gradually. This
also decreases the risk of injury to mare and foal, and allows the
youngster to suffer less anxiety in the future when they need to be
'weaned' from their pair bond or companion. Of course you could approach
their next separation in much the same way.
Really, it's just a matter
of looking at it from the horse's point of view.
How would you feel if you were a child, suddenly locked in a cell
away from your mum, and in the case of some young horses, away from
everyone else too?
I’ve found that foals weaned this way are bolder, much more
confident and don’t seem to suffer anxiety when they are asked
to leave their herd or companion. This method may take a little longer
but you will reinforce catching and leading in the process. It greatly
reduces the risk of injury, development of stress related behaviours
such as wood chewing, weaving, fence running etc. and that in turn
reduces the stress on us as caretakers of those precious young horses
that are our future.
here to read an excellent article by Linda Kohanov (author
of The Tao of Equus and Riding Between the Worlds) detailing the detrimental
effects of early weaning and the long term benefits of later and more
Weaning practices can result in behavioural and social problems.
from horse owners who have horses with social issues – usually
aggression towards other horses, has widened my search for proof of
this article’s title. For years now, I have seen the difference
in my own horses by weaning them close to their natural [...]
the rest of this article here...
Training – The Positive Way
Since my interest in training using
positive reinforcement has been so successful with my older horses,
I decided to start with that type of training with my most recent
So first let me explain the difference between positive and negative
Positive reinforcement is simply reinforcing
a behaviour that the horse has offered with something they like such
as food or scratching their favourite itchy spot.
Positive reinforcement is what clicker trainers
use, marking the behaviour with a ‘click’ so the horse
knows exactly which behaviour it was being rewarded for once it associates
the ‘click’ with a treat being delivered. This is called
‘conditioned reinforcement’ and enables us to reward a
very specific action then deliver the treat some time after the action
Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus
that caused a behaviour. The removal of the cue or stimulus is what
reinforces the desired behaviour.
Negative reinforcement has nothing to do with punishment, in fact
most people mistakenly refer to the removal of a stimulus (pressure)
as a reward, when really, a reward is something a horse finds pleasurable.
It’s actually better to think of negative reinforcement as taking
something away (removing pressure).
Many top horse and dog trainers use positive
reinforcement paired with negative reinforcement knowingly or not.
Each time they ‘reward’ their horse or dog with a ‘good
boy’ (the marker) and a pat or a treat (the reinforcer) they
are using conditioned reinforcement.
most horse trainers use negative reinforcement to get what they want
and sometimes this involves a lot of pressure in order to teach the
horse to ‘give or move’ to pressure. This can cause resistance
and reluctance in the horse, unless they get the occasional positive
reinforcer (a treat or a pat/scratch or even a rest).
Photo: Aria enjoys an itch being
scratched in return for holding up her leg.
There’s nothing wrong with this form of
training – it’s just that now I can see the horse is much
happier ‘being paid for his job’ than being a slave to
our needs and desires.
So, when my Arabian filly, Aria was born, I
decided to experiment with her education to see if I could teach her
all the necessary things a foal needs to learn in their first year
using mostly positive reinforcement. And if I had to use some negative
(pressure) to get the message to her, that it would be as light as
possible and also rhythmic.
I started by tuning her in to the reward that
for her as a foal, was being scratched.
Every time I went to scratch her, I gave a tongue click then delivered
Pretty soon, I could ‘click’ her for a specific behaviour,
like nuzzling me back rather than nipping.
Then I introduced the tiniest amount of rhythmic
pressure to indicate a direction I wanted, followed by a click and
a scratch for each thought or step in the right direction.
Pretty soon I had her moving forwards to a press forward at the base
of the wither, backwards to a light touch on the chest, moving hindquarter
and forequarter to a light touch on the respective parts and stopping
when I stopped my feet.
we achieved ‘leading’ with me walking beside her with
just my hand resting on her neck near the wither – no halter
or ropes needed at all. Now she evens runs beside me at a trot when
my energy lifts, just connected to her with my hand.
I was very proud of her and me – for not having to ‘force’
her to accept too much pressure or get into a ‘fight’
when scared or confused by the pull of a rope.
I realise this type of leading is not practical
for outside the paddock so I then started to introduce the rope –
just a light string around her neck that replaced the feel of my hand.
