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HALTER BREAKING THE FOAL

by
John O'Leary
Horseman
2004


 

The Debate

"Do we do it when they are really young, wait until they are weaned or when they are ready to be broken in?...there is my system and "let them grow up and be a Horse"

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I often hear and read the debate about when we should be halter breaking the foal. Being a very analytical type, I examine with great interest, every system of Horse Training that anyone likes to invent, re-invent and these days, even the systems of 'Days gone by'

I therefore base this article upon a number of years of experimentation and observation of the career of the foals going forward, particularly looking for the positives or negatives that impact upon their lives and those of their owners'. This is what I have found and these are my arguments to back those opinions up.

 

THE SYSTEMS

  • The 'Natural Horsemanship' systems of taking a feel, focus, savvy, passive persistence and so on or
     

  • The battle of strength system as in, reefing the horse around from side to side until it starts to give, get the message and hopefully follow.
     

  • The Rump Rope system.

There are three basic time frames where Studs or individual owner's halter break their young stock.

  • As a foal

  • As a weanling

  • Never, until the 'Breaker' gets involved'

I shall examine these in reverse order:

TWO YEAR OLD AND UP

  • I have had the unfortunate experience of having to halter break 2, 3 and up to 8 year old horses on many occasions. The unfortunate experience and a highly dangerous one, is unfortunate on the horse and the Breaker. It is a disaster in terms of Horse Management and verging on cruelty. Such people shouldn't be in the breeding business.
     

  • These horses can never be truly halter broken with a lightness and responsiveness that is consolidated and stays with them through their life. Yes, they will lead but only ever on their terms. Given the right circumstance, they will run through the hand of a handler and make up their own minds.
     

  • The only hope that these horses have of almost meeting the quality of true lightness found in option one is that they are halter broken and broken in by a career Horseman of the 'Good Horsemanship School' and never by Natural Horsemanship. That is simply not possible.

WEANLINGS

  • The stronger the young horse is, come halter breaking time, the less true lightness that can be put on it. I think that the weanling, no matter what the Breed, has to be stronger in sheer strength terms, than us Humans.
     

  • That being the case, no matter what system you use, NH or GH, (natural horsemanship v good horsemanship) you still cannot end with the 'true lightness' in the young horse, however, it will be fairly good, lead well and so on.
     

  • It will not have the many fine attributes of the foal that is halter broken early, with one exception, with the back up and use of the 'Roping Horse' to assist the handler to eliminate the underlying and mostly hidden resistances that appear when the 'flight response' kicks in.

FOALS

  • Because of the arguments hereunder, only horses halter broken with GH are equipped with the 'Foundation Stones' of the great horses. Thus protecting them from accidents throughout Life.

NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP

By now, you should know that I am a fan of NH, but it has some weaknesses and this is one of them. It is interesting, that the argument about gaining 'true lightness' is one of the main ones used by NH marketers but I have proved, time and time again, that NH can never give what I term 'true lightness' which is the lightness you get no matter what trigger has been applied to the horse in terms of panic, 'flight response' or the temporary loss of the mind. GH excels here and always turns out the best halter broken, tying up and shoeing horse, over those done with NH principals. Don't get me wrong, NH turns out fine horses but never the best.

THE MARES IMPRINTING

From the moment the Mare drops the foal and it gets to it's feet, she is imprinting it with the desperate and urgent need to run from danger. Run is translated into fight, pull, and rip away from anything that it feels restricts it. She is building the maximum 'resistance' into the foal and this builds with every living moment. The older the foal, weanling, horse, the more the reservoir of fight is built.

We then come along and apply the exact opposite to what the Mare and Evolution has imprinted. We ask the horse to immediately turn around all learning and instincts and to give rather than fight, to lighten rather than get heavy, to trust rather than run and so on.

FLIGHT RESPONSE

The 'flight response' in horses, comes via instinct and is handed down through the ages from when the horse was hunted by Man and Predators, just like any wild animal. It is cemented in Stone and regardless of the fact that the horse lives in our, so called safe world, it is still drummed into the foal by the Mare as this is her primary responsibility to her baby. It is all powerful and is the most challenging thing that anyone halter breaking a horse, faces.

The degree of the 'flight response' differs with temperament of the foal, temperament with the Mare or Stallion, the restrictions placed upon the Mare in terms of housing and open space, the experience of the owner to nullify it and the ability of the handler. It also depends upon the systems used and hence this article.

OUR RESPONSIBILITIES

I take my responsibilities as a Breeder very seriously. I also am mindful of the safety of the future life of the foal because I see so many injuries and deaths in horses. Go look at some of the photo's on this site) That is why I am so passionate with the choice of method and so analytical in it's success. I want them safe, I owe them that.

RESISTANCE

There are two levels of resistance in young horses.

  • There is the normal 'day to day' types of resistance, bad ground manners, (man made) halter and leading heaviness and so on, but they still come along and they do tie up, most of the time.
     

  • Then there is the underlying resistance which comes to the surface in times of trouble, danger, panic or fear.

and this is what separates the vast majority of horses from the others.. True lightness in every way,  all of the time and regardless of the issue. Some examples then:

  • Your horse is tied up solid and I walk past cracking a stock whip or get dressed  in a Gorilla suit. Do they pull back or do they jump around in fear but staying within the bounds of the end of the rope and to give to pressure no matter what the danger?
     

  • You have your horse tied solid but too long. It puts the font leg over the rope, lifts the head and goes into panic attack mode, pulling back violently.
     

  • Your horse gets it's leg through the mesh of the gate, is stuck. It pulls back, ripping the hoof off or, does it stand, waiting for 2 hours for the owner to come and release it?

Yes, it was halter broken, it leads well (most of the time) but it will react negatively should any of the events described above happen.

