A New Foal…Now What?
A new foal is not an inanimate object (I know you knew that). A new foal is a thinking, learning entity that is picking up information at an amazing rate…nothing like a human baby. They must, as their lives literally depend on learning as much as they can as fast as they can. This includes learning about you.
I understand from studies I read on imprinting that you have the first 10 hours of a foal’s life to imprint everything you want to do throughout the rest of that foal’s life. Apparently the people who did that study imprinted foals, tossed them out to pasture for two years, and found they still remembered what they had been taught. If you do that and keep it going instead, the bond you establish then will be stronger and last a lifetime.
There is more to teaching a foal to pick up their feet than just that. A cooperative foal is a safe foal and you will want to be able to lead it and have it stand relaxed and still besides. There are lots of training programs out there to choose from. My personal favorites are Pat Parelli’s Seven Games and Buck Brannaman’s groundwork training. Both are good for communication between horse and owner and getting to horse to respect you. Not being jerked around or run over is a good thing.
It’s hardwired into a horse’s very basic nature to panic when they feel trapped. It’s the flight part of “fight or flight” and they can do it very well early on. They are prey animals and we are predators, whether we like it or not. We haven’t exactly been the horse’s best friend throughout the ages, particularly when we considered them as food. However, if you have a good relationship with the foal’s mother, that will help as an introduction and speed the process of training.
I’ve heard that the fastest way to get something done with a horse is to go slow. Actually, this applies to any animal and most humans. You must move at their pace, not yours. They need to understand what you want from them in incremental steps. The worst thing you can do is grab a hoof right off. Panic city. You’ll get to see how fast a baby horse can move…even with you hanging on. Yep, they’re pretty strong right away.
So, first let the foal smell you and hopefully you don’t smell too bad. It will help if you haven’t just eaten a burger. I would advise not having just had a few drinks before too. I’ve found that gives off unpleasant vibrations to any horse. Sniff noses and let it sniff your hands. I always let every horse I work on sniff my tools before I trim. I believe that lets them know ahead of time what I’m going to do. They will attentively smell the tools. When they turn away, they are giving you the OK to proceed. Yeah, I know…strange, but I’ve found it makes my job easier.
Pet the horse up high and slowly slide your hand down the leg while keeping the foal calm. Sudden movement will take you two steps back. Don’t try to grab the hoof. That’s what young colts do to each other in play and what stallions try to do in fighting. Instead, gently squeeze the chestnut. Let the foal feel that and prepare to lift their foot. When they square up and lift, then you can hold the foot. Keep it held loosely but firmly. If they kick, hold on, but let it move. Of course, stay out of the way of a moving hoof. Once you have the hoof, tap on it with your fingernail to tell the foal that you are doing something. They will start to see a reason why you want their foot in the air. Rather than tightening when they fidget, hold looser until they relax. They’ll soon figure it out you’re no danger to them and trust you with their foot.
As far as trimming a foal, I start by just rasping a bit. There will be time to balance later. Just get them used to having work done on them. When I start to trim I use the sole as my guide to balance the hoof and then square and roll the toe somewhat to encourage straight breakover. I’ll tell you why.
The horseshoeing school I taught for did a study of Standardbred foals. Standardbred trotters are notorious for hooves interfering with one of the other legs. There are many names for these injuries. So, they selected some trotter foals and trimmed them every two weeks, like I described, until they were all two years old and started racing and followed their performance. Their feet didn’t interfere and most of them set track records.
My experience is to start trimming foals as soon as possible and as often as possible, generally two week intervals, until they are two years old and their joints are better set. I try to trim every two weeks until I can see that they are staying straight and then extend the interval a bit as needed. This is the most important time for a foal’s development and, like halter training, what you do now will affect the rest of their life. Plus, your interaction with the foal will last their lifetime of you coming to trim. That’s time well spent.