Contributed by: Valerie Mellema
All of the first day of school pictures on Facebook got me to thinking about our little colts and fillies and how weaning week for them has been a lot like the first day of school. For our colts, it is like going off to kindergarten and being away from mom for the first time. Of course, for colts, it’s like being sent off to boarding school. It can be a stressful and worrisome time for both mom and baby, just like it is with human moms and babies. And I say babies, because even though they may be 5/6 years old (5/6 months old for horses), they are still really our babies and always will be! Here’s a look at what the first week of school has been like for our colts and filly.
We separate mares and foals by bringing them up to the barn and putting them in stalls and then taking the mares back out to pasture. Most are independent enough at this point that they are okay with the separation. They are also placed in stalls next to each other, so they still have their best friends nearby and they don’t feel totally alone. They are kept in stalls for a few days to adjust and they quickly learn that their human handlers are now their best friends. We visit with them and give them scratches and attention. Some farms like to simply put their foals together in a separate pen or pasture away from the mares, but for us, we like to use this time in the stalls to bond with them and start the first steps of training.
Halter Breaking and Leading
While our colts have had halters on before, they didn’t really function as a means of control and direction for them as they do now. It was more of a convenience for us and a way to handle them a bit. However, we let our colts and mares do what they do best for the first five months and that’s grow and eat out in the pasture. While they were handled after first being born, they don’t receive a lot of handling while they are out in the pasture. Some are braver than others and will visit with you through the fence, but others aren’t as brave and so weaning week is the first time they really experience handling on a regular basis.
Part of our halter breaking strategy is to simply halter the colts and let them drag a lead rope around. They stay in their stall during the night, but are turned out in a big, solid walled round pen during the day where they can play safely. They have a lot of energy from being stalled all night. By dragging the lead rope, they learn about that great thing called pressure and how to give to it. It’s something that they will be doing for the rest of their lives and by dragging the lead rope around, they learn about it organically. They also learn about foot placement and will soon learn how to carry the lead rope without stepping on it all of the time. But the premise they quickly learn is you step on the rope, you lower your head to give to the pressure and then you move your foot. It’s simple and they learn it very quickly.
Then there’s the actual leading. This can be confusing at first! We use a "come along" rope behind their haunches to encourage them to engage their hind end and walk with you. Some colts catch on to this very quickly, while others need a little more time. Proper leading technique for the handler is a must at this point and always wear gloves.
Learning to tie quietly is essential and it teaches them patience. It’s another lesson in giving to pressure as well. We start in the stall with a rubber inner tube attached to a sturdy wooden pole. This way if they pull back, the tube stretches and they won’t get hurt or break their halters and lead. If something does break, they are safe in their stalls. Soon they won’t need the tube, but will get lots and lots of practice at tying indoors and out for many years to come.
After they’ve mastered tying in a safe place, we start to introduce more interesting challenges such as bathing. The first bath may not be anything more than being sprayed by the water hose, but it’s all a part of desensitization.
Weaning week can be stressful, but it’s also a lot of fun. There’s been a lot of patience and excitement building up to this point. Actually getting to handle and start training is a turning point in their lives and its fun teaching them and guiding them along this new journey in life.
Valerie Mellema is the owner of Gray Horse Publishing & Marketing.
She has been in the equine industry for over 25 years and is a published author of multiple horse care books. She is also the owner of Mellema Thoroughbreds, a thoroughbred breeding farm. She shows her OTTB, Mistic Gray, in hunter/jumpers.
Visit her website at www.grayhorsepublishing.com.