The Joys of Raising Weanlings
As a thoroughbred yearling farm manager, I've come to realize that starting babies right is one of the most important things you will do for them in their lives. The thoroughbred industry as a whole is not rushing to embrace natural horsemanship. Many in the thoroughbred community feel that horses cannot be good runners if they are "gentle". This is a misconception. The more thoroughly prepared your youngsters are for the challenges they may face later on in life, the safer both the horse and his future handlers will be. The more manners a horse has, the better treatment he will receive in general. We approach our training keeping in mind what will be required behaviors for our youngsters. What better time to begin teaching them than from the very beginning?
I consider myself a student of all natural horsemanship methods. Right from the start the whole concept intrigued me. I like to mix and match my methods to my horses; I know from my experience that all horses are different. I know that some learn quicker than others. I know that if I am flexible I can get further with a horse than if I'm rigid. I consider John Lyons, Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts and Joe Holloway to be mentors.
Most thoroughbred breeding farms send the yearlings to the sales. Whether they go to Keeneland, Saratoga, Timonium or other sales, there are certain things that the yearling needs to know. We have to prepare them for shipping long distances in the crossties and teach them how to lead well at a 4 mile per hour walk. They have to learn to stand up square and allow people to look at them and touch them. They have to bath and clip. They need to be able to take in all the sights, sounds and stimulus present in a sales environment. All of this is in addition to the normal shots, trimmings/shoeings, dewormings, grooming and general barn manners that any horse needs to know. The better they handle the environment, the better the horse's sale experience will be. We like to prepare our youngsters in such a way as to help them avoid injury to themselves and to their handlers. Good manners also impress potential buyers, therefore increasing the animal's value.
The first thing your foal will need to learn is how to get a halter put on. How do we get there? When a foal is born you have a window of opportunity to impress him. If the birth went well for the mare and foal, a training process can begin right then. By quietly touching and petting your newborn foal, he can quickly become adjusted to the presence of humans. By gently haltering him several times, he can become used to having his head handled. By quietly rubbing objects like paper and plastic on the foal, he can become used to "scary objects." These things become non-issues. If for some reason the window of opportunity is lost, a foal can still go through training beginning at 1 day old. The mare has begun teaching them the language so you can begin your communication.
Let's take a look at the hows. How do you start teaching your youngster at side to lead? I like to ask for leading the day after foaling. If I missed the impression window I have gently on and offed the halter until the foal is comfortable with having me touch him all over his head. I work on this simple skill for the first 3 days until the halter is a non-issue. Mares are sometimes very protective of their youngsters at this point. If this is the case, I like to have a person holding the mare while I work with the foal.
I like to utilize Pat Parelli's Friendly Game combined with the Porcupine Game, and start out fussing with the foal simply playing the Friendly Game, get him so he's wanting more, then halter. Once haltered, play some more friendly game. Attach a simple rope shank with a small snap. Leave the shank loose and continue to play the Friendly Game. When the foal is well into the friendliness of the contact, step so that your shoulder is to his shoulder and start to play the Porcupine Game on the hip. As soon as he steps the hip over or forward reward with more Friendly Game. Once both hips are moving on a hip cue, move to the shoulder and get him backing away from you by repeating the Porcupine Game followed by Friendly game.
At this point I like to play the driving game with them. I begin asking for forward movement by progressively asking the hip to move forward. I use my finger to tap, tap, tap. Three seconds, if no response use 2 fingers, whap, whap, whap. If no response use 3 fingers, smack, smack, smack. If at any point in the asking they move forward, I stop and go back to playing Friendly Game. I like a Lyons lesson at this point. Begin asking for head lowering. Gently rest your hand on the poll until they drop their heads. The babies get this lesson fast. They experiment with their options quicker and therefore you can reward them faster. Just as soon as a baby lowers his head, even just a smidge, I take my hand away and play Friendly Game. It's not long before you can ask that youngster to drop his head just by hovering your hand over it's head.
If you've been friendly enough, gentle enough and patient enough while playing these lessons/games, the first time you step off with shank in hand taking the slack out, the foal will follow. Rarely does one pull back. Practice walking toward, then away from, the mare in the stall. Come Day 3, going out to the paddock the first time is not a huge ordeal. The foal may be playful (bucking, prancing or oogling) but they tend to yield to pressure well. The fly-backs and rearing should have shown up in the games.
