Foals are cute, high energy, and very trainable. The same principles apply to training older, naive horses as to training foals, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind because of the stage of development foals are in.
Using the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 Principles of Equitation Science in the training of foals has proven effective at producing horses that are safe and easy to handle. Because early training experiences have been demonstrated to affect a horse’s behaviour without any further handling for up to two years, the foal’s first experiences of training are critical.
This article is a brief breakdown of what foals should learn and how they can be taught.
Principle 1: Account for the Horse’s Ethology and Cognition
The naive, three-year-old horse can focus enough to learn for approximately 20-30 minutes at first, and this time is slowly extended through training. The foal, therefore, has a shorter attention span lasting only 10-15 minutes. Training can begin at the foal’s third week of life, and should not be conducted daily. Two to three days in a row with at least one rest day in between has been shown to be effective.
Training sessions should take place in a small enclosed area with the mare present. The mare can have a positive effect on how the foal perceives human contact, provided she has a positive relationship with people herself. Two handlers are required for foal training sessions: the mare’s handler keeps her close to the foal during the training session and can feed, groom, or stroke her while the foal’s handler conducts the training.
Being in a small enclosure with the mare makes it easier for the foal’s handler to ensure that the foal does not learn to run away from people or to move away from their touch or their presence. Each session should focus on one very basic and simple task, such as moving towards a light sideways and forward pull on the lead rope. When the task has been repeated successfully or nearly successfully three times in a row, the learning session is finished for that day.
Principle 2: Use Learning Theory Appropriately
The foal can quickly learn to go, stop, back up, and turn from light pressures on the halter and lead rope.
The foal can be taught to stand still for very short periods of time, and to be handled all over, including picking up feet.
The foal should learn that interactions with people are positive and enjoyable, so the foal’s handler must be consistent and a competent trainer. Through this consistent training, the foal will learn that people must be treated differently than the other foals it is growing up with.
Habituation to lightweight objects such as blankets can also be undertaken with a foal, once basic responses to halter pressures have been trained.
All of these things can be trained using the framework of stimulus (pressure or cue), response (behaviour), and reinforcement (reward). Rewards for proper behaviour can be the release of pressure and withers scratching.
Principle 3: Train Cues that are Easy to Tell Apart
Each of the above responses that the foal will learn needs a distinct cue so the foal does not become confused or stressed by cues for different responses that feel too similar.
Principle 4: Correct Use of Shaping
Shaping transforms a newly learned behaviour from an initial first attempt that may not be entirely correct to the final correctly trained behaviour. To do this, the handler must slowly and progressively increase expectations of the desired behaviour and reward for ever-improving responses.
Principle 5: Ask for Responses One at a Time
Horses can only attend to one stimulus at a time and can, therefore, become overwhelmed by simultaneous cues. Cueing for two responses will either confuse the horse or cause stress and potentially conflict behaviours such as rearing, biting, kicking, bolting, or bucking as the foal tries to escape the stressful situation. In training sessions, ensure that one response is completely finished before asking for the next one.
Principle 6: Train One Response per Signal
In early training it is helpful to reduce to a minimum the number of signals that the foal is taught, and to ensure that each signal only means one thing. Other signals can be added later on as needed, but the basic requirements of handling a foal are such that the cues and responses can remain quite simple until it is time for further training.
Principle 7: Form Habits
Keeping training consistent as to handler, cues, and environment allows the foal to more quickly absorb the training. Once each response is consolidated in this consistent context, a new environmental feature or different handler can be substituted one at a time to expand the breadth of training.
Principle 8: Train Self-Carriage
The foal should learn right away to continue offering the response last asked for until something else is requested. This is an important skill for all future training, so the horse does not have to be constantly signalled to keep going. Constant signalling will result in habituation to the cue, and the horse will eventually stop responding to that cue entirely.
At this point in training, the mare can be used to help the foal learn to continue walking by following his mother after receiving the go signal, and to stand still following a stop cue because the mare is stationary.
Principle 9: Avoid Flight Responses
Foals should not learn to play with people like they would play with another foal. It is cute while the foal is small, but he will not understand that he has grown and cannot leap up on a person when he is older. Foal play also includes practice of flight responses such as running, bucking, and rearing, and learning to perform these behaviours in the presence of people is not something to encourage.
A small area for initial training helps to prevent the expression of flight responses, and training methods should never seek to intentionally trigger a fear response.
Principle 10: Keep Arousal to a Minimum During Training
In order to learn, the foal should be as relaxed as possible, but not to the point of falling asleep. The handler should pay attention to signs of stress in the foal and be ready to take a break, allow the foal physical contact with its mother, or go back to easier, previously learned responses in order to reduce stress and promote learning.
Mini training sessions following these principles will set the foal up for positive future learning experiences. These early sessions are teaching the foal how to learn from and interact with people, which are crucial skills for every horse to know.
ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed August 5, 2021 from https://equitationscience.com/learning-theory/ (this article based on the 2017 version of the principles, as is the study by King et al.)
King, S., Wills, L., and Randle, H. (2019) Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.