Early Training of Foals

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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.

Laddie: Horse Shy

As a five year old green-broke horse, Laddie’s only riding experience was alone on trails. When he was acquired for further training, the arena was a new experience and being ridden close to other horses was too. He shied at everything, and any time another horse came too close he would stop suddenly and run backwards, or shoot forwards. This anxiety made him tense and the rider often felt like he was about to buck until he got going.

Anxiety in a new situation is very normal. Controlling these reactions, however, is key to achieving relaxation and habituation (Principle 1). At first, when any correction of unwanted behaviour was made, no matter how mild, the anxiety increased and he seemed unable to trial new behaviour, showing a negative state of mind (Principle 4). Instead of starting directly with the shying and hyperactive behaviour, then, cues he already knew were used and his responses rewarded until he began to offer improved responses and show interest in figuring out what was required (Principle 3).

Then a new cue for ‘turn’ was installed using two light whip taps on the shoulder and transferred to the reins (Principle 7) so that any random turning, in a shy for example, could be corrected (Principle 6).

The ‘go’ cue was also re-installed, as sometimes it caused stopping or moving backwards instead of going forwards (Principle 9).

With these new cues, overshadowing was used (Principle 5) near areas of the arena that caused anxious responses until go and stop were light in those areas.

The number of horses in the arena was then increased and their proximity to Laddie was decreased using the same go, stop, and turn cues (Principle 8) until riding past another horse elicited no unasked change, and finally being ridden past produced no random movement either (Principle 10).

Laddie is now calmer about new situations, and is more willing to try new behaviour for a new cue, indicating a generally better state of mind (Principle 4).

Bailey: Aggressive Therapy Horse

This 22 year old mare had been used as a therapeutic riding horse for 5 years. During therapy sessions, she would not obey cues provided by the rider, requiring her handler to intervene. Her teeth would be grinding for the entire session, and periodically she would try to bite her handler, often resulting in an aggressive response from the handler. While being prepared for a lesson she would show signs of restlessness and aggression to the point where the Association wasn’t sure they could keep using her.

Aggression is always an alert to something being unclear or confusing in the horse’s training. The therapeutic association was right in questioning their continued use of her (Principle 1), but finding the cause would have been better. Responding with aggression typically makes the behaviour worse (Principle 2).

Bailey tended to grind her teeth when cued to stop, showing confusion about what the cue meant (Principle 9). The stop response was retrained, starting at obedience because she would slow a little bit when pressure was applied (Principle 8). Care was taken that there was no pressure when she was not being asked for something. The teeth grinding suddenly diminished, and the biting stopped entirely.

Next she was taught to ‘park’, an extension of the stop response. This was used in the tacking area, and when she realized that all that was required was standing still and not moving she quickly relaxed and even appeared to enjoy being groomed, wiggling her ears and lips when being brushed on the neck (Principle 5).

With the tension and conflict gone, she quickly became a favourite among the volunteers, and was able to continue serving as a therapy horse.

Hemi: Dirty Jumper

Although his behaviour had been growing steadily worse, no one expected this 11 year old Clydesdale- Thoroughbred lesson horse to begin running out at jumps. Students had reported his unpredictable shies, but this new behaviour began leaving them in the dirt. He gained a reputation of being ‘dirty’ when formerly everyone described him as a ‘teddy bear.’

The clue to this horse is his consistent behaviour. Shying and running out both demonstrate a loss of self-carriage of direction (Principle 10) when the shoulders suddenly turn without a cue, thus throwing riders (Principle 1).

Hemi was retrained to turn his shoulders from a rein cue using operant conditioning (Principle 6). To consolidate the new behaviour, he was ridden in areas where he was known to shy, and the retrained cue was applied during a mistake to bring his shoulders back to the rider’s line (Principle 10).

Upon approaching jumps again, Hemi lost rhythm immediately preceding an attempt to run around the jump, thus failing rhythm and straightness levels of the shaping scale (Principle 8). After training improved transitions within and between gaits, walking up to a low jump (underriding) was used to cause him to speed up just before a jump, producing a drawing effect on the approach and a clean effort over the jump.

Because running out was quite rewarding, the habit meant Hemi could not be returned to the lesson program immediately. However, with practice of the new behaviour by a rider using equitation science, he should successfully return to work.

5 Horse Principles

There are 5 things best to keep in mind when dealing with any horse, especially one with behaviour problems:


• Horses are large and unpredictable. They use fight, flight, or freeze to cope with stress or perceived danger. Safety of human and horse is paramount when training.


• Horses need social interaction with other equines and require foraging and freedom. We can be seen as a threat by horses.


• Horses’ brains are different from ours. They think, see, and hear differently than we do.


• Horses can feel. They can suffer, and they can be content. They can become attached to us or be afraid of us.


• Horses thrive on consistency. Our end goal should always be that the horse does what we want it to without having to be constantly reminded.


Want to know what each of these means for your relationship with your horse?

When you sign up for lessons, I teach these basic five things to keep in mind, as well as five training tools (see this post) so that you understand why you are doing what you do when you ride.

Or, sign your horse up for training and you can watch as many training sessions as you like as well as receive a lesson when you pick your horse up!

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This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 First Principles of Training.

5 Training Tools

Here are 5 principles that show how your horse’s mind works. They are the rules for how he learns things. I use these to retrain every behaviour problem that I get. If you understand them too, you will be able to keep your horse well trained.

Horses have to get used to perceived threats in order to survive. They can’t always be running away, wasting energy. We can systematically use this to get horses used to things they tend to be scared of.


Horses learn by trial and error. When the result of a certain behaviour is something they want, they are likely to repeat it. When the result is something they don’t want, they are less likely to repeat it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment.


Horses easily make associations. When one event predictably happens before another, the horse strings them together in its mind. These can be good or bad associations.


Horses get progressively better with practice. If they practice something we don’t want and it is somehow rewarding, they will get better at that just as much as practicing behaviour that we like.


Horses need clear consistency. They rely on the cues we give them, intentionally or not. They must always be able to tell what we are asking of them.


By knowing these things about horses, I can ‘speak’ in a way they understand. You can, too.

When you take lessons with your horse, I go through how these training tools work. When you register your horse for training, you get access to me during training to learn how I teach him and a lesson to put it into practice!

Register Now

This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES)10 First Principles of Training.