How to Prepare a Young Foal to be a Future Driving Horse
Updated: Sep 16, 2019
I recently asked for blog ideas on Facebook and now have a very loooong list of ideas that I need to get started on! This was one of them on the list and is near and dear to my heart.
If you have been following this blog for very long you know that Zorro was born at my mom's house and came here when he was about 6 or 8 months old. I can't remember which! LOL! But he was a baby. And ever since he got here I have been preparing him to drive... which paid off BIG TIME last winter when I started him in harness. He was a total piece of cake and continues to get better and better with time.
The first thing I taught him was to be fine with me touching him everywhere and to have the proper response to pressure. This came in the form of teaching him to wear and understand the halter and allowing me to handle his feet, his mouth, his ears. He was tricky when it came to the halter as he had an extreme reaction to ANY pressure on his nose, even just the weight of the halter laying across it. So to remove that distraction, I started this part of his training with a rope just looped around his tummy. To learn to walk with me I took a long soft rope and looped it around his tummy and brought it through his front legs. This would allow me to tighten it around his barrel when I wanted him to follow and release as soon as he did. He learned this very quickly, following Sky around and then just walking nicely with me. Then I moved the loop to his neck and asked him to do the same. It took some time but he was finally able to handle the weight of the rope halter on his nose.
I didn't allow the fact that the halter was such a distraction to distract me from keeping up with his training. He loved to follow the hay sled in the winter and would put his feet all over it. This is excellent preparation for things like bridges and water crossings. So we played with crossing the bridge and I used clicker training for this. He is very food motivated so it wasn't hard to get him to be engaged with me, no halter needed! When he clearly understood my suggestions we moved onto having him walk in front of me and learn the word Whoa. He could walk and whoa all on voice command in no time at all!
I broke these lessons into very short and sweet sessions. One session not lasting more than 10 minutes at first. I sprinkled them throughout the day. So in one day he could have as many as 4 or 5 mini sessions. When they are babies it's important to not drill them. Long lessons will cause them to lose interest and can even cause them to be afraid. If they aren't understanding something then just leave it for now, end on something they DO understand and try again later or tomorrow.
A driving horse needs to be calm and confident. Believe me when I say that Zorro was neither calm nor confident as a baby. That is something I developed with him over time.
When he got a little older he was hitting the trails with his mama and I. His first hiking trip was a bit of a mess. He was a maniac racing around, slipping and falling, rearing and trying to kick Sky and I as we walked down the trail. He thought being on a lead rope and having to listen to me was the worst idea I had shown him yet. I just stayed calm and allowed him enough rope to make a choice. He mostly made the wrong choices but climbing up a steep rocky trail with a drop off on one side will wear anyone out and he soon was too tired to argue anymore. The way down the mountain went a little better. His second time out on the trail he was wonderful. When we hike I like to stop and pepper in lots of grazing. So he quickly caught onto that and acted more like a partner. Phew!
Wearing the harness isn't the first thing I do. But it is something you can do if you have a harness! I don't suggest using blinders right off the bat as that will not allow them to fully understand what is going on. I like as many of my horses to drive in an open bridle as well as a bridle with blinders as can handle it. It just feels safer if they are fully 100% aware of what is going on around them at all times.
Zorro was introduced to his harness as a 2 year old. He spent that year ground driving, but mostly in a halter with long lines. I didn't do too much with the harness that first year but put it on him and make him pose for photos. LOL!
Something I ask - PLEASE don't spend a lot of time on making your young driving-horse-to-be hide it's hiney. I have had to train several ponies that had this drilled into them and getting them to be comfortable with a person BEHIND them when they have been told in no uncertain terms to NEVER show their behind to a person can be very challenging. I have found that few understand this concept fully. They just know that if a person sees that behind it will get tagged. Of course you must always stay safe and if you have a young horse that is a kicker then teaching them that kicking is not acceptable is important. But don't turn it into a drill. Teach them in a way that they understand and then gain confidence with people in that zone 5, anything behind the tail. There are many different style of horsemanship out there and my blog isn't about teaching that, so I'll leave it to you to do some research and find what works best for you!
Zorro went through a kicking phase. He loved to run by me and then lash out with both his hind feet. He was fast but I could see that his accuracy was getting better and better. I watched what the other ponies did when he did this to them and Bonnie, who was the herd leader at the time, chased him all the way to the manure pile and then bit him and kicked him. LOL! I laughed so hard. And I knew that Zorro could have kept on running but he stood there and took the punishment. Interesting.
I had planned to take my stick and string in with me the next time I fed, but I forgot it. I decided I would do it the NEXT time I fed and just stay safe this time by keeping the wheelbarrow between myself and Zorro's hinds. What happened next was awesome. I wheeled the wheelbarrow into the gate, full of hay, and of course Zorro spun around and kicked out with BOTH hinds, pretty hard and very accurately. BUT I pushed the wheelbarrow in his way and he double barreled that wheelbarrow so hard!! It made a loud GONG and smarted his heels as well. He was shocked and ran all the way to the manure pile where he pouted and stood cocking first one hind foot and then the other. OUCH. I was so glad he didn't get me and that he taught his own self a very good lesson. He was a long yearling when he did that. He is 4 now and has NEVER offered to kick me ever again!
This has now turned into a complete chapter for a book... sorry about that! Apparently preparing a young foal for driving is a big topic.
Here is the run down:
--> Help them be comfortable with being touched EVERYWHERE
--> Teach them to have nice manners when haltered
--> Help them be confident with obstacles, bridges, tarps, water crossings
--> Put a harness on if you have one to get them used to wearing it
--> Long line them with a halter and long lines. Zorro spent many hours out on the road between 2 and 3 years old, learning how to go forward...
--> Give them new experiences! Going for walks, hiking, ponying behind the cart.
--> Keep your sessions short and sweet when they are babies.
Here is a little video showing what I did with Zorro when he was a 2 year old. He was so cute!!
**EDITED TO ADD:
I wanted to be sure to add that Zorro pretty much spent his entire yearling year just growing up. I did the bare minimum with him but mostly he was out at pasture with his big brother. I didn't start the bulk of his training until he was a two year old and even then I kept the lessons short and sweet. His real training started at the end of his 3 year old year and he was hitched early in his 4 year old year. So don't feel that you have to do a lot of "training" with the young foals. They should have manners and understand wearing a halter and being tied, but that's basically it! Let them be babies... let them grow up.