FUTURE SAFETY

The future protection of the safety of the young horse then, is found in my opinion, in the reversal of the 'flight response'. The complete cancellation of it. It is the biggest danger to the domesticated horse and it is the one thing that is responsible for the many heartaches experienced for so many reasons.

Should Veterinary treatment be required, you can actually do it!!!

They wean easier, the frantic dangers can be controlled to their benefit and protection and above all, they are the only horse that can truly be floated for the first few times without a real and present high danger of them leaping over the chest bar and many other disastrous outcomes.

STRAIGHT LEGS

Ever wondered why there are so many crooked legged horses in this World? The normal reason given is that it is the fault of the Stallion, then the Mare. Well I can tell you it is the fault of the owner, who failed to correctively trim the hooves of the foal from Birth, 14 days and then every 21 days at the minimum and often at every 14 days. I see foals born with incorrect angles of the hoof. They hit the ground with those hoofs. If it helps any of the readers', our Vet trims them at 5 days. The crookedness of legs, caused by incorrect hoof growth and angles, is the cause of the vast majority of crooked legs in horses. So how do you carry out that important responsibility if you halter break at weaning time?? Do tell


CLUB HOOVES

If caught early, these can be influenced before the pedal Bone sets in place. 6 Weeks is too late!!!!

BREAKING IN

  • I have found, that horses that were halter broken as foals, with the correct GH systems, experience far less grief during the process. Far less fight, far less risk of injury and skin off.
     

  • Provide a faster process, a more co-operative mind in all respects and a lightness of the mind that gives a far greater lightness of the mouth than more resistant horses.
     

  • They tie up immediately, there is no risk, they shoe better than other horses and they lead regardless of the challenges faced.
     

  • Are more economically viable

RESPECT

and finally, the thing called respect. Respect equals a smooth ride throughout the life of the horse. Not a problem horse, not the drama I read about daily. Respect to never kick you or the kid that walks up at the Show and hugs the back leg of your horse. Respect with ground manners, respect to walk into a float when told and not to say 'No, make me' You just would not believe the benefits.

OTHER SYSTEMS

  • The Bum Rope system is another technique that is widely used. It works, they get halter broken but they are never truly halter broken with this system. They can never be truly light. The reason for this is that they are moving away from the rope because it is touching the ticklish bum. Yes, they move, you move, they are leading but they have not learnt the big lesson, that of giving and lightening to pressure via the rope and the halter. It does not and can not eliminate the 'NO' in the foal, given the first encounter of the frightening path ahead. This system has no relationship with the next hurdle, that of tying the foal up and will never produce a foal that will accept the process without the risk of fight and injury. Further, given the fact that a huge percentage of people faced with the halter breaking being classed as amateurs', the last thing they need added to the equation is the bum rope system. They face enough danger of severe injury as it is without a foal that is not halter broken to start with, adding the scoot past the owner because of the rope with the marked increased in risk of pulling the foal over onto the back of it's head. My system eliminates such risk and keeps it simply.
     

  • Whip system. Once again, yes, the foal will learn to move forward off a whip but that is all it is doing. It will give the same result as the system above.

I could have written a Thesis on this subject but I resist.

QUESTIONS

How do you Show your Warm Blood Mare and Foal for the ACE or other registered Warm Blood Societies if they are not halter broken? and

How do you check the inside of the mouth of your foal for correct Dental formation or if things need attention?

How do you worm the foal at 6 weeks? How do you give it Tetanus and Strangles at 3 months? Terrorize the hell out of and jump on it?

How do you put it in a Horse Float to go to a Show or the Vet? What if Mum has to go to the Vet, the foal has to go too. What if the foal is 8 weeks old. Forget it!!! Well perhaps the Vet will end up having to come to the foal.!!!. What if a Bush Fire is coming and you have to Float them away????

INJURY

I have been asked about the risk of skeletal damage being caused by halter breaking foals at a young age. I am yet to see this. I do however, see broken necks, fractured skulls, broken back legs and the like, due to the weight to fight ratio. When done early, they do not have the strength to cause such damage imho.

BALANCE OF RISK

One must make a decision and strike a balance. I know the risks associated with late halter breaking but I have never seen the risk of injury due to the young age. I therefore come down on the side of the latter

VICES AND DANGER

Farriers put their lives at risk every day. They get injured regularly and even killed. I make the point that none of our horses, have ever attempted to kick or been anything other than perfect to shoe for the farrier. That is because they had their feet and legs handled as young ones and from that day on, they learnt that they can never dislodge a farrier, so why try. It is called responsible horse ownership. I am sure the farriers of this World will agree.

In Europe, a huge proportion of them are halter broken in the first week and they even take the Mare to the Dressage Comp and leave the foal boxed. The one in the photo included.

Best of Luck

 


My Stallion being spoilt rather than locked up...because he tethers....because he was halter broken 'light.......and one of this seasons 7 day olds.

 

Proud Mum and 7 day old here at the moment.
 

and here is one of my apprentices at the Young Horse Championships in Holland.

Now, a small story. The lady will not mind, she is a friend of mine and a pupil. She is still getting the hang of things.

She was leading the Chestnut foal that is in the photo above. He is now 17 days. The young Colt is needing behavioral direction already, as they all do. 100% of them. He kept running ahead of mother and into the lady. She was meekly waving her hand at the foal, asking him to stay back and be a good boy. Again and again and again. All of a sudden, the mare turned around, grabbed the Colt in her teeth by the centre of the neck, lifted him off the ground and put him back where he belonged. At the shoulder. He was then a good boy immediately. What was going through the Mare's mind at the time? "For God sakes Mother, get assertive and establish some rules around here, or I WILL"

** Halter Breaking the Foal DVD here

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