Vital Lessons for Young Horses
By Cynthia McFarland
You may not be able to ride him yet, but the time you spend with a young horse is invaluable. There are so many lessons you can teach a horse in that formative first year that will be useful for his entire life.
“A horse is a horse. Young horses need the same things as older horses and vice versa. We always have to keep in mind from the time they are foals that this is a precocial species. They are babies but they think the same way as adult horses. They are taking in and assimilating information all the time,” says Kalley Krickeberg, who has ridden with Pat Parelli for over ten years, and is a gifted educator and expert foal handler.
Kalley also spent years working with weanlings and yearlings at the Atwood Ranch in Orland, California, putting her natural horsemanship skills to use in developing their young stock. Her debut DVD, Fresh Canvas, was released this summer and is designed to guide owners through four vital objectives in handling foals during their first seven handling sessions: approachability, lead-ability, veterinarian preparation and farrier preparation. A follow-up DVD, Pre-Saddle Training, released in October, covers the formative stage of partnership development between foal handling and colt starting.
Foals Are Not Big Dogs
One mistake many horse owners make is letting a foal or weanling do things they would never want an adult horse to do, such as the owner who taught his foal to rear up and put her front hooves on his shoulders. Definite no-no. Yes, foals are adorable and it’s tempting to treat them as “big dogs,” but this is setting the horse up for trouble down the road. You can instill respect and enforce boundaries, but still have a great relationship with your horse.
“We want our horses to know we are their friends, but they must also respect our space and be comfortable with our leadership,” explains Kalley. “If you teach them it’s okay to push into pressure or allow them to get in your space, you’re really doing them a disservice. I always prepare a horse for the possible, the probable and the inevitable. If the horse gets sold and ends up with someone not as aware as you are with your feel and timing, you want that horse to be a very good reader of intention, to be spatially aware, and to be respectful. Ideally, I progress these young horses to Level 2 knowledge, which denotes harmony.”
At the very minimum, Kalley recommends teaching your young horse the Seven Games. By adding these additional key skills, you’ll be setting him up for a lifetime of success.
#1 Handling the Body
This lesson is always the first education the foal should have with humans. Rub the horse all over his body. “That means every inch,” says Kalley. “I want him to know I’m his friend. Getting a horse ‘functional’ is mainly just handling.”
Rub your foal all over his body so that he becomes comfortable no matter where you touch him, including the girth area, under the tail, between the legs, on the belly, even inside his ears and mouth. Photo courtesy of Parelli Natural Horsemanship
Don’t miss a single spot. Your foal should become comfortable no matter where you touch him, including the girth area, under the tail, between the legs, on the belly, even inside his ears and mouth. Be sure to put plenty of focus on legs and feet, as that will prepare him for his next lesson.
#2 Preparation for the Farrier
During your all-over body handling sessions, be sure you lay the groundwork for farrier work. This involves more than just picking up the feet and cleaning them out.
“You want to handle the legs and feet as a farrier would,” says Kalley. “But don’t just put them in the position. You need to hold the foot up in that position for as long as it might take to have the foot trimmed or a shoe nailed on.”
Doing this will prepare the horse for the reality of standing calmly on three legs while the farrier is doing his work. If the horse jerks his foot away, don’t punish him. Just start over and remember, release when the horse softens and relaxes, NOT when he is struggling or resisting. Otherwise, the lesson he will learn is, I won’t have to do this if I don’t cooperate.
#3 Preparation for Veterinary Work
Some of the basic things we do with horses—administering dewormer or medication via mouth, taking temperatures, giving vaccinations—can be made much easier with prior preparation.
Kalley likes to do a deworming simulation with young horses using a little molasses water or applesauce. This gets them used to the plastic tube going into their mouths and getting a little taste of something. Then when you deworm or have to give some kind of medication, it’s not foreign to them and you won’t have a fight on your hands. Make the syringe with molasses water/applesauce an occasional part of your grooming session so it becomes no big deal and just another experience.
You also want to be sure a young horse is comfortable being handled under and around his tail, so you can easily take his temperature. Some horses will clamp their tails down, so you’ll have to be patient and persistent.
“Rubbing at the top of the anus will stimulate them to pick up their tails,” says Kalley.
