Teaching a Foal to Lead
The first lessons a foal should learn is how to be haltered and led. Many breeders do not halter their foals until later, and allow them to run freely alongside their dams for turn-out and other care. Horses need to learn that humans are in control of where and when they go places. By teaching your foal to wear a halter and to be led, you are establishing that you are the one who tells him what he should do.
Start out by haltering your foal within the first week. This is purely to teach him to accept the halter, and not be afraid. Do not apply pressure on the halter at this stage as you can damage the still-fragile neck. If left on, after a while the halter is perceived as part of his body.
Leading should begin with the “hug hold”. With one arm across your baby’s chest and the other around his bum, hug him firmly and guide him as you take him to his paddock. Have a helper lead his dam slightly ahead of him so that he has the incentive to follow.
Around two weeks old, you can begin to lightly hold the halter. Avoid putting any pressure on it; just teach your foal that you can hold the halter without hurting or scaring him. Continue to hug hold him, and as he moves forward willingly, progress to leading with a hand on the halter and a hand on the quarters. If he misbehaves, return to the full hug hold.
It is very important when teaching a foal to lead that you never let go. No matter what your foal does to avoid being led, you can’t let him escape. He needs to believe that escape is impossible—while you are still stronger than he is! If he gets this impression, in the long run you should never have trouble with your horse running away when afraid, or breaking away when tied.
By the time your foal is a month old, you should be able to lead him by the halter without a hand on his quarters. He might still stop, but a touch on his quarters should move him on again.
It is best to avoid using a lead rope at this point. With a lead rope your foal has more room to pull away. He can rear up and flip over, or start running and pull the lead from your hand. If you hold his halter at the nose band, you will have better control of him. You will be able to stop him before he gets going, and can pull his head down before he rears up. Your elbow will sit right at his shoulder which gives you a great deal of leverage without pulling his neck into unnatural angles and risking spinal damage.
For ease of management, it is best to teach your foal to lead with his dam. Leading the mare on your left side, take the foal in your right hand. Have a helper follow you and give the baby a tap on the quarters if he stops or resists. After a while, your foal should lead easily beside his dam, allowing a single person to be able to turn the pair out.
When your foal is around three months old, you can start using a lead rope. Use a short lead if possible, as it makes leading in a pair easier, and reduces the risk of him stepping on it should he escape. Do not use a chain over his nose. Foals have not fully developed yet, and it is easy to cause permanent damage to the cartilage should you jerk too hard on the chain. You should never use a chain shank before your horse is two years old.
If your foal becomes difficult to lead, you can use a chiffney bit to give you extra leverage. A chiffney bit is round with a flattened side. The flat side goes in the mouth with the round part below the jaw. There are three rings on the chiffney. The two side rings are attached to the halter with clips. Pass a chain shank through the bottom ring of the halter and the bottom ring of the chiffney, and then clip it back to itself. This way the chiffney will only be active if you pull back on the horse, and will remain passive as long as the horse is behaving. Chiffney bits are suitable for weanlings and yearlings.
Usually leading to and from the paddock is adequate for training a foal to lead. If you plan to do extra training, keep the sessions short, ideally under 10 minutes. Avoid training more than two or three times a week. Babies that are over-trained at this stage tend to be more resistant later. They need the time to be babies.
If you take the time to make sure that your foal leads well while still with his dam, you will run into far less trouble with him when he is older. A foal that leads well learns to tie easily, and is easy to train later in life. By teaching him that you are the one he must rely on, he learns to trust humans as his leaders, greatly increasing the chances that he will listen when he is mature.