I feel like the luckiest person in the world to get to come to “work” and play with Little Mr. Naughty Pants. Ahem, I mean Prince (haha) and all the horses at Horse Haven. Playing with foals is a big responsibility as well as a wonderful privilege, and it’s so fun to have a little guy around here for a change. Before I go on, I get asked a lot of questions from our visitors about horse terminology, so I thought I’d talk about that for a minute for anyone who might be wondering.
All baby horses, regardless of gender, are called foals. Male foals are called colts and female foals are fillies, but the term “colt” is often incorrectly used in reference to foals of either gender. Some people also confuse the term “pony” with baby horses, but ponies are a separate breed of equine all unto themselves and are also called foals and colts/fillies when they are young. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
As part of Prince’s ongoing education, we felt it was about time to introduce ropes and a halter to our growing boy. And, of course, this gives me an opportunity to talk about how we like to start babies with halter training, which is somewhat different than traditional methods.
Most of the time, if young foals are getting handled regularly, they need to be taught to lead by a halter so that they can be moved from place to place, have their feet picked up, be handled by the vet, etc. Usually, a halter is put on them, a lead rope attached, and then a bit of a tug of war commences.
Foals tend to be very sensitive behind their ears — in the area called their poll. It is a vulnerable spot where predators are likely to grab them, and all little foals seem to know this by instinct. Consequently, they tend to get scared and react dramatically when the halter “grabs” them behind the ears. I’ve seen lots of little foals who flipped themselves over backward to get away from the pressure, which is pretty horrible, or they hang back and fight, which is scary for them and definitely something we don’t want them to learn.
Most people counteract this by using a butt rope, which (as the name implies) is a rope that’s run from their halter, around their butts and then back up toward the halter to help bring them along. The butt rope is certainly a better option than a tug of war on the halter, but it tends to be a method of pulling the foal along rather than teaching them to respond appropriately to pressure, and some foals strongly object to having ropes in that spot on their bodies as well. I’ve learned what I feel is a better option through Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and that is to start foals learning to lead with a rope over their withers.
So the rope is passed over the withers and up between the front legs. The withers is the bony prominence on a horse’s body where their neck joins into their back. By by putting the rope around them this way, any pressure is applied around their heart girth, which is a very sturdy part of a horse’s body.
When we first teach babies to lead this way, we would ideally start in a small area the size of a stall so that we don’t have to worry about them running off and us being put in a position of holding onto them with a rope when they don’t yet understand the leading process. We then stand a few feet in front of the baby and take up the slack in the rope ends, slowly apply a bit of pressure and pull the ropes slightly forward and about eight inches off to the side of the baby’s neck. Babies are so smart that it usually only takes them a few seconds to figure out how to follow the feel of that pressure and bring their noses over toward the rope.
The split second that they decide to do that, we must release all pressure on the rope, an action that lets them know that they found the right answer. Prince was no exception to this. He figured out in about 10 seconds to put his little nose toward the rope. I released quickly every time he tried and, pretty soon, Prince not only started to put his nose in the direction that I was asking him to come, but he started to take steps in that direction. By going first one way and then the other, it only took a couple of minutes before he was leading around by a rope ― smart boy! By using this method, we can teach foals to understand the concept of leading without having their necks pulled on and possibly injured. It also doesn’t cause them to feel as defensive and makes the whole process go more quickly and safely as a consequence.
After Prince was leading really well with this and had several sessions of it under his belt, I added the halter, but still used his wither rope and ran the ends through his halter. He transitioned to that as though he was born knowing it, and we were off and running (well, walking anywhere we wanted to go). This kind of thing is my idea of a really good time.