How do we teach them to load? Fortunately, loading is usually one of the first things that a youngster learns. Most thoroughbred mares ship to the stallions to be bred back after having a foal. Artificial insemination is not allowed by the Jockey Club. All mares must have live cover. So, Thoroughbred babies usually go on their first van rides with their mothers during the foal heat or the following heat cycle. Following mommie onto the van is usually not a big issue as long as you have adequate leading lessons/games in place. They also have to ship home after being bred. So you get the bonus of a second van ride. Taking the time as they're growing up to let them check out and investigate cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles and other farm equipment is an important part of preparing them to approach and load into the van. The introduction to the "item" should be in an advance and retreat fashion. The more you inspire curiosity in your youngster the braver they will become.
How do you get safe deworming and shots? I cheat a bit here, setting up a reward after setting up the Friendly Game. To get deworming make sure that the mouth both inside and outside can be touched. Scratch them in a favorite spot. Give the dewormer. They can have a favorite treat afterward. Many deworming pastes come in flavors now. Do your horse the favor.
To get shots, I set up a reward pattern. I believe in carrots for shots. I believe in practice to get the shots. You can do this with your finger, the pointy end of a carrot or the pointy end of a hoofpick. Just repeatedly lightly press one of these objects into your horses neck. Use what is considered "the triangle." By gently repeating this process you desensitize the horse in that area. When the veterinarian comes along to give the first shots it won't be such a big deal. If you've used the carrot as the poker, it's only natural that the horse will want to check out what he's being poked with. At this point you can teach them to eat carrots. The association is made. Get a shot, get a carrot. When the veterinarian comes into a horse's stall in my barn, they look forward to getting their shots because they get a carrot afterward.
How do we get good behavior for the farrier? When thinking about the process involved in shoeing or trimming, a trainer has to take into consideration the things that the horse has to do for the farrier. He has to be willing to pick up the foot. The horse has to know that he can stand on 3 legs without dying. The horse has to know that the farrier is not a chew toy, itching post or substitute leg (leaning on the smith). The horse has to stand for filing, banging and hammer blows to the feet.
To get the initial picking up of the feet, I play a lot of the Porcupine Game on the legs, forearms and hocks. If played gently, patiently and consistently enough, you can point at a baby's leg and he will pick it up. I progressively ask the youngster to hold the leg up for longer periods of time everyday. By the time we're due for the first trimming, that foal can hold up that foot happily and comfortably for 5 minutes. "Foot Up" time is added on a daily basis. When the time arrives for them to get their first set of shoes, holding up the foot for the required amount of time is a non-issue.
To further prepare them for the "nailing" experience, bang the bottom rims of the feet with a heavy handled hoofpick to simulate the "hammering the nail in" experience. Do this for 10 or 14 days before the first set of shoes. Nailing the shoe on is not a big deal when you prepare the youngster for the experience.
How do we get brushing and bathing? While still at side, long before weaning, brushing and grooming have been introduced to the baby via demonstrations and inclusions in the mare's grooming time. I like to let the babies watch everything done to mommie. They're extremely curious about things you do to mommie. The mares at the farm get brushed or bathed everyday. This offers the best opportunity to begin teaching the youngsters. Most foals will watch from the opposite side of mom as you groom the mare. Their curiosity usually gets the best of them and they come around and will actually nose the mare or the brush. At this time begin to include the baby in the grooming routine. A few strokes here, a few strokes there. Before too long they're shouting in their equine way "Me first" or "I want that too!" If you are gentle enough, patient enough and consistent enough, the baby will stand and enjoy the brush introduction. Often brush introductions done in this fashion will result in a 3 way buddy scratch between the handler, mommie and baby.
Bathing can be introduced in the same fashion. I like to wait for the scorching hot days of summer to try for a water introduction. Babies are far more receptive to getting water on them when they are warm and sweaty. Begin with the mare on the crossties and baby observing from the entrance to the bath stall. Have someone holding baby so you can devote your attention to the mare and foal. Begin washing/hosing mom. I allow the handler to let the baby approach if they want. Often I have to let baby observe several baths before they are willing or curious enough to approach the mare while she's getting wet. If/when I get an approach, I'll begin by wetting the baby's legs near the feet. If they want to leave at this point, let them. Have the handler swing them back around to face the fear. If they didn't mind the wetness on the legs, begin to move up the legs towards the knees and hocks. If at any point they object, stop. After several exposures to water in this fashion they are usually eager for their turn under the hose. Getting rid of that foal hair in the heat of summer is a hot and sweaty experience for most foals. Once they realize that water cools them off and helps get rid of that long hair, baths become a treat, something to look forward to. Most of the foals on the farm are getting baths regularly long before weaning day.