At some point, your horse will have to get an injection of some sort, so why not prepare him ahead of time? For a simulation of this scenario, Kalley uses a toothpick in place of a needle.
With the horse haltered, she holds onto the nosepiece of the halter. Then she presses the tip of the toothpick into the neck at the point where you’d commonly give an injection. At the same time, her hand on the nosepiece encourages the horse to tip his nose toward her.
You may not be able to ride your youngster yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go exploring and introduce him to new things. The goal is to encourage your young horse’s curiosity and bring out his confidence. Photo courtesy of Parelli Natural Horsemanship
“I want him to relax and soften. If he softens and bends towards you, it will help keep people safe who have to work on the horse later,” Kalley notes. “This is much better than a horse that braces, gets stiff and may strike. The most important thing is to remove the toothpick as soon as the horse relaxes and softens. Don’t remove it when he’s struggling or bracing, or he’ll learn the struggle makes it go away.”
#4 Go for Walks
You may not be able to ride your youngster yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go exploring.
“I like taking young horses on walks and showing them around their environment. A 12-foot line is great for this because if they get worried, they have room to move,” says Kalley, adding that this is also a great exercise for older horses. The goal is to encourage your horse’s curiosity and bring out his confidence, whatever his age.
Horses can become overwhelmed when taken into different surroundings, especially if they are accustomed to one specific place with familiar buddies around them. They can develop avoidance behaviors or defensive mechanisms if you don’t introduce them to new things or if you try to force them to do something that frightens them.
“You want the horse to walk right with you,” says Kalley. “Just walk up to things nonchalantly and hang out there until the horse gets curious and wants to check it out. Don’t force him to approach something; just walk to it and stand there casually. This is where the long lead comes in handy! Horses are impeccable when it comes to reading your intentions, so if you act curious about that stump or cone or tree, they’ll pick up on it, but if you focus on the horse, they might not get it.
“You can create a pattern early with weanlings and yearlings and try to encourage them to investigate things. Encourage their curiosity. Horses are pattern animals and like to have order in their lives. They like to know what’s going to happen.”
#5 Load into a Trailer
Kalley finds this is the last main lesson she teaches to young horses, but adds it’s important that you use a “horse-friendly” trailer. An open stock trailer is ideal, as opposed to a straight-load, two-horse, which is the most claustrophobic trailer you can ask a horse to enter.
You can lay a foundation for stepping up into a trailer on all those walks you take with your horse. Have him walk over logs and rails lying on the ground, so he gets used to picking up his feet under your direction. Walk up to the trailer the first time just as you would any other new object and let your relaxed, casual attitude encourage the horse to investigate it. When he steps in, don’t tie him, shut the door, or make him stay. The idea in this initial introduction is to let him know the trailer is a safe, harmless place, and that he can come and go.
“It is important to teach the loading process early, and the weanling/yearling age is a great time to do this,” says Kalley. “That way they already know how to load if you have to take them to a vet clinic or move them for any reason.”
Make a Lifelong Difference
“You want to accomplish these goals so the horse develops confidence in himself, with your leadership and in his environment,” she says. “Then he will be set up well for the rest of his life to move forward in whatever direction you, or the next owner, want to take him.”
As you work with a young horse - or any age horse, for that matter - remember they are masters at reading body language and movement. Keep this in mind and make sure your actions instill confidence and foster respect.
“Some people think if you handle a horse too much, you’ll make him dull,” Kalley notes, adding that this is not true. Problems develop if a horse is handled harshly or improperly, not because he’s handled a lot.
The key is timing of release.
“Always release on softness. This will lead to more confidence and more responsiveness,” says Kalley. “If you always stay within these parameters you’ll be heading in the right direction.”
About Kalley Krickeberg: Kalley Krickeberg has dedicated her life to finding the right combination of techniques to capture the heart, obedience and athleticism of her horses. She has taken all of her prior experiences – excelling in polo, working with the Budweiser Clydesdales, starting colts, taming wild mustangs, and giving countless inspirational and educational demonstrations – and applied every lesson learned to her horse development. “Like” Kalley on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KalleyKrickeberg.
This article was reprinted with permission from Parelli Natural Horsemanship.