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Catching and Handling the Foal, by Clinton Anderson




I’m a firm believer in working with foals as  soon as they are born because the earlier you  can start to work with them, the less fearful and  more respectful they become. Catching your foal  is the first step to desensitizing him to human  touch. Before you can begin teaching your foal  fundamental exercises, he first must trust you. In  this exercise, you’ll catch the foal and then teach  him to stand still and relax while your arms are  wrapped around his body. You’ll find that the  more you practice walking up to the foal and  catching him, the quieter he’ll get.

Teaching Stage:  Before starting this first lesson, it’s important  that you can trust the mare and she can trust you.  In this lesson, you’ll use an assistant to hold the  mare while you work with the foal (or tie the mare  up if you have no assistant). Before you catch the  foal, you should be confident that the mare is not  going to get worked up or aggressive when you  try to touch the foal. If she still show signs of  aggression or gets worried when you enter the  stall, spend more time reassuring her and just  hanging out in the stall. Once she’s comfortable  with you in the stall near the foal, then you can  begin the first lesson.  I recommend teaching this lesson in a stall  because it’s easier to work with the foal in a small  enclosure. You’ll find that some foals like to run  around and play games with you. The bigger area  they have to run around in, the more difficult it is  to catch them. Playing a game of “catch me if you  can” can easily turn into a habit for foals, so you  want to discourage that behavior as quickly as  you can. You want the foal to realize that you can  get a hold of him whenever you want. If you don’t  have a stall, create an enclosed 12′ by 12′ area in  which you can safely work with the foal.

1) Have your assistant position the mare next  to the stall wall so that you’ll be able to easily  reach the foal. If you don’t have an assistant, use  an Aussie Tie Ring to tie the mare up so that she  won’t be moving around the stall making the foal  anxious.  The quieter the mare stands, the calmer the  foal will stay throughout the lesson. If the mare  is pacing in the stall and getting worked up, the  foal will mimic her behavior. I recommend positioning  the mare next to the wall because you’ll  find that when you go to catch the foal, he’ll  duck under his mother’s belly or try to hide  behind her. By putting the mare next to the wall,  even if the foal tries to sneak under her, you’ll  always be able to get a hand on him.

2) Walk up to the foal with passive body language  and scratch his hindquarters or withers.  It’s important to approach the foal in a casual,  relaxed manner. Pretend that catching him is  the furthest thing from your mind. A common  mistake people make is to walk up to the foal  like a predator. They enter the stall and walk  straight over to the foal. That sounds simple, but  to the foal, you look like a predator on the hunt  for his next meal. He’s not going to wait around  and think about the situation because even at  this young age Mother Nature is telling him to  run! Horses always run first and think later.  To seem less threatening to the foal and  less like a predator, relax your body language and  spend a few minutes scratching his hindquarters  or withers. Horses love to be scratched on their  withers, and the more the foal associates you  with pleasant a feeling, the better.

3) When the foal is standing beside you, slide  one hand up under his neck and then grab the  base of his tail with your free hand and lift it  straight up in the air.  Lifting the foal’s tail up in the air is similar to  a twitch because it subdues the foal. By applying  pressure to his tail, you’re making it uncomfortable  for the foal to move his feet and try to get  away from you.

4) As soon as the foal stops moving his feet  and relaxes, release the pressure on his tail.  When the foal relaxes, he’ll show one of five  signs: he’ll lick his lips, cock a hind leg, take a  deep breath, blink his eyes or lower his head and  neck. If he doesn’t show one of those five signs,  but stands still for at least 15 seconds, he’s telling  you that he has no intention of trying to get away  and you can go ahead and release the pressure.  When the foal stops moving his feet, make  him feel comfortable by releasing the pressure on  his tail. Horses learn from the release of pressure,  not the pressure itself. The quicker you can  drop the foal’s tail when he stands still and relaxes,  the faster he’ll understand that he did the right  thing. However, if you drop the foal’s tail and  release the pressure when he is moving his feet,  you’re teaching him to struggle against you. Be  very conscious of your timing and what you’re  rewarding the foal for.

5) Any time the foal goes to move, immediately  make him feel uncomfortable by lifting his  tail up. As soon as his feet stop moving and he  shows a sign of relaxing, release the pressure on  his tail.  You’ll make the wrong thing (moving his feet)  difficult, and the right thing (standing still and  relaxing) easy.

6) Be sure to keep the foal as close to the  mare as you can, even if you have to physically  move the foal next to her.  In fact, it’s best if you can put the foal in the  nursing position so that his muzzle is close to the  mare’s flank. This position is familiar and comfortable  to the foal and will help ease the tension in  his body and make him less defensive.

