Teaching Your Foal to Lead, by Ken McNabb
To start, keep in mind that you should only expect to work your foal for about 20 minutes at a time. This is not so much because of his attention span, but more because you don’t want to push him physically at a young age. Twenty minutes won’t tire him out, and that’s what we’re looking for.
I’ll give you two exercises that I like to start with.
The first is to teach the baby to lead off a halter, and to soften his head and neck towards you as he does.
Begin by haltering your foal. Halter him for the first time just like you would an older horse. Don’t make a big deal of it, and chances are it won’t be a big deal to your baby either. I like to use a wide nylon web halter that fits properly. I don’t recommend a rope halter, as a wider halter distributes the pressure over a larger area. If he is scared of the halter, move it up and down in front of him a few times until he relaxes. Don’t shove it on to his face or force him to accept it, just give him a little time to think about the new situation.
Now, you are ready to begin teaching your foal to lead. Step off to the side of him, and put a gentle pull on the lead rope. Hold the pressure steady. You are looking for your baby to bend his neck in the direction of the pressure and take a step towards you. As soon as he does, release all pressure on the lead rope and pet him to let him know that was what you wanted. Be sure that you reward him for even one step towards you. One thing that is important to remember here is that you are looking for more than just his feet to move. You also want your baby to soften his neck towards you. This is laying the foundation for him to be light and responsive to the bridle later in his training.
At this stage in his training, you should never pull on your foal to move straight towards you. Always ask him to move with pressure to the side. As he progresses and begins to understand what you want, you can elongate the circle that you are working on so the baby takes more steps forward and less to the side.
The second exercise I like to teach my babies is to sack them out all over with my hands. It works well to work on leading for a few minutes, then practice sacking out, and then switch back to leading. This way the foal doesn’t get bored.
Begin at the head, and start rubbing your foal gently but firmly. If he stands for a few seconds, take your hands off him to let him know he is doing the right thing. Then go back to rubbing on him, working your way from the head and neck to his shoulders, down his front legs, and on to his back, hip, and hind legs. Remember to stop and take your hands off to give him a release at regular intervals throughout this process. Your goal here is to sense his level of anxiety and stop sacking him out BEFORE he moves off on his own. However, if he does move off while you are still sacking him out, back off what you are doing and let him take a few steps away, then stop him gently using the leading exercise you have already practiced, and go back to what you were doing.
There is a reason that you need to give your foal a chance to take a few steps away when he gets nervous. In the wild, a horse’s survival depends largely on his ability to run away from predators. If you don’t allow your baby to move at all when he is afraid, you are telling him that when he is scared, there is nothing he can do about it. By allowing him to leave a little, but then bringing him right back to what you were doing, you are teaching him that he can move when he is afraid, but he will learn that nothing bad is going to happen and you will take care of him, so he can make the choice that he does not have to leave, even when he is nervous about something.
Once you can touch your horse all over with your hands, you can sack him out with the lead rope as well. Be sure you are using a soft cotton rope, and toss it gently over his back, let it bump his legs, and so on. You can even take the rope around his belly like a cinch and practice tightening it a little.
Use your imagination, and remember, you own your horse for enjoyment. Make sure that you keep every exercise fun for you and your baby, and enjoy building the foundation that will allow you to progress smoothly through your training for years to come.
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