How do we get to safely crosstying? I am not advocating the use of crossties. I, personally prefer not to use them at all. In recognizing that it's a "required" behavior I have decided that I would rather teach them myself than send them to the sale without the knowledge. I know that at some point someone is going to throw them on the crossties just to "see if they know how". Thinking of my babies' health and welfare I teach them this very early. That way when crossties come along they can answer, "Yes I know how to do this" and crosstying will not be an issue when they are shipped to the sale to be sold. After a pleasant introduction to brushing and bathing, baby has begun to learn to keep the feet still for these processes. The foal, by this time, usually enjoys the grooming experience enough that there is no thought of "leaving". Once keeping the feet still for the grooming/bathing has been established, it's not a huge leap of imagination to begin teaching them to crosstie.
Beginning with the mare on the crossties and allowing the foal to observe mom while on the crossties is the first step. Once they have observed mommie on the ties, we begin the switcharoo. The mare comes out of the bath stall and we ask baby to just do walk-throughs. Once we have taken in all the sights and smells of the bath stall with the baby on it's own, you can begin asking him to stand in the bath stall on a rope shank. Try to get "feet still" for grooming and bathing. Once accustomed to the bath stall and our feet don't want to go anywhere during the grooming/bathing process, snap one crosstie on. Ask for still feet and grooming on one crosstie. As you move around the horse, unclip the tie from the side that you're working on and snap on the crosstie on the side you're not working on. Keep the shank on the chin ring of the halter. Allow them to get the feel of the one crosstie long before you consider snapping on the second crosstie.
The next step is simulating the second crosstie. Once you have still feet, one crosstie and the baby has a feel for the yielding required when they tighten the one crosstie, begin to simulate the second crosstie with the rope shank. Keep the crosstie on the side that you are not working on and have the rope shank clipped to the ring of the halter on the side that you are working on. Keeping the rope shank relatively loose at the start, begin to take some slack out as the youngster gains experience and confidence. It's not long before you can ask the youngster to back or move forward by putting pressure on the simulated crosstie. Once they have a feel for giving to the pressure of the 2nd crosstie begin to snap on the "real" crosstie. If at any point they get nervous, you can unsnap the "real" crosstie and go back to more practice with the simulated crosstie. When first starting to snap on both crossties, keep the rope shank snapped onto the chin ring of the halter just in case you get into trouble. This way you can release both crossties and still have control of the youngster if things get hairy.
Once they have mastered the yielding required when on both crossties, you remove the rope shank. This may take days or even sometimes weeks. Many of our babies are hanging on the crossties long before weaning day. If for some reason a youngster objects to being tied, we always back up to a point in the training where they were comfortable and begin working toward the "goal" of being on both crossties again. We always keep the mare in the immediate area within view of the baby. The youngster has enough worries when teaching crosstying without having a "disappearing" mommie.
When weaning day rolls around, we generally leave off all training until the new weanling is over the separation from mommie. We continue to do the things that they already know how to do. Typically at this point they know how to be led, groomed, bathed, crosstied and trimmed for the farrier. All babies go through what I call the "crying time". There are generally 3 to 5 days of utter "crying" for their lost mommies. They whinny so much that by the end of the 5th day they typically have no voices left. During the "crying time" I back down even further in the training. I groom them loose in their stalls in an attempt to get still feet. This period of time is very hard on the babies. If they're really worked up about the weaning experience I will actually leave them alone other than going in and out to/from the fields. Most weanlings are very stressed out during this 3 to 5 day period. Sometimes it's safer for both horse and handler to simply hold off and pick the training back up again once they've gotten over separation. Once we "get over" the weaning experience and the youngster has calmed down we try to pick up where we left off.
At this point, many youngsters need to do some "refresher" exercises because all of their experiences up to this point have been with mommie. Things that we trained them to do with mommie become scary when first asked to do it on their own. I refresh them on grooming with feet still while loose in the stall. Once we have that, we take the grooming back into the groom stall with just a rope shank. Once we have this on our own, we refresh them on crosstying. It takes far less time to reintroduce them to these things than it did to teach them the first time while still with the mare. I can't stress enough how important it is to back down in the training during the weaning period. Babies are scared, looking for mommie and somewhat unmanageable during the "crying time." It is very important to become their reassurance during this period. When you take it slow and friendly, babies will begin to turn to their handlers for leadership. Once we get through the "crying time" we begin to work toward some of the other "required" behaviors for the sale.
The 4 mile per hour walk. How/why do we get that? At yearling consignment sales, potential buyers like to watch the yearlings "walk out". A potential buyer is assessing the movement, conformation and potential usefulness of a yearling. A yearling needs to be able to walk at a 4 mile per hour pace in order to provide potential buyers a view of his best "at a walk" movement. The yearling needs to be focused and manageable while performing "the walk." Unmanageablilty endangers the yearling, the handler and the potential buyer.
