Starting Your Weanling Out Right

Weaning does not have to be so traumatic!

Two weanlings, the nearly all-white one is my tovero American Paint Horse filly, enjoying a scratch in the pasture.
Two weanlings, the nearly all-white one is my tovero American Paint Horse filly, enjoying a scratch in the pasture.

Weaning and Halter Breaking Without Drama

It's time to wean the foals, they almost ignore their dam in the pasture and now that they are four months old they are getting little benefit from their mother's milk and relying almost solely on pasture and/or hay and grain for their nutrition. There are many ways to wean foals, from doing a big round-up of all the horses and separating them to weaning in small clusters based on birthdate and growth. I prefer the latter method although of course there are also times when an individual foal must be weaned alone for some reason.

Weaning with at least one 'buddy' will allow a foal to comfort him or herself during the time of transition in weaning. After a day or two of being with a buddy or several buddies in a smaller paddock that is preferably out of hearing and sight range of the dams, the foals generally settle into a 'new herd' with all the usual herd dynamics. It's important to halter the foals if they are tolerant, even if it involves quickly capturing them in a team so that you can get the halter on. However, once it's on then it depends on the foal and your enclosure if you let them 'drag a rope' off the halter or if you just keep the halter on for a few days. If a foal is having a very hard time, panicking and calling for the dam then it's better not to add any additional stress to the situation until he or she has calmed down sufficiently.

Once the foal is 'dragging a rope' (a soft cotton lead rope attached to the halter ring that drags along the ground teaching the foal naturally to give to pressure as it gets hung up and stepped on) then you can start working on leading and gentling. If your foal is already gentle this process will be fairly quick and painless, but still be sure to work gently and calmly with your foal, a fright at the wrong moment could damage all the work you did gentling the foal prior to weaning.

Start by teaching the foal to move forward to pressure on the lead rope. Now this may not be easy or fast, especially at first, when a foal is likely to set back and pull the opposite direction or even plunge forward and rear trying to evade the uncomfortable and unfamilliar pressure. Some very feisty or wild foals will even come -at- you to strike out or kick, so be ready! Just remain calm and keep gentle, steady pressure on the lead and halter. If the foal moves forward to the pressure, even one inch, release the pressure and talk calmly and reassuringly to the foal. After a brief pause, again gently create tension in your lead and wait for the foal to react. if the foal moves forward however tentitively, again reward with relase. The timing of this 'pull and release' is crutial because you are teaching your horse the basics for his or her whole training with this first process. The 'lighter' you can make your horse by giving immediately and rewarding their correct action, the better the horse will be under saddle in the future. You will also build trust between you and your weanling, because when you reward quickly and appropriately the foal understands and does not suffer from confusion. A confused, upset foal will not be very trusting or willing to work with you!

Encourage your foal to turn and face you, and when he or she does, release the pressure and let them stand on a 'loose rein' (without pressure being applied through the rope to the halter). If he or she moves away, again gently take up the slack and wait until the foal faces you. In this way, you are setting up your future working in the roundpen or on a lunge line because you are teaching the foal that he or she will be rewarded by facing you. Just be aware that young foals who are just learning these reactions may suddenly bolt or rear, so be ready to calmly and safely get out of the way! Do not panic and drop the lead, even if the foal flips over. Just wait until the finish the 'trantrum' and then apply gentle, steady pressure again. Do not yank or tug, do not give in if they are struggling backwards. Just remain calm, stand steady and be ready for that one tiny movement forward when you will release the tension in the lead rope.

The next step, which may not come on the same day, or for some foals, even in the same week, will be to touch your foal. Now for some weanling owners this is already a process they enjoy with their foal and have been doing since the foal's birth. If that is the case, it's still important to do it now, once you are haltering and handling the weanling. The dam is no longer there and so you need to build the trust and relationship with your foal step by step, regardless of how 'tame' or 'imprinted' you feel they may be.

