Starting Your Weanling Out Right
Weaning does not have to be so traumatic!
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!