She did get a bit worried at first, but I just went back to using
my hand and resting the string there, gradually incorporating it as
she grew more confident.
took the same amount of time as I’d normally spend on teaching
a foal to lead, and was far more pleasant for her – she had
choices – if she got scared she could run away without getting
a pull on the rope that could then set off more negative reaction.
I taught her to have her hooves trimmed and
be wormed in the same way and at liberty, so by the age of 3 months
she was ready to teach float loading (this can be done at an earlier
age but I just hadn’t gotten around to it).
this time, I had also taught her about food treats when she started
taking an interest in them while I trained her big sister and brother.
So that she didn’t ‘butt in’ looking for treats,
she learned to step back and hold her head straight (not nudge the
treat bag) to receive her reward. Photo: Fiera and Aria hold their
'no-mugging' position to receive a food reward.
I put a halter on her and pretty soon
she was used to the feel of it going on and off. I had previously
used the string to get her nose to come round for a treat so she accepted
the halter without fuss. With the string around her neck, I ran the
ends of it through the halter loops/ring so it gave some direction
to her head without pulling on her poll or dragging on the ground
if she ran away.
Once she realised she could get paid for the
job, she showed up every day for some ‘work’ – quickly
offering me the required position to receive her treat!
So I then parked the float in the paddock, with hay stored in it.
I fed them from this every day and Aria watched her big brother and
sister march straight on at liberty to get at the hay – even
when there were piles in the paddock for them.
When she was trying to squeeze in from the side
to eat her share of the hay, I removed her brother and asked Aria
to step up on the ramp next to her two year old sister.
When she did, she also got a treat – I use sunflower seeds and
the horses love them!
The first time, I had to lift her hoof onto the ramp as she had no
concept of stepping up, but after that, she worked it out herself.
When she had two feet on, I asked her to back
up and rewarded her for that so we got backing off calm and straight.
In the second session, we got four feet on and backing off nicely.
By the third session she marched all the way up confidently, standing
quietly, munching away at the hay with her big sister alongside who
was doing her best ‘look’ to get her share of the treats
After 4 sessions of loading, Aria was ready
to have the tailgate closed, so I enlisted the help of her mum and
She handled this without fuss so she was taken for a short drive to
a new paddock. As she had not been taught to tie up yet, Aria was
loose in the completely enclosed float and had turned around to face
the back during the journey.
Now it will be time to repeat the loading
without going anywhere to reinforce the float as a comfort zone. Eventually
I will do this at liberty to check that she is really happy to be
You can read more about teaching trailer
Follow this Foal - a journey from birth to yearling here.
TO THE WORLD – A Non-Invasive
and Loving Approach to Imprinting by Liz Mitten Ryan
De-sensitization and imprinting are found in every trainer’s
tool box. Their importance to our efficient handling of horses is
invaluable. From a human perspective our interaction with horses from
handling to riding is safer and less stressful. Its value to a trusting
partnership though is dependent on how sensitive and considerate we
are to the horse. Is our horse enjoying the relationship more as a
result or are they simply dead to the stimulus?
My journey with horses has been an adventure of discovery. I am always
looking to refine and enhance the connection and communication. As
a warmblood breeder I have birthed and raised dozens of foals. I remember
reading all I could get my hands on, and specifically when Dr. Robert
Miller published his findings on imprinting to the snickers of the
‘old boys’ club. His practices are now embraced by natural
Horsemanship greats like Pat Parelli and adhered to religiously by
have been a breeder now for fourteen years and have developed through
the process a more holistic and rewarding approach similar to how
we welcome humans to the world. There are several important ideas
Become A Trusted and Considerate Friend to Your Mare
In order for my mare to welcome me at the birth she must first consider
me a friend to be trusted with her well-being. This is a life long
process but a simple lead in is to genuinely consider her; to be kind
and generous as we would be to a human friend. One of the best ways
to a mares’ heart is through her stomach and making a fuss over
her condition by preparing wholesome healthy meals and snacks will
have her nickering the minute she sees you. Grooming, scratching and
forays to find choice patches of succulent grass are also great bonding
exercises. All of this will be time well spent as she will transfer
her feelings about you to the new foal. Animals learn by example and
the foal will watch his mother closely to see how she responds to
her human caregiver.
