Miniature horse foals are the essence of being adorable. They just stand there begging to be handled or cuddled. Or do they? After raising a bunch of foals over the years, we have come to recognize a number of similarities in behavior from one foal to the next.
During the first 24 hours or so of life the foals seem to be generally friendly and approach anyone or anything. In general, I think, young horses are really “out to lunch” for this first day and don’t appear to see detail very well. They don’t seem to know who mom is and display no fear. During the first few hours, the foals are very receptive to IMPRINTING by humans. There has been quite a bit of discussion about the benefits of spending lots of time with these foals and gently handling them in the first hours after birth. There is a belief that imprinted foals adjust to interaction with humans very well. This is similar to raising an orphaned duckling. The duckling essentially regards the first things it sees whether it be a chicken, dog, or human as its parents and will obligingly follow its new found “provider” around. This also occurs with bottle raised lambs and calves. The point with imprinting a foal is that by spending a concentrated time with the foal in the first day or two, the foal becomes accustomed to both the equine parent and the human and does not develop the “flight response” when approached by humans.
After the first day or so, most healthy foals become wary of everything except mom. Normally when the foal is approached after the first day of life and for the first month or so, they do the old “ring around the rosy” trick. The foal seems to skillfully position mom between itself and whatever is approaching. Aggressive movements, abrupt actions, attempts to grab or restrain the foal usually end up being interpreted as a “perceived threat”, the flight response takes over and the foal immediately runs away or wildly attempts to get away if restrained. This is a tough time for us humans because it appears that the foal is rejecting us when we want to be close to them and work on basic things such as haltering and teaching it to lead. Obviously there are two methods for dealing with this. The horse can be made to deal with it in human terms in which case we “break” them to lead as we see fit. The other option is to allow the young horse to socialize on its own terms and build a trusting relationship by introducing it to the halter and leading as the horse adapts.
We have also noticed that after a foal is a month or so old, they generally become more curious and socially accepting of humans. They start to venture away from mom and check out the world around them. That doesn’t mean that they have forgotten about “perceived threats”. They will run to mom at the smallest provocation. A leaf falling from a tree, a loud noise, a human being walking toward them all set off the flight response. The one downfall of all horses, however, whether it be a young foal or an adult is that they are extremely curious if they believe there is no perceived threat to their well-being.
One of the best ways we have found to painlessly socialize foals to human contact is to use this curiosity to our advantage. Frequently we will walk quietly into the field and just sit down among the horses. We have also held a haltered a mare on a lead and sat out in the grass. In both cases, foals that are ready to socialize cannot resist coming up to check out what is going on. At first, they usually approach very cautiously, sniff warily, and after a period of time progress to grabbing a pant leg in their teeth or grabbing at a shirt sleeve. When the foals make these first tentative approaches we make it a point to pay little or no attention to them. Gradually, we extend a hand. Usually the foals back away then approach again slowly. Generally they do a lot of sniffing then the contact moves to mouthing as they become more trusting. We have found that after a few 15 minute episodes like this, foals that are ready to socialize are almost crawling in our laps, asking to be scratched.
Speaking of scratching, horses are not dogs. Patting or slapping horses, particularly when they are young or are not expecting aggressive contact puts them into orbit. Slow, deliberate scratching on the neck or shoulder does wonders for increasing trust with foals. Slapping their side or patting their head like you would Fido usually sends them to the other end of the pasture or at least causes them to jump and attempt to escape if being restrained. Harsh, shrill, loud voice tones also tend to create the air of “perceived threat”. When we are around young foals we try to talk in low calm voices and remember to keep our movements slow and deliberate. If we want to “catch” a foal, we seem to have more luck getting down on a knee and letting the foal come to us than trying to chase it around the paddock.
What could be more enjoyable than taking a lawn chair and a cup of coffee or soft drink out in the pasture on summer evenings to enjoy the scenery and the horses. In addition to the great source of personal relaxation, it provides an excellent opportunity for curious foals to socialize with humans. The first thing we have found is that we are surrounded by a herd of horses wanting to be scratched, looking for handouts, or rubbing against our chairs. Frequently we look at our feet and find that the wily little foal we have been attempting to get close to is making its way up to smelling our shoes. Next thing we know its untying our shoelaces. What a great way to “break” horses.