If your foal is very easy to handle this step will just be shorter for you than for someone who has a totally wild or untouched foal. In either case, start by keeping pressure on the leadline and approaching your foal. Try to encourage your foal not to back away. If your foal stands and does not back away, stop approaching and show them that you do not intend to invade their space quickly or hurt them. Slowly keep tension in the rope and approach again. If you are close enough to slowly reach out your hand and touch their nose with the back of your fingers, this is enough. If your foal does not bolt away or shy backwards, stop petting, drop your hand and slowly step backwards. This is a non-threatening movement to a foal and will show them you intend no harm. That does not mean all foals will react well, either to being touched or to your movement, so again, be ready for their sudden reactions and protect yourself, while still trying to remain calm and keep steady pressure on the rope when the foal is moving where he or she should not be.

Some foals will do well working in a confined space, but beware, because some foals will feel very threatened by being backed into a corner and may actually become aggressive in a stall or other small space. It is not harmful to work in a larger, outdoor area such as a paddock as long as you feel safe and the foal is not horribly distracted by the outside environment. Just be aware if there are other foals in the pen as they may react to your weanling's reactions!

If you can touch your foal's nose on a lose lead then you are ready to start slowly progressing to touching the forehead for a scratch. Then the neck, shoulder and back. Foals, like my filly and her friend in the above photo, like to scratch each other, so making this similar to how foals scratch each other will make the foal start to feel safe and comfortable as they realize you are not particularly scary and are not intending to harm them. Avoid the chest, girth area, flank, genitals and legs for now. These areas are more sensitive, horses are not used to being touched on them except by pests, like flies, and so are unlikely to have a positive reaction at this stage.

You want the foal to accept your scratching/patting/gentle rubbing all over the 'safe zone' first. You should be able to drop the leadrope, walk away, approach the foal, take up the leadrope and hold it. Encourage the foal to walk forward with gentle pressure and have them take at least one step (only) forward and then slowly approach the foal and on a loose rope have the foal comfortable with slow, gentle petting of some kind.

This is the first stage of handling a weanling, tame or wild, and this foundation of moving slowly and calmly will build trust and behavior that you will value in years to come! These are the basics of your foal's training, not just for one moment as you tug them along on a lead but for the rest of your relationship with this horse and their relationship with training and humans! You can see how very important it is that you build the right foundation.

The approach is no nonsense. The foal feels pressure when he or she does not do as you desire and the foal is 'rewarded' by a release when they do even the slightest thing right. You never give in, but you also always give when they do give in. You have to perfect this timing because it is important for future stages of training. This builds trust between you and your horse as well as laying important groundwork for all of that horse's interactions with humans.

I LOVE working with weanlings because it literally builds the future for the horse. I feel this stage is extremely important and I encourage you to build up a firm and trusting relationship with your foal so that you can enjoy a safe and respectful horse in the future!

8 week old weanling colt with halter and lead

EZG Hickory Tater, my 2010 stud colt.  Here he is only about 8 weeks old and was easy to work on the lead.  His dam, an experienced 20 year old mare is grazing with her halter and lead rope on nearby.  This combination of friendly foal and calm, expe
EZG Hickory Tater, my 2010 stud colt. Here he is only about 8 weeks old and was easy to work on the lead. His dam, an experienced 20 year old mare is grazing with her halter and lead rope on nearby. This combination of friendly foal and calm, expe

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Comments 7 comments

mary jane bouregard 6 years ago

i saw this and it was very helpful but i was wondering when should i begin to halter break my filly?(as in what age should she be?)


ezgreen profile image

ezgreen 6 years ago Author

Hi Mary Jane,

Halter breaking is sometimes easier after weaning on a foal that has not been handled from birth. This is because a nervous foal and a protective mare can be difficult to work with. However, if you have a friendly foal and a relaxed mother who will let you work with your baby you can start halter training from birth. Many people have different opinions about this subject, and I feel it is largely personal and circumstantial. For example, what are you using the foal for? (If you want to show halter as a weanling then you need to halter train early on!) and also the temperment of both the mare and foal may play a part in the decisions you make. Some breeders do not like foals to be too comfortable with humans as they believe that this 'spoils' the foal and makes them more aggressive as they get older. Some people feel it is important to 'imprint' a foal very soon after birth and expose them to lots of different stimuli so that they are easier to handle and work with. This can all be very confusing, so I urge you to consider your purpose for halter breaking your foal (most foals follow their dams very well so you may not need to use a halter until after weaning) and also the temperment of your particular mare and foal. If you are confident in handling your baby, then you can expose them to the halter, even if it's just in your hand while you scratch them. I'm sorry to not give you a 'direct' answer to your question, however the truth is that many people believe different things about what age to halter break. Best of luck with your baby!