Typically at our farm we begin to practice this as soon as the weaning is done. We keep all (fillies and colts) babies turned out together for as long as we are able. Colts will at some future time need to be seperated from the fillies. As their hormones kick in and they become more "manly" they begin to experiment with their sexuality. At most yearling farms injuries due to this exploration are unacceptable. It's hard to maintain and increase a horse's value when you constantly have to tend wounds. Before the separation occurs, leading weanlings to and from the fields presents the perfect opportunity to do Lyons' "exercise the gas pedal" lesson.
At our farm, there might be 6 weanlings who go out together in a big field. Each weanie is led individually by a handler. We all coordinate our efforts in teaching this lesson. We begin by leaving the barn at a slow pace. As the leader accelerates, walking on to achieve a 4 mile per hour pace, they yell back to the rest of the pack, "we're walking fast now." Everyone picks up the pace. The weanies learn to keep their shoulder to your shoulder while maintaining speed. Then the leader will shout back "we're walking slower now." We all back down in speed to match the pace. We repeat this en masse exercise everyday. Faster....slower. It doesn't take long until we can walk at any speed and have the weanies stay on our shoulders while maintaining the set pace.
Once we achieve this "exercise the gas pedal" lesson en masse, we begin to break it down by teaching 2 or 3 individuals at a time. The first 2 or 3 weanies will leave the barn to go to the field together. Accelerating and slowing the pace is practiced. Then the next 2 or 3 are brought out after the first 2 or 3 have gone into the field. Switch the order and the weanies participating in the sets to alleviate "herdboundness." Once we have achieved better leading in differing groups, we advance the lesson into single weanies learning to take direction from their handlers. You almost always have to start with 2 in order to not leave one out in the field on it's own but the rest of the weanies can learn to lead individually. Once we have good individual leading at 4 miles per hour, we consider them ready for the sale in this respect.
How do we prepare them for the atmosphere of the sale? How do we prepare them for scary objects and lots of predators (people)? When a yearling ships into a sales environment almost everything is going to be new and "scary." When God programmed the horse he made sure that the horse "fled" and asked questions from a distance. The natural response to fear is flight. See ya ...wouldnt want to be ya. Humans on the other hand like thrills. We relish the fact that we can face death and walk away. Look at all the rollercoasters. (Look at all the horse trainers!) We have to think about some of the "items" that might be present at a sale. There will be multitudes of people - veterinarians, handlers, buyers and photographers. These people will of course have their "things" with them. Cameras, sales catalogues, candy, suits and ties, dresses and other attendant necessaries like cell phones. All of these things can be construed as "scary" by any self-respecting horse. The potential buyers are going to want to touch them, look at them and pet them.
Calm yearlings have good foundations. The time and the effort must be taken to help prepare them for this experience. I would not be "setting my horse up for success" if I did not in some way prepare them for the "sales experience." I begin the Lyons "spook in place" lessons as soon as the accelerator control is there. The control of the hip and the shoulder has been in place for months. Starting with a small, wee, little "item" like the plastic wrapper from a piece of candy, enter the stall with the weanie loose. Go play the friendly petting game for a while. Turn your back and walk away. The weanie usually follows. Turn to face the weanie with the piece of plastic wrapper making noise in your hand. There will be one of 3 responses at this point. They "leave", they stay and check it out or they tense all up with big eyeballs and ready-to-flee feet. If they make the decision to "leave" you can't stop making the noise until at the very least you get 2 eyes and 2 ears. Best case scenario, you get stopped feet, 2 eyes and 2 ears. At this point, turn your back and walk away. If they stay and check it out, you can move on to the next "item." If they freeze with big eyeballs and head up in the air, you turn and walk away. That was all I wanted. Turn back and make the noise again. Try to get closer. Get so the horse can be rubbed all over their body with that piece of plastic wrapper. Whenever the feet want to move away from you, always turn your back and walk away before the feet actually move. This is an advance and retreat style of introducing "items." When the horse becomes curious enough to approach and check something out before fleeing he naturally becomes braver.
Once a small "item" like a plastic wrapper has been introduced, advancing the lesson is easy. Next walk in and play friendly game. Turn your back and walk away. Turn around with a grocery bag in your hand making noise. A garbage bag. A tarp. Paper "items" can be done in this same fashion. Umbrellas. Blankets. Use your imagination. Whatever "items" you can think up. Always start small. Always be friendly. Always be willing to "walk away" before the horse gets scared enough that he feels like he needs to walk away.
