Off To A Good Start

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Off To A Good Start

Are you raising a foal or young horse? Make sure you’re setting up a good relationship with respect from the start. To start your young relationship off on the right path, you’ll need to consider how a young horse thinks and envision how you want your horse to act later in life. All that training starts now. Your expectations must be clear and you must set about systematically to teach the horse what you think of as “good” behavior. In his young world, good behavior includes kicking, biting and running hell-bent for leather in any direction he pleases. That’s not how you want your young horse to act, so start teaching the new rules soon.

 

Horses know how to act like horses; that’s it. If we want them to act in certain non-horsey ways when we handle them, they have to be taught the proper response. We call that horse training. However, in the horse’s herd, he learns in the first days of life to recognize dominant horses and dominant behavior. He learns to respect authority and respect the space of others. He has trouble with the latter, even in the herd, so he gets spanked regularly (by kind but firm “aunties”). Because of this, young horses can be easily taught to respect your space and follow the rules. They can also be easily taught the opposite if mishandled.

 

I am not a big fan of over-handling baby horses—I’ve seen too many foals become insensitive spoiled monsters with many bad habits that must be “un-trained.” And I’ve seen how easily and quickly you can train 2 or 3 year olds that have never been handled; who have no preconceived notions about people. But, if you are going to handle young horses, there are basic manners and expectations of behavior that they should learn early on.

 

Spatial issues are huge with horses of any age. Just because the foal is young and cute, doesn’t mean he can’t run you down or kick your teeth out. Often, when inexperienced people are raising foals, big mistakes are made early on and the behaviors are well-engrained in the horse, long before the person has an appreciation for the scope of problem. Foals love to be rubbed and scratched and will quickly learn to lean and push on you to get your attention. Next thing you know, you have a horse that pushes you around and has learned to lean into pressure instead of move away from it. Those are bad traits when you’re riding a horse.

 

Because young horses are very oral by nature—constantly exploring their environment with their nose, lips and tongue—biting can be a big problem when handling youngsters. There’s a progressive set of behaviors in horses in which lipping behavior (when the horse puts his lips on you and nuzzles) leads to nipping (a small quick pinch with the teeth) leads to biting (the most aggressive and deadly behavior of horses). These are all progressive signs of dominance leading to aggression. If the lipping behavior goes unchecked, the horse begins to nip and if the nipping goes unchecked, he begins to bite. As the horse goes through this progressive behavior, he is simply testing his boundaries. Just as with human toddlers that may test out biting, this behavior should be “nipped in the bud,” as early as possible in the progression.

 

It has been my experience that people bring these behaviors on themselves by allowing horses to be in their space and by nuzzling, smooching and playing with the horse’s muzzle all the time. In the herd setting, there is a “linear hierarchy” which means that each and every individual of the herd is either dominant over or subordinate to each and every other individual. This means that between you and your horse, one of you’ll be the dominant leader and one of you’ll be the subordinate follower in your “herd of two.” It’s best to set this pattern early on in the relationship you are developing with your young horse.

 

If you establish basic rules of behavior (respect my space at all times, follow my lead, stop when I stop and stand still when I ask) and you correct him 100% of the time he makes an infraction, he will learn these important ground manners quickly. Also, any time any part of his body moves toward you, vigorously back him out of your space, so he learns where your space begins and ends. This will help him to learn to keep a respectful and safe distance from you and to be respectful of your space.

 

If you are raising a young horse or even retraining an older horse that missed out on learning good manners, it’s important to know what your expectations of his behavior are so that you can set clear rules and boundaries. If you’re not certain what your expectations should be, get some help. You only have one chance to make a good first impression on your horse.

 

Doing it right from the beginning may be critical in your horse’s success later in life. You have to be the leader and the enforcer and not coddle, cuddle or condone. When he is a teenager with 800 pounds of exuberance, you’ll be glad you did.

 

 

–Julie Goodnight

When To Geld Colt

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
When Should You Geld a Colt?

Hi Julie,
I am planning on buying a yearling stallion. I do want to geld him, but I’m not sure at what age is it ok to geld. Also, is it ok to put a yearling stallion in a field with older horses? Is it true the longer you wait to geld the “prettier” he’ll be (a longer mane, more muscular)? What’s the best practice to help him on his way to being the best horse? Thank you for your time,
Karli

Answer: Karli,
Great questions! And one of the few topics I haven’t already written about in my Training Library. This is a good time to talk about gelding colts since many people are dealing with youngsters this time of year.
First, it is important to recognize that almost all colts should be gelded. Few horses have the breeding, temperament and conformation to warrant becoming a breeding stallion, especially in these days of growing numbers of unwanted horses, a glut of horses on the market and the lack of owners interested in breeding. And since it is rarely if ever feasible to have a stallion, it is wise to geld your colt.

I have worked many years throughout my career on breeding farms and raised quite a few colts myself. Many breeders will geld at a young age, as soon as the testicles descend or around the six month mark. It is my personal preference to geld as a yearling, after weaning and after his first year of growth, which is the year he grows the most. This will generally be before the fly season, thus reducing the chance for infection. At the same time, we will remove his wolf teeth if he has them and we’ll generally follow-up the surgery with lots of groundwork and exercise to help in the healing and begin his training for ground manners.

No matter when I gelded him, I would want my young colt to be out with other horses for the socialization that will take place—there is an article in my Training Library about this, http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=37. Even if you left him a stallion, you’d want him to stay with other geldings and learn how to get along. Preferably with a more dominant, older “uncle” gelding who will keep him in his place. When I geld the colt, I will keep him by himself for a week or so until he is healed from the surgery—too much frolicking and sparring could be dangerous for him right after the surgery.

Research does not indicate that a colt will grow bigger, stronger or prettier if he is left in-tact. However, it is true that a stallion will have certain “stallion characteristics” that are a result of more hormones floating around his system if he is left in-tact. These characteristics are more obvious in a mature horse and include bulging muscles around the jowl, over the eyes and in the neck and body. A mature stallion will have a certain presence that geldings rarely have. But these characteristics do not appear until the colt is a few years old; it is not worth the extra headaches of having a young stallion and they will disappear as soon as he is gelded. I have not noticed that the mane or tail will grow longer in a stallion.

My husband’s horse was a mature breeding stallion when we bought him. He does have an exceptionally thick mane and tail and the stallion characteristics were very prevalent. The day after we gelded him I could see the bulging jowl and eyebrow muscles deflating but his mane and tail have remained fuller than ever. He is still a gorgeous well-muscled horse, just not as extremely muscled as before we gelded him.

And he is much happier to be living with other geldings without a big fight. There’s no real benefit to keeping a colt in-tact when you know you are going to geld him eventually and I would suggest between 6 months and a year is a good time, depending on your weaning schedule and the seasons. Like dogs and cats, once a horse develops breeding behaviors (like teasing and mounting mares) he doesn’t forget them just because he is gelded. That’s why we have lots of “randy” geldings that will act like stallions when mares come into heat. I have written about this subject too- http://juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=148.

Good luck with your colt and thanks for asking these important questions!
Julie