It's no surprise that a horse's physical and mental learning capacity increases as he grows from foal to adult. Proper handling of the youngster usually produces a lifetime of good manners, trust and well-grounded basic skills. Here are some guidelines for gentle handling of horses to promote good behaviors, well-being, intelligence and owner safety introduced at different stages of their lives:
Early in the foal's life, gentle handling instills trust in humans and an acceptance in being touched and responding to rider cues. How much handling is subject to debate: some recommend intensive frequent handling throughout foalhood; others suggest less contact, or for a short period of time (first few hours to days). Many horse owners refer to this training process as "imprinting" although true imprinting has only been demonstrated in birds. It is probably more accurate to think about this process in foals as intensive learning, an attempt to reduce the fight or flight response to common activities that often develops. Common imprinting procedures include:
Training sessions take 45 to 60 minutes and generally are done twice a day for the first three or four days. Be sure each step is successfully completed before moving on. If the foal resists, back off briefly, but persist with the handling. If you stop when the foal resists he will learn that you will quit when he acts up.
Reining competitor/trainer Pete Kyle, American Quarter Horse Association world champion and 1997 AQHA professional horseman of the year, believes that simple handling is sufficient to build trust. The day after foaling he pats and rubs the animal for three to four minutes. He repeats this two or three times a day for several days.
At 20 to 30 days, teach the foal to lead by the halter and to pick up his feet via handling sessions that last 10 to 15 minutes, every other day, for 2 to 3 weeks. By the time the foal is ready for his first hoof trim, usually at 7 to 8 weeks, the animal usually handles reasonably well and allows his feet to be lifted and picked. At this point, handling can stop except for routine maintenance and medication until the foal is weaned.
After weaning, which usually occurs around 4 to 6 months of age, introduce new stimuli such as loading in a trailer, running water on the legs and walking across scales or a wash rack. Continue basic handling to reinforce halter leading and body handling. Train 20 to 30 minutes a day, including lots of walking around time, for a couple of weeks, then turn the horse out for 2 or 3 months. During turnout, Kyle suggests petting the weanling every day during daily check-ups to build a trusting, quiet relationship. In addition, when bringing the horse in once a month for trimming and deworming, do a little extra handling.
Yearlings are still fragile babies with a short attention span, so training is little more than a continuation of handling. Some experts believe you should leave them alone to grow and socialize with other horses, bringing them in every couple of months to be handled for 2 or 3 days. You may put a light saddle on their back and surcingle around their girth to get them accustomed to that, but just for a short period of time for a few days in a row. Then, leave them alone again.
"Once they are acclimated to those experiences, quiet long lapses – even 6 months – can occur without any noticeable detriment in their compliance with things," says Sue McDonnell, Ph.D.., Equine Behavior Laboratory and Clinic, University of Pennsylvania.
Kyle introduces a saddle and longing in late autumn of the yearling year, if the horse is good-sized and strong-boned. "We may lead them around and exercise them on the longe line very lightly," he says. "But the yearling is still very young, so we work them for only five to 10 minutes at the most. I then give them a chance to relax for 3 or 4 minutes and start back again for about 20 minutes. Depending on the horse, we may do this 3 or 4 times a week."
Other experts believe that weanlings and yearlings should be continuously handled and trained. Not in a physically demanding manner, but in coordinated, balanced steps.
The 2-year-old usually is ready for more intensive training, although not physically or mentally mature enough to handle the longer and more demanding sessions of an adult horse. Go easy and avoid over-drilling, which can lead to a tired and resentful horse.
Mike Lund, animal sciences professor, Cal Poly University, Calif., introduces the 2-year-old to the rider and to basic riding skills consisting of the walk, trot and canter in each direction, picking up the proper lead, turning with direct or indirect reins, bending, moving off the leg, side-passing, serpentines and a little bit of extension and collection. Sessions should range from 20 to 45 minutes. Within 2 or 3 months, most horses are pretty much broke to ride. At this point, some trainers turn them out for two or three months to freshen before coming back at the end of the year to begin working on specific disciplines.
Kyle begins basic maneuvers specific to reining shortly into the horse's 2-year-old year. While specific maneuvers for reining and pleasure classes can be introduced to the 2-year-old, he cautions that stressful maneuvers, such as jumping or fast spins must be avoided until the horse is more mature. "The main thing we're doing is teaching them to get control of their bodies," he says. Kyle initially works the horse for a couple of months, gives him 2 to 4 weeks off, and then begins working him pretty consistently.
By the time a horse is 3 years old, he's generally physically and mentally mature enough to move into more purposeful and specific training, with some limitations. Avoid intense pressure and intersperse sessions with slow, easy work.
"They're strong but still young and their structure is fragile," says Lund. "With over-training, some of the soft tissues can start to give out, resulting in ligament and tendon injuries. They still have a shorter attention span and shorter capacity to understand than the fully mature horse. But horses of this age can usually handle longer periods of training, 6 or 7 days a week, at higher levels in their discipline."
Four-Year-Olds and Beyond
The 4-year-old and older horse usually is capable, mentally and physically, of standing up to the rigors of training and showing. This is where you get specific on the elements of a particular discipline and begin refinement of his skills. Lund recommends discipline work for shorter durations, and then moving on to a variety of exercises to maintain fitness and suppleness. "Even though the horse may know whatever he's doing," he says, "he still needs to do calisthenics to maintain muscle tone, quickness, and reflex. Keep them stimulated by doing a lot of different things."
Avoid over-training. If a horse performs well, reward him by doing something mentally relaxing such as taking a trail ride, etc. Also schedule some days off after they've been working hard.
A healthy, sound horse is never too old to continue learning. In fact, the challenge can be stimulating.