What to Do with Your Youngstock

04/07/2023

If you’ve bought, bred, or otherwise acquired a youngster which can’t yet be ridden, you’ll know all too well about the impatient wait for them to be old enough to back. But while you have your foals, yearlings, or two-year-olds with their cute long legs and eager brains, it’s a good time to get them used to other things instead. 

After all, they’re just like kids. Setting them up as best as they can gives you a better chance of ending up with a well adjusted, pleasant horse later on. But pushing them too hard can cause all sorts of physical and emotional issues which you’ll be dealing with further down the line.

At What Age Can You Do What?

So what are some age appropriate things to do with your youngstock? Assuming you’re planning to start the backing process sometime between ages three and four, you have plenty of time to get basics installed on the ground first. 

What to Do With Foals Under a Year Old

As the youngest of them all, foals should spend the majority of their time just learning about how the world works. It’s a good idea to gently get them used to human touch, but you have to be careful not to make them too ‘hand-reared’ as this can cause behavioral issues later. The foal, as adorable as it is, should know that you are a human and not a friend for them to play with or boss around. 

You can start touching your foal early on – but not immediately after the birth. Initially, give the mom and baby some time to bond and watch from the sidelines. Once everyone is settled in, you can start to get them used to humans. The important thing is to make sure these early interactions are a positive experience. Touch them quietly, calmly, and near the mare so that neither party is stressed or upset. 

Find where the foal likes to be touched and give them a scratch there. Often the base of the wither or the base of the neck is a good place, but they may like the shoulder too. Some bold foals don’t even mind a nose or chin scratch! Make sure to keep your interactions to fairly short periods so you don’t overwhelm them. 

When you have the privilege of working with a foal from a young one, one of the best things you can do is get them used to the halter. Usually, they take to it quite easily when they are young, but trying to introduce this on a much older horse for the first time can be challenging. Tiny pony or miniature sized halters help them grow comfortable with the feel of something on their face and over their ears. Plus, they make a really cute keepsake for later on. 

As they grow a little older, you can start teaching them to pick up their feet and stand for basic grooming. They can also learn to walk and stop on a lead rope to make your job much easier later down the line. 

What to Do With Your Yearling

If your horse is already a yearling, hopefully they’ve had some interaction and are ok with humans doing the basics: touching, picking up feet, and so on. If not, your first port of call should always be getting them used to everyday handling so that they will easily stand for a vet, farrier, or dentist when needed. 

After that, you can move on to some more fun stuff. Basic groundwork can include teaching them to move away from pressure (e.g. taking a step back when you touch their chest or stepping sideways in the stable when you push their quarters over to get to the door). 

Teaching them to stand quietly while tied is always valuable, whether you need to run off to get their boots from the tack room or whether you’re at a show and need them to stand alone while you walk the course. Make sure to do this gradually so your horse doesn’t panic and pull back when they realize they’re restricted, as they could harm themselves. 

Another thing to perfect is loading into and out of a trailer or truck. Once you have a horse who easily goes in and out, you can drive around the block with them or even start taking them out to shows and feeding them lunch there while they  accompany your other horses. This is a good way to get them used to travelling, to get them used to going to new places and to learn that trips away can be fun and rewarding – especially if a meal is involved. 

You can also do some groundwork in the form of desensitizing and letting them see the world. Obviously, you shouldn’t be working them or exercising them – this is mental groundwork, not physical. There’s a lot of value to be found in teaching them to lead through puddles or over wet patches, asking them to walk on mats, letting them sniff flower pots or see the fillers in the jump arena, getting them used to things flapping or dogs barking, and so on. 

What to Do With Your Two (and Early Three) Year Old

Once your youngster is more like a young horse than a true baby, you can start doing a bit more. They aren’t yet ready for backing or for going to big school, but can start with kindergarten and learn some life skills before they grow and become opinionated in the teenage phase. 

You can solidify the idea of moving away from pressure and refine it by asking the horse to stop and start on a long rope, to move laterally, to back up from vocal commands, bend around cones, do a turn on the forehand from the ground, and even to lift legs with the touch of a whip. 

At this point, it’s a good idea to start getting them used to the idea of backing. Try getting your horse used to having a bridle put over his face (without a bit initially). After that they can step up to having a bridle with a soft rubber bit put on and off. You can even feed small cubes or treats with the bit on to encourage them to get used to the feeling of something in their mouths. 

If you want to, you can also incorporate some very short lunges once they are rising three or older than three. It’s best to keep them under five minutes, to only use a big circle or oval, and stick mostly to walk. This is to help your horse understand the concept of lunging for when he’s older, especially if you plan to get on him for the first time when attached to a lunge ring. 

Trail rides or walks through the field on a lead rein are great exposure for young horses in preparation for backing. You can do this in hand first, and if possible, work up to leading them alongside another horse or two. This helps them get used to going out and seeing the world while drawing confidence from other horses. It also helps them get used to the idea of the rider’s movement above them, even though you won’t be mounted on your youngster. 

At this stage, you should also be getting your youngster used to the idea of tack, including the girth and saddle. You can start with a lunging surcingle and a saddlecloth and build up to a saddle. Doing an occasional trail walk or leading session with them on can also be beneficial. You can also add boots too.

And before you’re ready to start the backing process, you’ll also want your horse to stand nicely for mounting. Getting them used to standing still and calmly at the mounting block while people flap or move above their heads is important, so be sure to practice that. It will make it far easier to get that first ride under your belt if they stand like a rock for you to get on! 

How Much is Too Much?

Of course, it should go without saying that your baby should have plenty of time just out in the field being a horse. They learn a lot from being out with other horses, running over uneven terrain, and letting the herd dynamics teach them social skills. It’s also very good for their joints and physical development. 

While you want to make sure they’re accustomed to human contact and that the progression to being a ridden horse is easy and natural, be sure not to overdo it. Give them plenty of time to enjoy their young years while they can! 

As a general rule of thumb, young horses can work as many days a week as their age. So while general day to day handling should happen the same as it would for an adult horse, you should only look to do ‘training’ sessions once a week for a yearling or twice for a two year old. 

Conclusion

Like kids, young horses need mental and physical stimulation to thrive. But doing too much can hurt them physically, as well as prevent them from reaching their full potential. Balance is key when it comes to youngsters - and remember that there’s no substitute for good turnout time with a herd where they can learn the intricacies of being a horse.

Have you been working with a foal, yearling, or young horse? Drop us a photo of your youngster in the comments and let us know what you’ve been doing with them this year!

Top Photo by Robert Hoffmann.

Comments

whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa im just kiding that was helpful thanks i am getting my mom a foal for her birth day sny tips on how to keep it hidden
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