Ina’s Helpful Hints on Horsekeeping 1 – What Now?, by Ina M. Ish

February 20, 2008

What now indeed!  Beloved Susie has just foaled, you as the  average mare owner with a first foal have read the books, watched the  videos, talked to friends, joined the lists ,and survived the actual   foaling.  But you stand there looking at the baby and your mind is a   total blank- oh you are excited, and thrilled and awed by the  magnificent baby in front of you but what do you do next?   

Assuming that the foal is dried off by now, and the mare  cleansed, and resting with plenty of clean water and fresh hay  available; the foal has nursed, you have saved the after-birth for  the vet to check, made the vet appointment and maybe even have had  the vet out to check the mare and foal- what next?

For openers- you DON’T immediately clean the stall!  And you DO  allow the new mother and baby time to bond. You DON’T invite the  entire neighborhood to come and see the baby right now!  Plenty of  time for that tomorrow.  So, having made your video, snapped your  digital pics till both mom and baby are seeing spots from the flash-  you let them alone for a while.

Come the next morning you have an unparalleled opportunity on   your hands.  You get to take mom and foal outside to graze – that is  if the weather is above 40 degrees and not raining.  If it is colder  than that or raining or snowing, let them stay in for the day.  Your  opportunity is still right in front of you.  I am assuming you made  the pre-foaling purchase of baby halters- yes you need many more than  one.  The little critters outgrow halters at an amazing rate.  O.K.,  you have the mom, the baby and the halter- now comes the first fun  part.  You have to put the halter on the baby.  The advantage is on  your side provided you do this today!  It may be very active- getting  that halter on- as you will no doubt discover, foals are NOT born   halter-broken, and that adorable little thing wants NO part of what  you are determined to do. Having already done Foal imprinting as a  practice is rather useful at this point. Eventually without any real  damage to you or the baby, the halter is on- this process is much  easier with two people doing the job by the way.  But if you are  alone, don’t despair- it can be done- usually with the aid of a   corner of the stall where you can ‘pin’ the baby there against the  walls and put the halter on.  Once on quickly attach a long lead rope  and make a butt rope out of the slack- proceed to quietly and slowly  move forward- usually the baby will cooperate at this point.  For no  more than ten minutes walk ‘laps’ around the foaling stall.  You are  now ready to attempt to take them out.

It helps if the paddock or pasture they are going into is very   close to the barn, and if the gate is already open- the first time  you have mom and baby on lead shanks, with the butt rope on the baby  you are going to find you really could use an extra hand or two, so  having the gate open is a big help.   There should be nobody else in  the paddock to escape –  so open gate is safe.  Lead them with the  baby between you and mom.  Mom ( hopefully) knows how to lead, and  baby will go with mom.  This is the critical point that when many  folks take the “easy” way and just lead mom, trusting baby to follow  along.  WRONG!  Easier for now maybe, but not within a very short   time! Enter through the gate, make a turn so you are facing but  behind the gate and be prepared!  Getting the lead shank of mom and  the baby at almost the exact same time takes a bit of doing but can  indeed be done- stand clear! Oh, I forgot- I do hope you are wearing  substantial footgear and possibly even soft gloves- feet and hands  are very vulnerable. Oh and you might want to leave that halter on  for a bit!  But you must remember to handle it and adjust the fit daily!

Foals are funny little critters.  Some are born mellow and  curious, some are born aggressive- often more true of colts than  filly foals, some are born timid and shy.  The type of foal there in  front of you will have to determine how you handle it.  In about all  cases however, moving quietly, not zipping around like a loon,  speaking in a normal tone of voice, not doing baby talk, nor shouting  or shrieking will go a long way to creating a good relationship with  that baby.  Some moms are super protective- which is another   challenge to handle, some are wonderful and trusting, ( the preferred  kind), some are nervous wrecks- which is another challenge, some are  aggressive themselves.Some are simply not interested in that baby –  want nothing to do with it! Yet another challenge!  Here’s hoping you  have a super relationship with your mare to begin with, cause now is  not the ideal time to form one!{mospagebreak}

If the foal is exceedingly timid and shy, you have a couple of   options to choose from.  One you can sit quietly in a corner of the   stall  and wait for the baby to come up to you and investigate you-  make no sudden moves and let the foal sniff all it’s wants, do not  however put up with any pawing attempts!  And don’t go to sleep right  off.  Giving mom a flake of hay will keep her busy and not in your lap!

The other option in this case is to ignore the foal and lovingly  groom on mom till the foal simply can’t stand it anymore and comes up   to you- takes longer but can work as well. This method only works  provided mom will let you touch her!  Do not force the baby to make  contact with you.   Human babies and foals have innocence and  ignorance in common, both are very sensitive to what happens to them  at this point in their short lives.  You don’t want to “break” the  foal, you want to train and teach it good basic horse manners- no ear  pulling or chain across the nose!  Restraint is NOT natural for a  horse, nor is wearing a halter or being lead- keep that in mind – you   are building the basic  response of that animal right now, a response  he or she will have all their lifetime so be careful, be quiet, don’t  react violently and take your time!

Haltering and leading do need to be done daily- it is far safer  and easier to deal with a foal who weighs less than 100 pounds than  to wait till the little one is going on two or three or more months  of age!

If your foal is an aggressive one, well, you will have to be   prepared to correct rearing, striking, biting as it happens. Some  foals will stop that behavior if yelled at, or smacked with the flat  of the hand on the shoulder- not the butt! Or the head!  Do not hit a  foal on the head!!! Nor pull the tail or drag it forward via the lead  shank.  Too easy to cause damage with those methods.

Most foals have a magic spot at the base of the neck- utilize it  to make friends with the critter.  Soft brushing is a wonderful way  to do this, provided you can get your hands on the foal.  If you can,  and if you brush, do not put the brush on the foal with the bristles  down facing the skin, lay the brush sideways and gently turn as you  sweep the brush down- try this on yourself and see the difference.   That foal’s skin is very sensitive and too brisk a brushing can  create behavior problems such as shying away from you, reinforcing   the desire to stay away from you as well.  Handle the legs all the  way down to the feet, and within a few days handle the feet, picking  up gently and not very high, putting it down- do not just drop it.   Within a short while you may begin ‘tapping’ on the surfaces of the  foot- handling hind feet can be tricky, but start up at the hip and  run your hands down the leg.  You might consider telling the foal  what you are doing as you do it, and picture it in your head as well.

The mellow, calm foal is the most pleasure to deal with- they   love scritchies, are interested and curious and generally are all  over you with affection- that too has to be channeled into proper  behavior- but it is far easier- just remember- no rough stuff- leave  that to mom and she will oblige- and oh!  Don’t get between mom and  baby while baby is nursing- if the little dear chomps on mom, mom  won’t hesitate to chomp right back and mom’s chomp is not a little  love bite!  Stand at mom’s head if you must while nursing is taking   place or on the far side of mom!

That should give you a fair idea of WHAT NEXT is in store for   you while raising a baby horse!  Good luck, keep calm, keep cool and  it will work out!

Ina M Ish