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Handling a Large Foal

  2007 Cherry Hill

Dear Cherry,

I have an 8-month old Warmblood foal who is almost 15 hands and weighs about 750 pounds. Steve is VERY smart and shows very dominant behavior (gelding is scheduled 2 months from now). Often, things are a struggle, not because he doesn't know what to do, but because he doesn't want to.

I admire his spirit and am trying to cultivate obedience without taking short cuts that will shatter his trust. I have taught him tricks like fetching his jolly ball, so I know there's no lack of intelligence and he's eager to learn new things.

I am and have been, however, struggling with his feet since he was born (would you believe he was imprinted?).

I've read your other suggestions, but nothing seems to address my particular problem. I get all the shaping concepts, but I still don't know what to do. I am working only on his left front leg for now. I suspect if I can get the behavior confirmed there, it will be easy generalize it to the other legs. I stand by his leg facing to the rear and softly ask for him to lift his leg by touching him just behind his knee. Rather than go for the whole pick-up-foot, my goal is to get him to raise his foreleg and just let me hold it while his lower leg dangles. (When I tried to pick up his foot from the ankle, it prompted him to rear up above me and the potential for injury prompted me to think about smaller stages) I thought from holding it up from the elbow and relaxing below the knee, I would be able to slide my hand down and begin to reposition the ankle and foot into the proper position for the farrier. I can generally get him to give me the leg, but it is immediately followed by enthusiastic pawing (I'm writing this to you with ice on my nose -- this evening, he caught me in the face with his knee, and I realized I desperately need advice before I get seriously hurt or strangle him).

Because of the pawing and his size and his ability to rear with no problem (short, powerful back), I simply do not have the strength to hold his leg up when he wants to slam it down or to keep him from pawing. So, while I get your "Be sure to only let the leg down when the foal is standing quietly and not struggling. Give a scratch on the withers as added show of approval," and it makes perfect sense on paper, it's simply proved to be impossible for me and Steve, and I'm rather desperate. I am hoping you can help. Steve means the world to me and we live in a remote portion of Montana where I don't know any good trainers, and I'm unwilling to entrust him to just anyone who professes to be a "trainer." I do think this is something we can get past together, but my toolbox is temporarily empty and my nose really hurts. Help?


Dear Jessica,

Is he tied when you are doing this? To a post or rail or crosstied?

Does he stand tied without pawing, pulling, swerving, or whinnying?

Does he get enough exercise?

What happened to him between imprinting and 8 months of age?

Was he born at your place?

If you did the imprinting, did he willing give his legs/feet at that time?

I've never imprinted a foal nor known one that was imprinted correctly or incorrectly but have heard about quite a few that were incorrectly imprinted. From what I understand, if you do imprinting correctly, you get complete submission right at birth of all of those things........legs, head, clippers, etc. etc. If not done correctly/completely, it teaches them to pull away and resist for the rest of their lives.

I'll answer after I hear back from you.

Cherry Hill

Dear Cherry,

I've tried both tied and untied. When he's tied, he's tied to a hitching post (two uprights and one cross rail). He will stand without pawing, pulling or whinnying for a bit, then he gets fussy and has a tantrum, then he chills out. Needless to say, I always let him have his tantrums and never let him go until he chills out. I have him tied to a large innertube wrapped around the post so he can't really get a good point to resist. About 50% of the time, he behaves himself when tied. Otherwise he fusses. I'm not sure what to do to get him to relax and behave on a more consistent basis while tied.

It is entirely possible (and I'll go so far as to say likely) I didn't imprint him correctly. I was there when he was born, but he is my first foal and I did what the books said, but I probably did it incorrectly. He lives with me, so I feed him daily, but I have not always been able to work with him on a consistent basis (Montana winters are not conducive to spending a lot of time outside). I'm the only horse person I know here, and I can't ask a non-horse person to help 'cause they just don't get it and I'm afraid someone will get hurt. I've certainly seen a lot of resistance from him, and that tends to point to doing the imprinting wrong. No, he has never willingly given his feet. When he was little, I could get them up for a while, but he still fought until I was exhausted. Just about everything with him has been a struggle. At the same time, there are rare moments of submission and simple obedience. I'd say he's very mood driven. He can be totally naughty (biting, not respecting personal space, not going to his assigned eating location) at breakfast and lunch and completely well-behaved (none of the aforementioned) at dinner.

As for exercise, I think we're okay there. He's out all the time on about an acre -- not a lot, but his high-strung thoroughbred mama tends to keep him moving. I have given some thought to teaching him to longe. I'm not wild about longing babies, but I thought I might have some greater success if he's had a workout and is feeling relaxed. What do you think about longing a 15 hand 8-month old? He's got big feet and large joints, so it's not like heavy impact on a quarter-type horse with tons of weight on ittty bitty legs and feet.

Thank you for the quick response!

Hi Jess,

Thank you for providing the great detail. I will address what you say in the first letter and this most current one in more detail very soon. In the meantime, I have a couple more questions:

Are you planning to have him gelded and if so when?

You mentioned you used "the books" to imprint - I assume you mean something by Dr. Miller? What other books and videos do you have for reference?

Cherry Hill

Dear Cherry,

Funny you should ask about the gelding - in light of our issues, I've scheduled it for next Tuesday ?