7) When you can successfully catch the foal  on one side of his body, and he doesn’t struggle  against your hold, practice catching him from his  other side.  Remember that horses have two sides to  their brains, a left side and a right side. Whatever  you teach to one side, you have to teach to the  other. Act like you’re training two different horses  and be very thorough with each side.

Handler Mistakes:

Not keeping the mare in one place positioned  next to the wall.  If you let the mare walk around the stall,  chances are the foal is going to get upset  because you won’t be able to keep him next to  the mare at all times. The advantage of having an  assistant hold the mare or tying her up in the stall  is that it keeps her in one place and makes it easy  for you to keep the foal next to her side. Keeping  the mare against the wall also makes your job  easier because you’ll be able to reach the foal  even if he tries to hide from you.

Holding the foal away from the mare.  While you’re working with the foal, be conscious  of keeping him next to the mare at all  times. When you first catch the foal, you might  have to physically move him back to the mare’s  side so that he can see her and she can see him.  It’s best to put the foal in the nursing position  because it’s familiar and comforting to him.  Allowing the mare to see and touch the foal will  keep her relaxed.

Approaching the foal like a predator.  Remember that horses are prey animals and  have a flight or fight response. If you approach  the foal like a predator, his reaction will be to run  away from you. If he can’t escape you, then he’ll  do whatever he can to fight you off and survive  the situation. However, if you relax your body language  and pretend that catching him is the last  thing on your mind, he’ll allow you to approach.  Not releasing the pressure on the foal’s tail  when he stops moving his feet and relaxes.  Horses learn from the release of pressure,  not the pressure itself. So the quicker you can  release the pressure on the foal’s tail when he  stands still and relaxes, the quicker he will learn  he did the right thing.

Foal Problems:

The foal rears when you try to catch him.  If the foal rears when you first put your arms  around him, stay in position and move with him.  As soon as you possibly can, get your hand on  the base of his tail and lift straight up in the air to  make him feel uncomfortable for struggling  against you. Keep a steady, consistent pressure  on the foal’s tail until he stops moving his feet and  relaxes. Don’t punish him for rearing because  he’s not being bad on purpose, he just doesn’t  understand what you’re asking him to do.  Through repetition, you’re going to teach him that  when you catch him, he has nothing to worry  about.

The foal gets worried when he can’t see the  mare.  Be sure to keep the foal next to his mother  throughout the exercise. As long as he can see  his mother and she can see him, they’ll both  stay relaxed.  Ideally, the foal  should be kept by  the mare’s side so  she can bend her  head and neck  around to see or  even touch him if  she wants.

The foal kicks  or strikes out at  you.  If the foal  kicks out with his  back legs or  strikes at you with  his front legs,  keep applying  pressure to his tail  and wait for his  feet to stop moving  and for him to  show a sign of  relaxing. By kicking  out or striking at you, the foal is just letting you  know that he isn’t comfortable with what you’re  doing to him. But with repetition, he’ll soon learn  that you’re not trying to hurt him and he can’t  get rid of you by kicking out or striking. The only  way he gets a release of pressure is by standing  still and relaxing.

Troubleshooting Advice:

The mare gets aggressive or worried when  you try to catch the foal.  If the mare gets aggressive or overly worried  when you try to catch the foal, stop the exercise  and go back to gaining her trust. Spend time  sitting in the corner  of the stall just  letting the mare and  the foal get used  to your presence.  Prove to her that  she has nothing to  be worried about  when you try to  touch or catch the  foal. It’s important  that the mare isn’t  worried about you  when you start  working with the  foal because if she  is, she’ll upset the  foal making it  impossible for you  to accomplish the  goal of the exercise.

Success Tip:  

Catch the foal  when he’s nursing.  The easiest way to catch the foal is to do  so when he is nursing. He can only think about  one thing at a time, so if he’s thinking about  nursing, he won’t have time to be worried about  you. And when you do catch him, he’ll already be  in the perfect position next to the mare.

About Clinton Anderson:   An Australian native, he began his quest  to become the best horseman he could be by  apprenticing under top Australian trainers Gordon  McKinlay and Ian Francis. In 1996 Clinton moved  to America to continue training horses and  apprenticed under Al Dunning, winner of multiple  AQHA World Championships, before beginning  to train under his own name. Clinton loves  training reiners and cow horses and has been  successful in both competitive arenas. Find out more about Clinton at

[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 3, Issue 7.]


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