Learn All You Can About Foaling So You Can Make Wise Safey Decisions
There are many good books available on the care of the mare and foal
throughout the birthing period. Study them and get up to speed on
when all is normal and when to call a vet. Many breeders tell the
sad story of finding their mare and foal dead in the morning –not
a very pretty situation. Others, not knowing what to watch for, leave
a mare laboring for hours in agony and possibly lose her and the foal.
Horses birth quickly and efficiently unless there is a misalignment
and it is important to know what to watch for.
Help Make Your Mares Birthing Experience Wonderful
In keeping with the relationship you have fostered with your mare,
be there when she is birthing and help make it easier for her. Because
my mare knows her well-being is everything to me she welcomes me at
the birth. When the water breaks and the sack appears, I immediately
check the position of the foal. In a normal birth one foot is presented
slightly ahead of the other, soles down. If it is any other way make
an emergency call to your vet! Holding the foals front pasterns and
pulling with the mares contractions will help her labor proceed more
easily, and when the nose appears, break the sack so the baby can
breathe. If all goes smoothly birth usually occurs about twenty to
thirty minutes after the water breaks.
Be Sensitive and Gentle
Imprinting can be loving and helpful rather than disruptive and invasive.
Harsh imprinting methods advise taking the baby away from it’s
mother at birth and performing a series of extreme de-sensitising
exercises which are designed to deaden the foals reaction to simple
procedures like trimming and shoeing by tapping the soles of it’s
feet hundreds of times, veterinary treatment by sticking fingers in
all of it’s orifices, electric clippers, plastic bags; the list
goes on and on. All of this forms the babies first impression of the
world while its’ mother is restrained and not allowed to welcome
her own baby. In my barn the foal is towel dried and loved between
my kissing and congratulating the mare until it breaks the umbilical
cord. I then help it to get close to the still recovering mom so she
can lick all the places I have just dried and the two of us alternate
in one big welcome fest. The mare then rises and I clip her placenta
back up to itself so she won’t step on the trailing end and
tear it. It is the weight of the placenta that helps it separate cleanly
from the uterine wall without leaving bits that can cause serious
infection. All the while the baby is attempting to stand and when
he succeeds will then begin his search for the mares udder. It is
better to give him time (up to two hours) to find it on his own and
most mares will try to help by getting in position and pushing the
foal in the right direction. My lead mare L.E. is a master at this,
curving her body around the foal and pushing his hind end with her
Don’t Dominate the Foal, Forcing Him to Comply if He’s
a Bit Reserved
Take the time it takes (as Pat Parelli says) to gently and considerately
get to know the foal and convince him that your concern is for his
comfort and safety. Talk gently, praise him and don’t be in
a hurry to restrain him. The proof is in the pudding.
Paschar, the foal in these pictures was born 3 weeks early after Epona,
his mom had a serious bout of pneumonia. The vets suggested we abort
the ten month old fetus as she was having trouble breathing. That
was one thing Epona and I agreed upon –our baby would live!
When Paschar was born three weeks early he was literally fighting
for his life and even after my gentle welcome, a day later he tried
to rear and run at me. I understood his concern. Humans had tried
to end his life and he had to fight for it.
Patiently I talked to him and told him he was my angel (Paschar is
the Angel of Vision) and as I talked and stroked him, his eye would
soften and he would relax. Days became weeks and I would remind him
who he was and how loved he was and each time his eye grew softer.
By the time he was two months old he was the most gregarious, loving
and affectionate foal who particularly loved being buried under hugging
children. At three months old he followed at liberty, backed, moved
his hind end and shoulder, picked up his feet, trailer loaded (all
at liberty) and ran happily behind in a game I call stick (to me).
He was fully imprinted and de-sensitized while fully alive and filled
with Joy. He now as a two year old understands my every word and is
so self assured that he follows me down to our playground, several
hundred yards from the paddock where his family is grazing, gets up
on tires, runs across bridges, walks ,trots, and whoas all by voice
and body language, all without halters, ropes or sticks. Paschar is
a super horse.
Why? He was born gently, loved, treated with patience and consideration
and knows that his well –being is my first concern.
To see Paschar in the video One With The Herd visit www.lizmittenryan.com/media