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How to Start Training Your Foal

  1. If your foal is with their dam, ensure your training situation is set up so that neither is worried about someone getting in between them; the mare needs to be happy that you’re doing things with her foal, and the foal needs to be confident that mama is still right there.
  2. Foals are like human children; they have very short attention spans. Your training sessions should be short and fun. If the foal doesn’t want to interact, postpone to another time or just hang out and let the foal choose whether to engage with you or not.
  3. Foals LOVE scratches. They’re still learning about food, and most of their food reinforcement comes from their mother, so the best reinforcer to use in short training sessions is lovely scratches. Work out where the foal loves scratches the most.
  4. Just as with adult horses, training needs clear start and end signals. You want the foal to know when it’s OK to interact, and also to understand when the play time is over. So, work out start and end signals that they will recognize. Plan your end of training so that the foal doesn’t feel frustrated that you’re ending the good times!
  5. Foals are very bouncy and enthusiastic. You want keenness in a training session, but also calmness. So, one of the first things you will want to train is standing calmly next to you. Reward this with lovely scratches. Consider using protected contact if you find the foal is TOO keen to engage.
  6. It’s really tempting to use the foal’s natural inclination to follow humans who have offered lovely scratches to train a recall or train to follow the human. This option can end up with a very enthusiastic foal chasing people all over the place; plan your training so you don’t end up with undesirable behavior you accidentally reinforced!
  7. The highest priority things to train are the important basics: standing calmly next to you, following you when cued (and not when not cued!), taking small steps back away from you (foals are still gangly, so one or two steps back at most), lifting hooves on cue, and very gradually building duration of holds.
  8. You can also train important life skills like putting a nose into a halter and being groomed and brushed (you can blend this skill with the scratches the foal loves).
  9. All of these things can be trained using positive reinforcement: work out the tiny steps of a shaping plan, set the foal up so that they naturally do the first step, and then get scratching! You will need to do a decent amount of scratching to reinforce each approximation. You should find that the foal naturally offers more behavior so you can build towards your goal.
  10. When the foal starts to enjoy grown-up food, you can do very short training sessions teaching them about how to behave around food. That way, you can start safely using food reinforcers as they mature.