Article

Halterbreaking

HALTERBREAKING without tears. By Claire Amm

How many of you have had a little foal dash out of your control, the first time you put a halter on him, and hurt himself in his hysteria ? The scene is all too common and here are some tips for getting your horse to lead perfectly whatever his age.

1. Imprinting. Ideally a foal should be imprinted within the first few hours of his life, while he is still not certain who is friend or foe. If the mare does not allow you to touch her foal get a helper to hold her and then approach the baby cautiously. This can even be done with the little fellow sleeping to start with but at some stage he does need to see who he has accepted as a friend. Crouch down and make yourself as small and unthreatening as possible, let him sniff you and even nibble your hair to satisfy his curiosity. Raise your hand very gradually and stroke his neck, watch his facial expression to see if he likes it, then work your way to the withers and down the spine to his rump. There are very few foals that do not like a nice scratch just above the tail. When he accepts that, he may even offer to help you by nibbling on himself or your arm, work your way round to all the favourite itchy places and then make sure you touch him all over: Ears , the forehead, down each leg, under the belly and between the hind legs. Make sure it is a nice sensation; not too soft or ticklish and not so hard as to hurt or startle him. Once he accepts all that, it is a very small step to putting on a halter.

2. 'Wild' Horses. In case you missed the imprinting stage or the fellow is a completely wild adult, this is the method that I have developed, tried and tested on over 400 youngsters. If he is running alone, introduce a steady old buddy for a few hours. Let him follow the buddy into a crush pen and have him stand behind or next to the old horse ( the mother will do nicely) for reassurance. Moving as slowly as before, start the imprinting procedure until he calms down and accepts your hand on his body. An hour or more spent doing this is time well spent. Now introduce the halter or a soft cotton lead rein into the rubbing movements, make sure no part of the halter flaps, dangles or frightens him in any way. I like a soft cotton rope and I don't mind letting him hear the metallic clip snap from time to time. They are inclined to drop their heads near the ground at this stage so just follow the movements, if the head is raised too high climb slowly onto the crush poles which should be more thanstrong enough to support your weight. Be careful that you do not startle if he makes sudden movements, such a reaction will only make him worse. Now lower the rope behind his neck, stroking all the time and grasp it gently as close to the cheek bone as possible. If he panics let go and start again - this is called minimum resistance and remember he will not consider this his victory. Once you have the rope around his neck push and pull his head gently towards you and away. This is his first lesson in obedience.

3. The Halter Also known as a head collar, this should be the right size and preferably with a second buckle on the nose for the early stages. I like to use my soft cotton rope as his first halter so that no cold metal buckle touches his sensitive facial bones. With the rope around his neck now held in my left hand I slip my right hand under the chin and onto his nose. I take a gentle hold and again move his head from side to side to test his obedience, then I slip the rope around his nose making sure not to touch the nostrils. Horses cannot breathe through their mouths as we can and are very sensitive about something covering their noses. Many carriage horses drowned crossing swollen rivers in the old days because their harnesses prevented them from raising their heads , even if they could have gasped for air. A halter coming up from below past the nostrils is frightening and will only be accepted once they no longer feel threatened. I now slip the real halter head strap over the rope and slip the long end of the nose band around the side of the nose. Once the halter is gently buckled in place I ease the rope out from under it. I will now clip a lunging rein to the ring of the halter and start persuading the foal to move backwards and forwards within the confines of the crush. If he panics stay calm and start again. Nothing is worth a fight. He should move back with a push on his chest and if he does not move forward with a tug on the lead rein get a helper to push him from behind at the same time. The length of the crush should allow him to walk four or five paces, more if the buddy stands outside the crush. Once he understands this simple lesson he is ready for the world outside the crush.

4. The holding pen. On the diagram you will see that a small area referred to as the holding pen leads into the crush. This should be no bigger than a stable and high enough to stop him trying to jump out. If I am working without a helper, as I often do, I will climb into the holding pen and take the rein from behind the foal and hold it in my left hand. Then I remove the crush pole from behind the foal and ask him to reverse out. Here, there is a brief moment when he thinks he is free and I quickly remind him that I am still very much in control, by pulling him around me to the left. If he panics I keep calm and get myself into the right position. I use my left hand to pull him around me and my right hand to tap his rump to encourage him to move forward, clicking my tongue. Some foals get this right after one or two turns, while others try to go ballistic or just simply stick. If they refuse to move I use this as an opportunity to touch them all over again and invariably there will be a spot that I touch that triggers a few steps. Often it is near the hock or just behind the elbow, a casual slap with the end of the lunge rein also works very well. Be careful not to let the foal turn away from you thereby getting the rein around his neck, if he messes up badly push him back into the crush and start again. If he tries to kick you at any stage, I use a broom handle to push his rump away, even a well placed smack does no harm if he is getting cheeky. This whole exercise can be repeated from his 'off' side but doing more work on the near side does condition him in preparation for the eventual mounting process.

5. Leading Once he is walking in a circle around you, responding to the clicking noise, you can place yourself in front of him and ask him to move towards you. Usually a few firm tugs do the trick but if he still does not understand you get a helper to push a bit from the back. If he rushes forward pull him around you again, and don't pull so hard that he is tempted to rear up on his hind legs. Once this leading is established in an area where he has no chance to dash away from you he is ready for the next level, in my case the lunging ring which adjoins the crush. Again I am very careful to pull him around me as we leave the pen and if he still dashes away I let him go to the end of the lunging rein and pull him in again. I will never run behind him at the end of the rein, this scares a nervous foal more than anything and is the commonest mistake made by people who are afraid of losing the horse. Now we will walk circles in the lunge ring until both horse and handler are calm ( and usually bored ! ) and this will be repeated for several days until the horse lets you catch him without the use of the crush. Now you can lead him anywhere, and I have to confess that I have often loaded a wild horse into a box less than two hours after starting this method. When they have been started properly the actual loading process only takes minutes , today I loaded three foals that had not even been in a stable before and all three were boxed in less than half an hour. It helps to stay calm. It is also important to remember that many horses are spooked when a halter is removed - never leave a nylon halter on in the paddock - so be very careful to remove the halter with the minimum of stress. I like to put the lead rein around the neck again and keep a hold of the horse with this rein even for a few seconds after the halter is removed. When you have done the job properly the horse will remain standing to be handled even after the rein is released.

The more you practise with different horses the more you will learn to read the signs and you can eventually take shortcuts if you are in a hurry. We are lucky with our special spotted horses - South Africa's famous "Horse Whisperer" Wayne Nichol says that when he uses an APPALOOSA for a demonstration, he feels as if he is cheating as they make it all look so easy ! ! !