When Do You Start Training?
By Dan Sumerel

Training starts the moment the foal is born.

In my previous articles you have read about the importance of getting the horse's attention, earning his respect, developing your ability to 'read' his body language, and so on. We talked about using the round pen and a lot of other ideas, some quite philosophical, to help you better understand your horse. But we haven't really addressed the idea of 'when should the training start?' We need to talk about that and understand that there are actually two ways to define the question itself: 1) What age should you begin training a horse? and 2) When you get a new, adult horse, when do you start working with him? Here, as in all other areas of my horse work, I'd like to try to get you to be as aware and considerate of the horse's perspective and needs as you are of what you need to get the horse to do for you.

First off let's talk about starting a young horse. I run into a lot of different opinions on when to start the young horse, such as, "Don't mess with them until they're old enough to think," and "They can't take the pressure of training when they're young." (Note: too much pressure on ANY horse is a trainer problem, not a horse or age problem!) On the other side of the coin are people like Dr. Robert Miller who teaches imprinting, or handling the horse from the minute it hits the ground. I've also seen facilities where the horses get almost no handling until they are 2 and about to be broke to ride due to logistics rather than any theory about horses. [I hate the expression 'broke' but you understand I am referring to starting under saddle.] Many breeding farms don't have the time or staff to handle so many young horses, and I have seen many good horses come out of that kind of farm. Primarily, because the horses didn't have much handling also meant they have not had much 'poor' handling! It is always easier to 'train' a horse than to 're-train' a horse. Undoing problems is much tougher than starting with a clean sheet of paper!

As for the starting young or starting late, I must tell you Dr. Miller is right and people who make the 'wait until they're older' comments do not understand horses. When a foal hits the ground, he is a little sponge soaking up everything around him. Foals have no concept of what's OK or not OK, except when something hurts. It is the ultimate example of making a first impression! And you know you never get the second chance for that one. By touching the foal all over (and I mean ALL OVER), by tapping on his little hooves, putting your fingers gently in all his orifices, and for those of you show people who insist on cutting off all that beautiful hair later on, running your clippers around the little horse (not clipping, just the noise and feel of the clippers) will get the little tyke off to a good start. He'll think all that stuff you just did is OK, normal stuff, as long as it didn't physically hurt. Remember, horses can accept any, non-painful stimuli. The adult horse that spooks at clippers either WAS hurt by someone clipping him or he THINKS it's going to hurt him. Of course if he THINKS it will hurt, he will react the same as if it actually does hurt. (In horses as in people, the perception of reality is more important than the reality, since we ACT based on our perception!) The imprinting lets the young horse experience many things, and see that they are OK, before he gets older and a bit more paranoid. You will begin to earn his trust when it is the easiest to earn!

But imprinting is only the beginning. Just as a young horse learns by watching and emulating 'mom', the young horse will be watching how 'mom' interacts with you. (Note: If you have effectively gained the respect and trust of the mare, prior to the arrival of the foal, that will eliminate any resistance the mare has for humans handling the foal. Most mares are very good about humans handling their foals anyway, but playing with the mare in the round pen BEFORE the foal arrives, is cheap insurance that mom will go along with your foal training program. If you have not gained the mare's respect, she may be more defensive and less helpful in the foal training sessions.) When the mare shows respect to you and yields to your approach, but shows no fear, think of the impression that makes on the foal. I usually put a foal in the round pen for the first time at 3-4 days old…… Ok, calm down! Before you send the 'animal abuse police' after me for doing terrible things to a poor foal, think about this. In the wild a foal must be up and running with the herd in an hour or so of the birth. And they did that for 50 million years quite successfully before we got here. What I do with a foal (when the mare has been effectively handled in the round pen so she respects me, BEFORE we do it with the foal) is to send 'mom' off a lap or so one way and then a lap or so the other. 3-4 laps, total. Foal follows 'mom' and that's it. No stress at all, physical or mental. The mare sets the example and the foal is the observer. Every few days, I repeat the process and watch the foal's reaction. In no time at all, the foal will learn the signals and begin to react to you on his own. When 'mom' comes in to you, the foal does too. Initially just following mom. The first time a young foal comes up to you in the round pen, on his own, it WILL put a lump in your throat and maybe a tear in your eye! What it will also do is begin to establish a respect for you in the mind of the foal that will help you with all the many things that little horse will need to learn.

After a few weeks, as the foal begins to show respect to me, as well as mom, while he's loose, I will introduce him to the lead line and then a halter. I do this in the round pen and with mom there. I can tell when he is developing the respect by his willingness to follow my movements in the pen, as well as mom's. I will move into his space and get him to yield by moving away, but without running off. Once he willingly moves with me, I will lay the lead on his neck and move again, not pulling on the lead, just moving and having him move with me. Eventually I will begin to tighten the lead and actually use it to move him ever so slightly, so he learns to yield to the pressure from the lead. Before he is weaned he will lead like a pro, and without any degree of struggle. Teaching the foal while he's so easy to teach is good for him and enormous fun for us. Don't miss the opportunity the young horse offers!

© Dan Sumerel 2002

About the author:
Dan Sumerel is a trainer, author, and lecturer, best known for his work helping people with problems involving horses. His first book, "Finding the Magic", is sold all over the world and has been called, "The owner's manual for the modern horse." For more information visit the Sumerel Training website at sumereltraining.com.