I've also made arrangements to wean him on Wednesday. He'll be an only-horse after that. I have 3 days worth of sedatives for he and mama afterwards and I thought I'd shamefully take advantage of the situation to forward my cause. He's also getting his feet trimmed while he's under the anesthetic on Tuesday. That will buy me some more time to work out the issues.

Not sure what books I have - they're packed away now. Miller sounds familiar, but not enough for me to say that was one of my sources. I definitely didn't have any videos.

You may use whatever correspondence you wish in your newsletter. If it'll help you or others, I'd be delighted to share.

Get back to me when you can - there is certainly no reason for you to do it until you have a rainy day.


Dear Jess,

I looked the photos of your colt Steve. I must say he is handsome and worth your efforts. But please proceed with care. I am answering this quickly because you have his gelding scheduled for this coming week and I want to be sure you have my reply and can think about it before next week.

First of all, it does sound like he likely was imprinted improperly and taught to resist rather than submit. As I mentioned, I have never imprinted a foal nor have I known one that has been properly imprinted. I have read Dr. Miller's book and watched his video and talked with him and the following is what I understand. When the person doing the imprinting quits too early it has a negative effect, in other words, is worse than having done nothing at all. For example, if you were at the stage where you trying to desensitize the ticklish flank area and your rubbed and the foal struggled and perhaps kicked, you rubbed, he struggled, you rubbed, he struggled and got away and you thought, well, I'll move on to his head now. Well, what occurred is that you just made his flank more sensitive than before and taught him to resist because he got the reward of getting away and having the rubbing stopped. The same principle holds true with restraint, of the legs, for example. Yes, it does sound good on paper, but better yet, it works in reality. You must not let go - you must be the one to put the foal's foot down, not the foal. I mention all of this about the imprinting, not to chastise you or make you feel like you made an error, but to say this. The very same principles apply if you do them the day of birth, the day after, the week after, the month after. You must be consistent, quit on a good note where your horse has learned something. Each time a horse learns to get away with something in his interaction with humans, his bad behavior is being reinforced, so it is worse than if you had turned him out and not handled him at all until weaning, if you see what I mean. Then, at least, you would be starting with a fresh slate.

Let's look at the present situation:

  • Your foal is too large now for you to be able to physically hold up his feet (like one can do with a newborn or week old foal).
  • You foal is still with his dam, so has an emotional and physical attachment to her and would understandably not like to be separated from her or restrained.
  • Your foal is a stallion nearing sexual maturity. That explains a lot of the pushy behavior you describe.

I applaud you for the following things:

  • You have a great attitude - you want to do the right thing and seem to be a realistic person.
  • You have your horse's overall welfare at heart.
  • Your foal looks in great shape so you must be a good manager.
  • You have scheduled gelding.
  • You have weaning planned.
  • You have used an inner tube to tie him.

Here are some things that can use improvement:

  • You need to assume the role of leader to your foal.
  • Be decisive - his future depends on it. You can be "gentle" and be his buddy "later". Right now you need to be firm.
  • Be careful and protect yourself.
  • Your hitch rail is not ideal. First of all it is very short. A horse should be tied at the level of his withers or higher. Steve has already outgrown the height of this hitch rail and it is totally unsuitable for an adult horse. Also, it would be better if it was longer or if you could tie him at the middle of it so he couldn't swing around the end of it.

You mention he will be an "only-horse" after that -where is his dam going?

Here's what I'd do next week.

  • Realize that gelding and weaning should help your situation but they are not, in and of themselves, the answer to the problems. You will need to establish dominance and leadership over your horse.
  • Be sure to maximize the time you spend with him after gelding. As many hours of the day as you can for the next two weeks or so, but especially the first 3-4 days after gelding.
  • When Steve is anesthetized, you might want to have your vet also look for wolf teeth. You might want them removed - discuss this with your vet. If so, you should tell your vet ahead of time so he/she brings the proper tools and supplies. You can read about wolf teeth here: Wolf Teeth.
  • When the vet (and farrier?) has finished his work and your horse is recovering, use the time to handle him all over. You won't be able to work on picking up his feet as he will be too wobbly to stand on 3 legs, but you can work on other trouble spots.

Later, when he is pretty much awake, you can start working on his legs. But there are many other things you can work on (see the list here: In-Hand Checklist ) that will help you establish leadership with him. Then when you DO ask him to lift up his foot, you will be surprised at the different response.

Read about Behavior for Shoeing .

As far as longeing, although it would be OK to do some light longeing (quiet trot) in very large circles (60 feet in diameter) after gelding to help drainage, I'm afraid after gelding wouldn't be such a good time to teach your horse to longe for the first time. If he already knew how to longe you could use it for gelding aftercare but it would probably be best to wait until he is a yearling to start that part of his training program.

Read more about longeing here: Longeing Plan.

Click here to about Gelding and Aftercare.

In summary, the way I look at things, you are really not working with a foal any longer, but a yearling and a pretty big stout one at that. So it IS going to be more difficult for your to positively pick up and hold his leg if he does not want you to. Therefore, use a thorough ground training program to get most of the basics established, especially your leadership role. Then when you want to pick up his feet, it will be much easier. For your reference on ground training and manners, refer to :

Cherry Hill

  2006 Cherry Hill 

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