Raising a foal or a young horse is not for most people. It is difficult to raise a young horse well. It helps if you have the foal from birth, it helps if you have had experience with horses before, and you need to be able to commit yourself to being strict with the foal. The worst thing you can do for a young horse is not to enforce boundaries and discipline.
The most important challenge in raising a foal is your ability to be strict, set boundaries and discipline your foal. It is with this area that most modern horse people struggle. Even a youngster that has been started properly can be messed up when acquired by a person without the necessary skills to keep it respectful. A horse is not naturally well-mannered. They are always seeking to establish their pecking order in the herd, and humans are part of their herd.
We see John Lyons, Clinton Anderson and Buck Brannaman getting amazing results with horses without beating or breaking anything. And what they do certainly looks gentle. That is what we want to do as well. But viewing these methods as gentle – and thus, trying to sculpt our own methods into the human concept of gentle – can cause some problems.
Look closer at John Lyons or Buck Brannaman, or any of the great modern horsemen. They are some of the strictest, strongest figures you will ever meet (at least when they are working with a horse). They are not so much gentle in their working with horses as firm. Their work looks like what humans call gentle for two reasons:
First, they are so good at what they do and so experienced, that they can get even the most unruly horse to react with a single look. It would take extensive physical energy and whole body effort for most of us to achieve anywhere near the same results. Controlling a horse by the slightest movement of your body or glance is very advanced horsemanship and most of us cannot do it yet.
Second, the level of skill which these have achieved allows them more time to be gentle, because they have the horse’s respect, devotion and obedience. They have spent many hours honing and perfecting their skills and studying horse behavior.
If we recognize that we are not yet capable of that level of control which allows us to gain respect and obedience from horses with minimal physical contact, but we want to take as much as we can from the methods taught by these modern horsemen, what do we do?
The modern horsemen, like the old cowboys, recognize the need for strength and control in a relationship with a horse. But their understanding of the reason for this need is different. The difference is that they are getting this control; projecting this strength, by learning the the horse’s natural language and communicating with the horse on its terms – not by beating the horse into submission and forcing it to always interact with humans on human terms. In doing this, they are looking for respect and voluntary submission, not fear and defeat. They don’t want the horse to give up and obey them, but to actively choose to follow them. And they achieve this by learning the horse’s language and the horse’s world view and communicating with the horse on its own terms. They make the effort to learn and understand what a horse is at its core, how it sees the world and what rules it lives by among other horses. Then they seek to interact with the horses on those terms, by those rules, as if they themselves were horses.
The Tough Reality of Horse World
Horse language and horse psychology is not gentle. The byplay in the interaction between horses involves a great deal of physical communication including shows of strength and physical discipline. If you are going to learn to communicate with horses in their language and enter their world under their terms, then you will have to be physical with your horses, at least some of the time, just as they are with each-other. If you’re going to follow their rules, you will have to accept that those rules do not view physical contact the same way as we do in human society.
Of course, the better you get at understanding, communicating with and working with horses, the less actual physical contact you have to make. If you ever see a really good lead mare, she controls the movements of every horse around her with no more than a glance. She rarely needs to kick, or bite to get obedience from her herd. But a weaker mare, one defending a medium spot in the herd hierarchy, perhaps, often has to resort to kicking or biting to keep its dominance over the horses bellow it. Usually, we are those weaker mares. The experts named above are the top-notch lead mares who get total obedience even from strangers with little more than a look. We may be working towards being that, but we are usually not there yet. Because of that, we will need to employ more physical force in our dealing with young horses than the trainers we learn from ever seem to.
And here is the thing to keep in mind about that: That lead mare will bite or kick or employ whatever physical force is necessary if one of her charges doesn’t back down to her look. She’ll go after them without hesitation and clobber them so well they will never think of defying her again. She will, in fact, do whatever it takes physically to establish her strength and her dominance with each horse in the herd. She just rarely has to resort to anything more than a look because most horses are so hard-wired to recognize true strength and give way to it that substantial challenges rarely come.
Never think the “greats” would not use physical action to bring a horse into line if it were demanded of them. They are different from the old style trainers because they use such action only when the horse’s code of law demands it and only because it is internal herd rules that dictate its use. They let the rules which nature set up to govern horses determine their approach to horses. However, using physical discipline does not mean we humans are beating the crap out of the foals. There are very definite techniques to employ which “speak” to the foal, without causing them physical harm.
If we are going to be effective in the methods the great modern trainers use, we have to be willing to back up our actions with physical contact when appropriate. We’ll need to do that less and less the better we get at establishing our own strength without the need for physical contact. But until then, one of the primary obstacles people have is in their reluctance to use physical force when necessary. Learning to be okay with this aspect of horse training is important when working with any horse, but especially when working with a foal.
A foal who learns that he can walk all over people, control them and boss them around soon becomes a full grown horse who is a danger to the people around him. That horse will hurt someone and eventually be put down because of it. That horse will never learn the joy and fulfillment of working in true partnership with a human being. It is your ability to be strict and to discipline your foal while it is young which will determine which path your horse takes. Before you decide to breed your mare, (or adopt a foal) you owe it to the foal that is coming to make sure you can give it the firm guidance it will need to grow up well adjusted to human society.
If Being Strict Is Not For You
So what if you take a realistic look at the premises above and realize you are not up to raising a foal well at this point? First, good for you. It is impressive when anybody can see their own limitations realistically and adjust their plans because of them. You can find another way to get the bond with a horse you are looking for. Or you can take some time to learn more about raising foals well, hone your ability to be strict and work up to raising a foal sometime in the future. (Giving it up now doesn’t mean giving it up forever.) .The important thing is that you don’t teach your foal to be unsafe around people – to not respect people. That is hard to unlearn. Perhaps you will gain more skills as time goes on and be able to successfully raise a foal later on.
In any case, it is important to have thought this all out before you acquire a baby. Be realistic about your abilities and your present skill level. Then go from there. It is a great tragedy in the horse world when a well-meaning human ruins a young horse beyond salvation because they can not recognize that they are in over their heads.
A few good articles on raising respectful youngsters.