From Foal To Performance Horse: “Some Assembly Required”

Jul 8, 2010 - 6:56 AM

Our columnist explores the incredible journey from youngster to 5-year-old.

Raising and training a foal, yearling or 2-year-old to become a horse ready to enter the competitive arena will be one of the most satisfying and educational experiences a rider or trainer can ever have. Knowing that the horse you’re riding is also the horse that you made from scratch validates you as a horseman in a way that riding someone else’s project never can.

The “little foal who becomes a champion” is such a childhood dream as to have reached the status of cliché, but that in no way dims its allure.

The dream can actually come true for those who go about it in the right way, but, ironically, not as dreamers, but as realists. The dreamer, who has probably watched too many Walt Disney movies, will imagine that the adorable little foal frolicking in green meadows with its dam yearns to become a soul mate in a magical bonding process. The realist knows that the foal generally prefers to be left alone in those meadows with other horses.

The most reality-based advice that I have to offer is this: Only do what you can safely do, and don’t feel that you are “shirking your duty” if you farm out certain parts of the training process to others.

Remember that there’s one thing above all else that young horse has to feel for you, and it’s not true love. Aretha Franklin knows what it is—it’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”

That youngster has to respect you and the limits that you set for him. If you aren’t able to make him respect you, find someone who can. If you haven’t had enough experience training young horses to feel fully confident in your expertise, try to be guided along the way by someone who has.

For example, if you’re small and you’re trying to deal with a big yearling who slams you around, get someone bigger and stronger than you to teach the colt to mind his manners.

If the foal is too quick and strong for you to lead, find somebody who can’t be dragged around to establish that baby’s boundaries.

Certainly one of the easiest ways to get hurt is to be bucked off in those early rides before the colt or filly is used to coping with a rider on its back. If you’re young and agile, have at it. If you’re like me, impeded by various old injuries, get someone else to do that part. Be smart and be safe.

If you do decide to take on the process of bringing on the youngster, here are some of the stages that you’ll go through, starting with the suckling at its dam’s side and probably concluding as the foal becomes a 5-year-old.

Usually, I’ve found age 5 is the pivot point. It’s either the last baby year or the first adult year, depending mainly upon the response patterns of the individual horse. But certainly the years starting with newborn through age 4 are key developmental years. And, if you get it right early on, you’re likely to create a horse that’s useful for life.

The Perfect Tag Line

“Some Assembly Required” is the three-word phrase that strikes terror into the hearts of the mechanically challenged. That tag line should be branded onto the hip of every newborn foal.

The cute little foal probably won’t let you halter him, or lead him, or let you pick up his hooves, or let you deworm him, or let you give him shots. But these are some of the things you’ll need to teach him in the first year, unless you just let him grow up wild on the range.

But if you do let him run free that first year, then you’ll have to teach him those same things when he’s even bigger and faster. I think it’s better to teach these basics before he knows his own strength.

If for no other reason than the possibility that a medical emergency would necessitate travel to a veterinary hospital, this would be a good time to teach the foal about loading into a trailer. Some people have a great knack for this, while others are hopeless! Get some help from one of the former, because those early loading and trailering lessons need to be as free as possible from high drama.

By the time the youngster is 2, he really does need to lead, tie and let you handle him, because he’s well on his way to being much bigger and stronger than you are.

You may also want to ride him in his 2-year-old year, which means he has to become accustomed to saddles, girths, bridles and bits. The 2-year-old will need to be taught how to longe, and this doesn’t mean that he needs to be cranked into tight side-reins or be allowed to tear around wildly, half the time in a flailing cross-canter.

Many trainers regard longeing the young horse as a necessary evil. They don’t really like the torque that circling puts on those young legs and bodies, but they also need some way of expelling that excess energy. Perhaps work in a round pen will serve the same purpose, but I’m not very familiar with those techniques.

At our farm we always teach the youngsters to long-line at 2, so they can see everything while being ground driven all around the neighborhood, dealing with such terrors as chickens, cows, backhoes and plastic tarps. This way they can’t buck you off, because you aren’t on.

Some trainers forego the long-lining process and just stand on a stool beside the saddled baby, slap the saddle until the colt doesn’t flinch, lean over him to get him used to weight and eventually slip aboard. I’m personally in favor of the slower approach, but I’ve seen it work well both ways. If you think 2 is too young for mounted work, wait until he’s 3.

By the 3-year-old summer, the colt is usually at least walking under saddle out on the trails, and he’ll probably be trotting in the ring. He’ll know how to turn, to go and to stop. If he’s quiet enough and not too explosive, most trainers will add canter to his repertoire. Some will start the colt over poles on the ground and small fences, others will wait until he’s 4 to begin jumping. Some trainers will even take a 3-year-old foxhunting. There are a broad variety of opinions about how much a 3-year-old should be asked to do.

Guarantee Success

By age 4, the young horse is usually physically quite mature, and about as tall as he’s likely to get, but still not as strong or as coordinated as he’ll be at 5.

We jump our 4-year-olds, and we try to let them see cross-country questions such as ditches, banks and water, in a quiet, low-key way. I believe in the old horseman’s saying, “Boldness comes from confidence. Confidence comes from success. So try to guarantee success.”

Or, as I learned 35 years ago from Jack Le Goff, “Don’t scare him; don’t hurt him; don’t get him too excited.”

The 4-year-olds should leave the property, whether to low-key competitions or just to school away from home at other farms over strange courses.

What I’ve just said is based on some assumptions, the first of which is that the trainer can do all of this without getting hurt, and without getting the young horse scared or hurt. As I noted earlier, if you aren’t agile and supple and quick and brave, don’t be the first person on his back. As a friend of mine says, “That’s why God made 20-year-olds!”

Another assumption is that you can do this training relatively free of anger, impatience or use of undue force. If things start to go wrong, stop, back up and start over. The best handlers I know have a certain mindset. They just enjoy fiddling around with immature babies, and they have a bottomless well of patience.

It’s more of a miracle than we think when we watch a beautifully schooled 5- or 6-year-old gallop around a course of fences, or trot calmly down the centerline. Someone put an enormous amount of care into ensuring that the horse doesn’t worry about what he needs to confront. It’s almost as though the young horse is saying, “Water? I can do that! Ditches? No worries, mate! Banks? A piece of cake! Drops? Easy!”

His kind, calm, positive attitude toward life will result from your kind, calm, positive attitude toward him. He’ll be a good horse, and you’ll be a better horseman. It’s a win-win situation for you both.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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