Iron Spring Farm Shares Tips on Handling Your Foal

Thursday, July 2, 2020
Posted by Iron Spring Farm


Margarita ISF-Foal-Handling-2020-top.jpg

A Great Start
A foal that has been properly handled develops confidence in himself and the people in his life. As he grows, he becomes a horse who’s fun to work with and who enjoys his training. At Iron Spring Farm, our experienced staff works hard to ensure each foal is handled with care and learns all the basics, from leading and bathing, to standing for the farrier.

Andrea Bomkamp, broodmare manager at ISF, shares how we work with our foals to provide them with a great start.

Introducing the Halter
The key to success with youngsters is to start immediately. We touch and handle the foals as much as possible every day. Within a few days of being born, we introduce the halter. We take the halter on and off when the mares and foals go to the pasture, and when mom is groomed or checked by the veterinarian. We don’t use the halter for leading at this stage. It’s more about the foals getting used to the feel of something being put on and off their heads.

Most of the foals are receptive to wearing a halter. They can be a little funny around their ears and poll and may react when we touch those areas. The most common resistance in the beginning is raising the head or moving side to side so we can’t get the halter on the nose. Some foals will try to run away in the stall when they see you have the halter, but that doesn’t last long once they learn the routine.

Taking the halter off can cause more trouble than putting it on. Head tossing or bolting away the moment the halter comes off is not an uncommon response. We try to hold them around the chest and scratch them as we remove the halter so they don’t develop bad habits.

Margarita ISF
Margarita ISF, by Tjalbert 460, models a proper "butt rope" for learning to lead.

Teaching the Foal to Lead
Our turnout fields can be a bit of a walk from the barn, so the foals quickly get used to following along as their dam is led on the short journey for several minutes each day. Again, we start this process early.

To teach the foals to lead, we use a butt rope, which is a lead rope attached to the halter and looped over their hindquarters. This encourages them from behind rather than putting pressure on their necks. When we first introduce the butt rope, the foals may try to sit down, so an ISF staff member walks next to them and scratches the top of their hindquarters to keep them moving forward.

For an owner who hasn’t worked with a lot of foals, it might be useful to learn the ropes from an experienced breeder who can show you how to work to safely.

After several weeks of walking with the butt rope, we begin to lead them like older horses. If they start balking or pulling any other shenanigans, the butt rope goes back on, as needed.

Grooming and Clipping
We start grooming the foals with their moms when they are about a week old. They learn pretty quickly that the human touch can feel really good. By the time we start clipping, the foals are hot and itchy, so the clippers actually are refreshing. It’s hot in Pennsylvania, so we end up clipping all of our foals 2-3 times before the KWPN-NA and FHANA Keurings and Dressage at Devon.

Acclimating foals to bathing or being hosed off is fairly simple if you’ve been handling them daily. Foals naturally follow their moms everywhere, including the wash rack. We introduce the hose in a gentle way at the shoulder so they can get used to the look of the moving hose and the feel of the water on their skin. Work slowly and be prepared for them to react by moving away or kicking out at the water on their legs. We don’t tie them in the wash rack, or anywhere else, so this is a multi-person task. At Iron Spring we always have several people working with each mare and foal. Make sure you have a friend or two who can help you with your foal as you’re teaching him the basics.

Standing for the Farrier and the Vet
We start picking our foals’ feet when they come in from turnout at about one week of age. There’s no hard-set time frame, rather we gauge their behavior and know how receptive they are to new experiences. Foals also watch the mares get their feet picked out every day when they come in, so it doesn’t take long for the foals to accept this as part of their routine.

Teaching foals to pick up their feet requires a ton of patience and positive reinforcement, like scratching their itchy spots, to make it a pleasant experience. When you start, they won’t pick their feet up like an older horse. You have to physically lift their leg and bend the joints to get it done. It takes a while before they will lift their feet for you, so don’t get discouraged.

By the time foals need their first trim, they’re used to having their feet handled. The biggest challenge with the farrier is how much longer a trim takes, about 10-15 minutes, an eternity for a foal. A farrier must be very patient, so make sure yours is experienced in working with youngsters.

Unless there is a veterinary issue early on, most foals are a couple months old before they need routine veterinary care (aside from the initial exam and shots). By this time, the foals have developed a skill set of being haltered and handled. They also spend a lot of time standing outside the breeding stocks while the mares are checked and bred, so they have a lot of practice standing around.