Baby Steps: The Importance of Curiosity in the Foal
Weíre coming up again on one of my favorite times of the year. As spring rounds the corner, the broodmaresí bellies are growing and the countdown has started. Foaling time. Finally we get to see the products of the genetic equation we planned a year ago. This is one of the most exciting times of the year. And now is a great time to talk about educating those little equine treasures.
We hear many conflicting ideas on how much to handle and teach young horses. Some people still stand by the old-wivesí tale that handling young horses will spoil them and ruin them later in life, while others believe in starting the foalís training program as early as possible. Individuals like Dr. R. M. Miller have proven the benefits of imprint training, early learning, and foal development. Many volumes have been written and many videos produced on what to teach foals and young horses as they are growing.
More important than what you want to teach your foal is how you present yourself during training. The decision as to what to teach your foals will depend on what you plan to do with them this early in life, and that will be unique to your program and goals. What I would like to talk about is not so much what to teach them, but how you approach their education. Your approach will surely effect the foalís mindset and how much can be accomplished. My primary aim is to build confidence and Ďtryí in a foal. Two of the most important things that we must always keep in mind are the foalís curiosity level and our timing. These are absolutely key in educating any horse.
Everyone knows the old saying, ĎCuriosity killed the cat.í Curiosity in the foal, though, tops the list as the most important thing we have to work with. Foals are naturally curious when they are born. They love to explore their world and see what they can get into. Itís this curiosity that will help us build confidence as we move along in their training. From first introducing ourselves to a foal, we want to keep their curiosity intact. For this reason, we want to always be aware of what we are communicating. Nothing means nothing. Everything means something.
When we shoo a nosey foal away, or swat at a nibbling muzzle, we are destroying that curiosity. Instead of shooing the foal away give him something to do, like standing to have a foot picked up. Instead of swatting at the nibbling muzzle give him something to think about, like backing up with light pressure form your fingertips.
Timing is also very important. The timing of your pressure and the release of your pressure, as well as the length of time that you devote to training are going to have a lot to do with how much your foal learns. I prefer to play with a foal little bits at a time, building on the curiosity as I go, always being aware of the foalís effort and try. Letís use the example of teach the young horse to yield to pressure from his head and neck. This will be the stepping stone for things like leading, tying, etc.
When Iím with the foal and heís curious about me, I might rub him on his neck and let my arm wrap around the top of him (so if Iím on the foalís right side, my left arm wraps around the top of him to his left side, for instance). I would work my hand up near the front of his neck and just touch him there.
Iíll wait until he gives some thought to bending his nose around to me, and the moment that he does, Iíll go back to rubbing that neck again. Then Iíll do the same thing over. I just pause and wait for him to bend that nose around, and the instant that he does, Iíll go back to rubbing. Pretty soon, when I touch his neck, heíll bend his nose over to me. This is his first step for helping me put a halter on.
Once I have this solid from both sides of his body, Iíll put a halter on him. Iíll then hold my lead out to the side and get him to yield his head the same way that I did with my hand on his neck Ė Iíll just hold that lead until he bends his nose and neck to come off the pressure of that halter. Pretty soon, the feet will follow. I might accomplish this in one session with a foal, or I might stretch it out to three of four sessions. It all depends on his curiosity. If heís distracted by the world around him, then Iíll just ask for a little bit at a time, maybe as little as five or ten seconds, but build on that over a few days. Eventually, I will start becoming more interesting to him and we can work longer and longer. If heís thinking about me the whole time, then maybe Iíll stick with it a little longer.
The actual time isnít important to me or the foal Ė itís the interested time, the curious time, thatís important. One minute of time you spend forcing a foal to focus can destroy an hour worth of work that you got as a result of curiosity. I never want to force any horse into working for me. Itís important to me that they are mindful and curious for more. When you have their curiosity, you will earn their heart. When you have a horseís curiosity and heart, and you are careful with your timing, there isnít a limit to what you can accomplish.
This is, of course, just a brief introduction to get you thinking about how you present your ideas to a foal (to any horse, for that matter). If you keep this information in mind when you are working with a foal, it is sure to keep you out of trouble and help you keep the foal in the right frame of mind to work with you.
Enjoy your foals. Enjoy your horses. Most of allÖenjoy the journey!
Photo Credit: photos.com
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