Can foundation training in three-week-old Thoroughbred foals make a difference to their welfare and performance as a racehorse?
Thoroughbred racehorses have something of a reputation. The perception is that they are generally trained for one job – to run fast. The expectations for other desired behaviours, e.g., to lead correctly, stop lightly, accept hoof handling, and other maintenance procedures and to keep their heads in stressful situations might fall by the wayside, as long as they can run! While this may be a slightly unfair assessment, Thoroughbred racehorses have high expectations put upon them at a very early age and it is clear that while some adapt easily, others struggle, and may become labelled as difficult, naughty, willful, or even dangerous.
The question asked by Equus Education (NZ) Ltd., a small team of dedicated ladies in New Zealand, is what foundation training at an early age can do to help these horses adapt to the challenges thrust upon them, and to make the job of handling and training them as they start their careers safer and easier for both the horses and their handlers.
Leigh Wills, Sally King, and their team wanted to break with the tradition of bringing in foals for their first handling sessions at four to six months of age, and take a new approach, working with much younger foals to make the transition easier. Mentored by Dr Andrew McLean, they devised a program of early intervention that might best suit the thoroughbred breeding industry situation.
Starting no earlier than three weeks of age to avoid interfering with the mare-foal bond and to ensure the foals are both physically and mentally capable, the team works with the mare and foal to establish basic behaviours related to haltering, acceptance of touch all over, leading (including go, stop, and turn), and feet handling. Foals are trained over six to nine sessions of around 10 – 30 minutes each, and over no more than three consecutive days. Using the 10 principles of equitation science and learning theory, the foals learn simple cues and to perform basic handling and management related the behaviours consistently and reliably.
The team has been working over the last decade with impressive results. Having worked with over 2,300 foals in over 18,000 training sessions they have had no injuries to mares or foals. They have successfully formed working relationships with well-known and respected New Zealand breeders who describe their work as invaluable.
Rodney Schick, owner of Windsor Park Stud, where the Equus Education team educate approximately 150 foals per season, says:
“Equus Education are real professionals that provide a top-class level of horsemanship. We are extremely happy with the results. You can easily distinguish the foals that they have dealt with; they are more confident and relaxed. I highly recommend Equus Education to all breeders.”
Sir Patrick Hogan, who is recognised globally as “master and commander” of the New Zealand breeding industry, states:
“We here at Cambridge Stud absolutely endorse the foal education program with Leigh Wills. We highly recommend for anyone breeding a foal to take advantage of this great service.”
At the ISES 2017 Down Under Conference at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga NSW, Leigh and Sally gave demonstrations of their work with the Charles Sturt University mares and foals. Working in a very challenging environment in front of a large audience, the ladies remained calm and focused on gently working with the mare and foal to achieve some very promising basic attempts at all of the above-mentioned behaviours, all while being mindful of the levels of arousal of the mare and foal, their ability to learn, and keeping all parties safe and as calm as possible.
The work undertaken was the subject of much conversation and admiration amongst delegates of the conference and gave a glimpse of how all the work completed in equitation science to date can be applied at the grassroots level to make real and lasting improvements to the lives and careers of a large number of horses.
To learn more about equitation science and the research going on right now, visit the ISES website or the Facebook page and join us at the next ISES conference this September 2018 in Rome (see website for details).
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a not-for-profit organization that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.
Photo: Shutterstock/Kelsey Fox