Many weanlings and yearlings find themselves new families this time of the year. Some of these horses have been handled from birth. Unfortunately that is not the case for all the young horses that are sold after weaning. If you have recently acquired a weanling or yearling that has had very little handling you will have, your work cut out for you. Even the simplest things can soon become very frustrating and time consuming. Catching and touching your young horse can be nearly impossible. I am going to cover a few things that could help your new project overcome the fear that is keeping him from being handled.
There are a few things to consider before you start working with your young animal. These young, freshly weaned horses are very stressed. Everything that was comfortable and routine to him has been lost. He has been weaned from his mother. He is in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar horses and people. He may have had little contact with humans. There is stress from the auction barn and trailering so do not be surprised if he acts wild when you finally get him home. He will need a few days to settle down before you ask him for something that he is not ready to give.
Developing a routine is important. Regular feeding time and an older horse to baby sit, if you are lucky enough to have one, will help him settle in.
Before you start training I cannot stress enough that the less you expect from him the more you will get. As a weanling or yearling, he will have a very short attention span. Try to keep your sessions to less than 20 minutes. You do not need to accomplish what you set out to do before you can quit. It is beneficial if you stop when he is trying, not when he has stopped trying. If he has stopped trying you have gone too long. Put him away and try again later. Do not give yourself a timeline for training. That will only add unnecessary pressure to you and it may be unrealistic for him. Things should happen at a rate that he dictates. If things are going well ask for a little more. If things are not going well ask for less.
Before we can catch him, we must be able to touch him. Getting the halter on him is not our goal. Getting him prepared to be caught is the goal. When he is ready to be caught putting the halter on will be easy.
Touching him can be easier said than done. It could take days of trying before he lets you close enough. When you are finally close enough let him make the final gesture to make contact. Horses are curious, if he is curious about you he is less likely to be afraid of you.
When trying to get close do not try to corner him. Let him run around. The smaller the paddock the better. A stall would be fine also. If he feels cornered, he may try to jump the fence to escape. If he tries to jump it is your fault. You are putting on too much pressure. It may seem like you are doing nothing but it was too much for him to handle. He will not stand still because his instinct to survive tells him to run. Encourage him to stand still. As a very basic rule of thumb, if he is trying to escape he is scared for his safety. If he is standing still he is trying to think about what you want.
Horses have a flight zone. This is an area around him that when things enter the area he feels threatened and will flee. It will take some time to decrease the size of this flight zone as it relates to you. When you approach him, pay attention to how close you can get before he gets that anxious look before he moves. That is the edge of his flight zone. Do not enter this zone. When you get to the edge, stay there for a second or two then turn away and retreat a step or two. Give him a moment to think. Advance again this time try to get a few inches closer. The point is to have him NOT move away. Repeat this process moving a few inches closer each time until you are almost close enough to touch him. It could take days to get to this point.
If he follows you when you retreat keep going. He is looking for a leader. Do not approach him if he is following you, it will push him away. Stop when he stops and then work on approaching him again
Hold out your hand with your fingers down, this way your hand will resemble the nose of another horse. Do not try to touch him. Let him reach for you. If he does, simply hold your hand there until he moves his nose away. Turn away, retreat a few steps and give him a minute to think. Repeat this until you can touch his nose with your fingers. Each time you make progress retreat and repeat the process. When things are going well stop, and put him away. Try again later. You can have several short training sessions in a day.
It could take several days of this before you can touch him without him wanting to leave. You can slowly start touching him farther down his head and body. When he is comfortable with this, then it is time for the halter. You may have to repeat part of the previous process when holding the halter. Let him smell it and reach for it, then touch his body with it so he knows it will not hurt.
When you do try to put it, on hold it in your left hand by the strap that goes through the buckle. Put your right hand over his neck; pet him while you do this. Slowly pass the halter to your right hand and gently slip it over his nose with your left hand. Do not be too quick to buckle it up. Repeat this process a few times and when he is comfortable then do it up. Let him wear it for a few minutes then take it off.
Do not leave the halter on him. Each time you want to catch him is an opportunity to put in on and take it off. The more opportunities you have the faster he will become easy to catch. At any point you may have to go back to a previous step. Do not hesitate to do this. It is an opportunity to improve on what you have already done. You are starting with a clean slate when halter breaking a horse. Take the time to do it right and you will never regret it.
© 2004 Will Clinging