How do you get safe (for both horse and human) clipping? Advance and retreat is a style used by all natural style trainers. It's about teaching a horse that he will live through an experience. Each time you approach a horse with a new "item" (clippers are a loud and obnoxious item) it's important to learn to read the horse's body language. He will tell you how scared he is. I start slow and easy with the weanies where the clippers are concerned.
In order to even consider turning the clippers on in the groom stall the groundwork for safe handling must be laid. The weanie has to allow touching of all body parts, especially the ears and nose. For the first experience I introduce scissors. I show them the scissors. Make snipping noises with the scissors. Use an advance and retreat style of introduction until you can trim the bridle path. If at any point they want to move the feet away from you, stop and walk away before the feet move.
For the first clipper experience, just turn them on and leave them running laying somewhere out of sight. Let them get used to the noise of it. Advance the lesson by moving it closer. See if they might want to "check them out". If at any point in the process they want to leave, turn the clippers off before they move their feet. If they check it out, try to touch them in a neutral area like the neck first. When trying to get my first "touch" with the clippers, I wrap my hand all the way around the clippers and stroke the neck with the hand holding the clippers so that only my hand comes into contact with the skin. If that went well, I unwrap my hand a bit and let them feel the vibrations of the clippers. If this went well, stop and turn the clippers off. Lavishly praise the weanie. Tell him how brave he is.
To advance the lesson once they're willing to check the clippers out, try for a nose whisker trim. This is a much less sensitive area than the ears or bridle path. They're much more willing to allow the clippers to touch them on the nose area than the ears area. If you successfully get nose whisker trimming, leave off here and wait for another day to go for the bridle path or ears. Praise them lavishly and tell them how brave they are.
To get to bridle path trimming, you must be able to get nose whisker trimming. I have never been able to go directly to bridle path/ear trimming without having the nose whisker trimming. Once the whiskers can be trimmed, advance the lesson by moving the clippers up the face. Just rest the clippers on the horse's forehead. Let him look at it and feel it. If you can get to the point where you can rest the clippers on the poll of the head without attempting a trim, leave off. Quit for the day. A huge step has been taken. Praise. Next time out, get to resting the clippers on the poll, then invert them and take your first clipping stroke to the bridle path. It's very important that you leave off if the feet want to leave. Do not force the issue. They must be willing to accept the clippers not fear them. If the feet move, go back to resting the clippers on them in a "neutral" (non foot leaving place) like the neck or forehead. Now you have a bridle path made by the clippers.
The ears are a bit more tricky. The ears are even more sensitive than the bridle path. Knowing that the clipper introduction to the ears is trickier, I like to prepare them with practice. Knowing that the clippers make a lot of noise, practice for the introduction by making similar noises right next to and on the ears. Knowing that the movement of the blades makes a little breeze, practice blowing into the ears. Knowing that the blades pass back and forth over each other to cut the hair, practice lightly pulling on the ear hair. I don't even consider approaching the ears until I can do these 3 things without protest or thoughts of leaving.
Once you can do these three things, then use the advance and retreat style of introduction. Never force the issue. Always be willing to turn your back and walk away before they want to move the feet. Be willing to move the clippers to a more neutral area of the body if the horse gets tense. Take your time. Make the clipping experience a good one.
The more time spent introducing your youngsters to the things that they may encounter in the "sales environment", the more likely your youngsters will be to handle the experience in a way that will increase their safety and value. The larger foundation you give them, the more likely they are to be treated well and kindly due to the knowledge that they possess. The more manners a horse can display, the better his life will be overall. People who might handle him in the future will treat him better due to his manners. Conversely, horses without a good foundation are often "quick trained" to get through the sale. They don't acquire the good foundation and therefore the training doesn't "last". They face a life of ill treatment and quick fixes due to their lack of foundation.
I know that the part that I play in the laying of the foundation is the most important thing I will do for my youngsters in their lives. I take the time and the effort to train them in such a way that will enhance their value and their foundation. In this way I hope to guarantee them a better life overall. In this way I hope to guarantee them a different profession after their racing days are done by giving them life lessons that will carry through with them for the rest of their days.
Good luck and happy weanie training.
About the author:
Christina Brown is based in the Philadelphia area. As a fifteen-year professional horsewoman and a lifelong horseperson, she has crossed barriers that many horsemen are reluctant or unwilling to cross. With broad experience in Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, racing and farm management, she became involved in the natural horsemanship movement. "We all wish for that harmony that a good relationship with our horses can bring. I strive to share my knowledge and experience with other horsemen to help make the world a better place for horses," says Chris. Visit her website, Equine Mind to Mind Index, at http://hometown.aol.com/equinedriven/index.html, contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to:
Christina M. Brown
162 Hood Road
Cochranville, PA 19330