Courtney Nicholls 6 years ago

Hi, this is an awesome article.. i was wondering on what kind of halter you prefered?? rope or the other kinds??? What works better? my filly is bout 4 months old and kinda wilder....


Brenda 6 years ago

I am buying a weanling who is cow breed and the breeder says the weanling dose not like her. I saw the weanling a few days after it was being weaned. it was about four months old. it was with another weanling and it would not even look at me, the breeder said it is depressed about her mother. But the breeder told me a few weeks ago the weanling only tolerates her long enough to give it grain. I have never had a weanling but I have an old mare. is this normal.


ezgreen profile image

ezgreen 5 years ago Author

Hi Courtney-Sorry I didn't comment sooner but I'll stil answer in case you haven't had your question answered yet. I think what type of halter you use is up to you. Rope or flat nylon can both work well, and for very young foals many people prefer to just use a simple leather foal halter. Do not leave a halter on a growing foal unless you check it regularly as they grow FAST and it can damage the face if left on. I prefer flat nylon halters, although this goes against a lot of current trends where people are using rope halters. I find flat nylon a little less severe and i feel 'less is more' for horses. In other words, you can start out with the flat nylon, and if your baby isn't responsive then you can move to the rope. If you start with rope, then if they aren't responsive you have to find a way to make it more severe which isn't ideal on a youngster. You don't want to be overly harsh on a young horse as they can lose sensitivity. Still, rope halters are not 'bad' so if you prefer those it's fine to use them. Rope halters are more adjustable than many styles of 'flat' nylon halters as you just move the knots and tighten and loosen them as you wish so they are a little easier to fit on a young horse. I think if you imagine training your horse as a 'pendulum' where 0 would be simply thinking a command and 10 would be severe correction, you want to start at 0 and move slowly through the stages rather than starting at 10 because then you have no where to go. I often lead my horses under their chin without a halter or lead rope when I am with them in the pasture, and I try to avoid getting in a habit of using grain to catch them as this means if you don't have grain, you won't get horse! The less aids you use the more choices you will have in different situations. Sure we all have 'favorite' tack and methods, but if you can walk out into a paddock and catch your horse with nothing, that will mean you have the most flexibility in a situation where you do not have your 'usual' tack. So if you want you can use both a rope and a flat nylon halter so your baby is responsive in both! As for the 'wild' weanlings...these babies need time to trust. Take your time and get them to step towards you (reach your hand out, hold it steady and then step -back- away from the baby so that they don't feel a threat from you) Good training of a 'wild' baby will include just hanging out near them and being 'nonthreatening' and doing simple things like brushing, scratching and standing near them in their space. A good time is when the baby (or dam) is feeding so they are distracted and you can just be in their space. Let them approach you but watch out for hooves, babies can be playful and don't have limits, they often jump all over their dam and may think nothing of trying it on you so have a leadrope or something to use just in case. The basic goal there is not to 'halter' them at first, but if they are 'wild' to gain trust and get them accepting you in the space, touch and finally the rope just touching them. Don't let it be a threat, dont' suddenly get impatient and 'grab' them, just take your time and use the rope to scratch them with rather than catch them with at first. After a while they'll come to you looking for it and slowly you can gain trust. I hope all is well with your babies! Also, check out my new hub on yearling training!


Sue 4 years ago

Hello, love this article.....I have two Kiger Mustang weanlings who are in the same corral. The BLM facility put my halters on before loading them to come home. How do I get a lead rope on these two? It has been one week, and I have been able to get close enough for them both to smell my hand and touch it, but this is about as far as I can get with them. I feel if I had a lead rope on them I could gently them easier. Any advice would be appreciated.

Thank you

Sue


Kate 3 years ago

Hey!

I've just been looking for some advise on how to start gentling my year and a half old filly. She's my first time and I want to do it right, and I can see you know your stuff! I've taught her to Lead and I can brush and cuddle her too, but I need to know how to start with the training soon, so any ideas??

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