Saturday, May 12, 2018

Stress-Free Halter-Breaking, Lesson One

Like most contemporary horsemen, I prefer not to put avoidable stress on my horses. Long gone are the days of fighting it out and "breaking" a horse with a snubbing pole and rough handling. I avoid conflict with them when possible and especially so with the babies.

We all have our own way of doing things, though, and there are several halter-breaking methods people use successfully. I'm sharing the method I've used for the past thirty-five years in hopes you find some or all of it useful with your own babies.

I imprint on my foals as soon as I can. Having missed little Julie's birth, I imprinted on her after she was already up and nursing. That included particular attention to her face, ears, muzzle, and eyes. The next day, I put her halter on for the first time.

The traditional web-type halters are pretty useless on a newborn or young baby. The crown piece inevitably slides back onto the foal's neck. I hand-made the halter in the photo above out of leather in a figure-eight style with an adjustable nose and crown. The short lead strap is only a foot or so long. Since halters should NEVER be left on unattended foal, the strap is affixed permanently. It's short because you don't use it to actually lead the foal that young - you use it in conjunction with a butt rope. If the foal gets away from you, that short strap is a lifesaver; they won't be stepping on it, tripping, and perhaps breaking their fool necks.

The first time I expose them to the halter, I do nothing but put it on them and leave it for a few minutes. You certainly can do more and give them their first lesson, but over the years I've gotten a little bit less motivated about the first-day lesson. Julie was good about her first haltering, and after I took it off I petted her for a while and hung out with her to establish that I wasn't going to pester her. Then, other than daily handling (petting her just to continue that bonding), I didn't do any halter work (although I did put her fly bonnet on).

She's three weeks old now and getting strong and independent. It's time now to get serious about halter training. Today she had her first "official" lesson.  If you have an assistant, it'll help tremendously, but if not, you can still use this technique as long as you're able to safely catch and control the foal by yourself. I catch the foal with one arm around her neck and the other behind her rump and then wait until she settles before slipping the butt rope in place.

Using the fattest cotton lead rope you've got, make a figure-eight of the rope so half goes around the foal's rear as shown and the other half around the neck as shown. The "intersection" of the figure eight will be held in your hand. Snap the bullsnap around the rope itself where it intersects. This will be the part you hold with your strong hand. In essence, you've got a slip-loop on the hind end and an unfastened loop in the front.

Let the foal settle. You won't be using the halter much; you'll slowly transition to that. You're going to use the butt rope only to move the foal.  After the foal has calmed down from the placement of the rope, take a firm hold of the handle - that part of the rope intersection across the foal's back, as seen below - and give whatever verbal command you'll use throughout your training. I use a firm "Walk on" in conjunction with clucking.

The foal won't understand that command, of course, so as you give it, gently but firmly pull the foal forward with the pressure of the rope on the rear end. The front rope is there to stop the foal from getting away from you; it's the brake system, while the rump portion of the rope is the gas pedal. Timing is everything in horse training: as soon as the foal moves, immediately decrease the pressure on the gas pedal. Do a short 5 - 10 minute session only, continually just asking the foal to walk on, letting off the pressure as a reward, and then gently stopping her with your verbal, "Whoa," and pressure on the front portion of the rope.

Don't jerk the rope at any time.  Let your movements be slow and assured. If you have to let go of the butt rope, since the front portion is not fixed, the rope will safely just drop off the foal's rear end without harm.

Now, if the foal is reacting calmly - and for Julie's first lesson today, she was calm, engaged, and reasonable - you will introduce the first ever-so-light touch on the halter itself.  With the foal standing quietly, gently take hold of the short lead rope and gently draw it to one side. As soon as the foal gives to the pressure, release it. Your intention is not to lead the foal by the halter, nor to panic it. Foals instinctively react to pressure on the head by pulling way. That's okay!  You're going to teach the foal to give to that pressure. Take your time with it. Apply light pressure, wait until the foal gives, and then give back. Simple. Don't let your impatience get the best of you. All you want is a little bit of give. 

You can see I have another soft cotton rope dangling over my shoulder. That's the leg rope. On your first lesson, you can begin introducing the foal to picking up her leg on command. This is the safe way to do so - and it pays off in many other ways later one. 

Loop that soft leg rope gently around the foal's pastern. Never tie knots or make a noose!  Just bring one end around the leg, holding both ends in one hand, and ask the foal, "Pick up." Again, apply light pressure and lift the foal's leg. If the foal is a naturally kicky foal, you may not get this far; just let the rope touch her leg a few times until the kicking stops. If the foal is compliant, lift the leg gently a few times - using your verbal command each time - and gently lower it (don't drop it! Lower it politely. Polite handlers make polite horses.)  

One of many benefits of this method of teaching them to pick up their feet is it familiarizes them with having ropes around their legs. This can save a horse's life should they ever get hung up in barbed wire, as well as making it easier to hobble train them. It's also a safe method for the handler. If the foal gets kicky, you can let go of the rope without anyone getting kicked or tangled up.

That's it. Lesson one is done. 

Now, for the next few days (or weeks, or whatever is necessary / possible), repeat the lesson. Once the foal begins to understand the concept of giving to the pressure on the halter AND moving forward on verbal command, you will start to transition away from pressure on the butt rope. Don't be in a hurry. You'll find that butt rope is awfully handy training the foal to load, also. Take advantage of it while the foal is young and introduce them to walking over obstacles such as tarps, stall matts, and so forth.

The idea is to never get into a tug of war with that foal with the actual halter. A foal's head and neck are sensitive and easily injured. Do not voluntarily yank or pull on that precious head! Once the foal understands to move forward and trusts you not to frighten or injure them, you will teach them to associate the gentle pull on the halter to "walk on." If they act as if they're going to flip over or run backwards against the pressure, either your timing is off and you're not "giving" fast enough or you are advancing far too fast for the foal. Slow it down! Spending a lot of time with these early steps are well worth it and will make up for the investment later. As the old saying goes, "Make haste slowly."

With proper timing and patience, before too long your foal will be willingly moving forward with good impulsion, stopping with gentle pressure, and looking forward to each training session. 

When you've finished your session, slowly take off the halter. The process, as with all horse training, is more important than the goal. Fumble with the halter, pretending to unbuckle it, but don't do so. You don't want the foal learning to bolt after the halter is unsnapped, or - worse - to start running backwards with the halter dangling around the nose. Wait until the foal is completely settled to take that halter all the way off. And once it's off, just stand there, still holding the butt rope in place and confining the foal. Wait until she exhales before you slip the butt rope off. Once it's off, use the same technique and just stand there as long as the foal stands beside you. Let her slowly move away.

All photos in this post are from today's actual session with Julie, my new filly. This was her second time wearing the halter and the first time with a butt rope. Your results and actual mileage may vary. She's one of the more pragmatic, willing foals I've had, so don't be frustrated if your foal is a bit of an orangutan. Proceed slowly; never let the foal anger you; and do NOT expect it to know anything, even manners. That's why you're teaching them. This shouldn't involve any punitive measures at this point!  

Finally, one more word of caution. Halter breaking is often not linear. You'll encounter peaks and valleys. Just when you think that foal is completely halter trained, it'll likely regress and act as if it's never seen you or the halter before in its life. That's just a foal being a foal. Don't take it personally. Just start back to basics and keep those training sessions short and positive. That early bond you've formed with your foal is still there; it's just in hiding, and it'll return.

Good luck!  Leave a comment if you have a question.  

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