It is never too soon to start handling and training a young horse. The best time to commence is while he is still small and willing to trust you.
Ideally, human contact begins almost immediately with the newborn foal. Establishing ground manners and a tolerance for handling cannot begin too soon. Many equine practitioners endorse foal imprinting – as owner and foal get to know and trust one another from the beginning. This also gives the owner a chance to tactfully and gently establish dominance.
Focus on the Mare First.
Begin by addressing the mare. Grooming is a good way to start. Before long, the curious foal will wonder what you’re doing. He may even approach you. Groom him gently as well, using a soft brush or curry. Be sure to stay by his front end, as you do this. Foals can move quite quickly!
When you are ready, approach the foal with gentleness and confidence. Rub his neck and withers, and work your way up to his face. Stand to one side of your young horse while you do this, then move to his other side as well. Try to avoid sudden noises of movements, so he is not startled. (This can go a long way towards preventing him from becoming face-shy.) Allow the foal to get to know you: your voice, your scent, your touch, and more.
Attract the Foal with Attention.
After a day or two, with sufficient and consistent handling and practice, most foals will grow used to your presence. At this time, you can take an unbuckled foal halter with you into the stall. (A leather foal halter is the safest, as it will tear away, if it becomes caught on something.) Of course, a broken halter is easier to fix than an injured young horse.
Approach the foal. Stroke his neck and mane, as before. Try to have him between you and his dam. (A stall wall can also be a helpful boundary at this point.) Stand at the foal’s side, and slip the halter over his nose. Do not come at him from the front. Foals can quickly become terrified, and rightly so, when objects suddenly approach them head-on.
Slip the halter strap over his ears, and buckle it gently. Pet him and praise him softly. Then step back, as he is likely to wiggle a bit. After all, this is something new, and he needs a few minutes to figure things out. You may even wish to step quietly out of the stall for a while until your young horse settles in with his new accessory.
Set Yourself Up for Success.
If the foal resists this procedure, it may be necessary to enlist a strong assistant to help hold him for the first time or two. However, a foal must not be wrestled into wearing the halter. This can be extremely dangerous to horse and handler. (A foal’s skeletal structure is still forming, and his neck is delicate. Also, his baby hooves can quickly fly. Although they are little, they can do a fair amount of damage!)
It is far better to allow the foal to become familiar with the halter and with human handling than to force the halter in one session. If necessary, you can distract the young horse with grooming and attention and reattempt the haltering a little later.
As he grows, you can even teach the foal to lead.
This is best done early, before he has the opportunity to learn independent habits. Many foal halters have catch straps, which you can use to practice leading in the stall. (At this early stage, a lead rope might add an unnecessary tangling hazard.)
The foal must lead willingly. Do not attempt to drag him along, as this may injure him severely. (A tug-of-war could even prove fatal to a foal.) If the mother is leading alongside, he will most likely follow willingly.
With a little patience and practice, you will lead your foal safely and willingly.
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