Working with foals early in their lives makes halter-breaking a smooth, stress-free process.
Watkins Equine Breeding Center, located in Weatherford, Texas, is so quiet that broodmares are known to foal in the middle of the day. Owner and operator Dan Watkins, DVM, a reproductive specialist, likes to keep things calm and low-key, and that includes his methods for working with foals.
“It’s difficult when you wait until they’re weaned before you halter-break them,” he says. “It’s not that it can’t be done. But it’s extremely hard when they’re 350 [or] 400 pounds and you put a halter on them for the first time. You’re not going to keep them from pulling back on you. And most of the time, that’s no big deal; they survive with no injury. But there is a small chance you can injure [a weanling’s] neck, and that can be devastating.”
Watkins handles all facets of breeding, and each year cares for 50 to 75 broodmares and their newborns. His clients—mostly cutting horse trainers and owners—like how he works with foals and believe his methods make an impact years later.
During the first two weeks of a foal’s life, Watkins brings the broodmare into his clinic about every two days for health- and breeding-related checkups and procedures. While the mare stands in one set of stocks, the foal stands in another set beside her.
Watkins uses that opportunity to rub his hands all over the foal’s body, getting it accustomed to human touch. At 30 days or later, he slips on a halter and runs a rope behind the foal’s hindquarters while it stands in the stocks. With light pressure on that rope and the lead rope, he asks the foal to move forward a step or two. Afterward, as the mare is led from the stocks and down the barn aisle, he leads the foal alongside.
“It’s a little easier when they have the mare by their side,” he says. “It gives them a little incentive to move along. When they get to be about 3 months old, we start leading them outside with the mare.”
Watkins’ goal is for the entire process to be relaxed and without incident. Much of that hinges on the handling he does while the foal is in the stocks.
Understanding that most horse owners don’t have a set of stocks, he says the early stage of training can be done in the corner of a stall.
“You can back the mare into the corner of the stall and catch the baby,” he says. “You need one person holding the mare—someone who is capable of handling a protective mare.”
In the stall, Watkins eases up to the foal and wraps one arm underneath its neck. With his other arm, he brings its hindquarters against the front pocket of his jeans. By holding it close, Watkins reduces chances the foal might escape or injure him if it rears, squirms or kicks. But he makes sure not to clamp down and overpower it.
“If you’ve got them too tight, then I don’t think they’re learning anything,” he says. “But if you give them a little bit of slack and it becomes their idea to stand still, that’s when you’re gaining ground. If they go forward, you just bring them back [into your arms], and then give them some slack. You take pressure o when they respond like you want them to.”
Once the foal relaxes, Watkins begins running his hands over its hindquarters, sides, neck, poll, ears and nose, teaching it to accept the feeling. He also rubs its legs and picks up its feet. He keeps each session brief and understands that foals progress at dierent rates.
“How long you do it per session depends,” he says. “When they’re relaxed, let that be your stopping point. Most sessions won’t last but abouve minutes. If they’re trying to relax and you keep pestering away at them, then that gets to be too much.”
Watkins adds that he is careful not to spend too much time desensitizing young foals.
“Once I can pick up their feet, and they realize it’s not a bad thing to be caught and handled, I leave them alone,” he says. “I do a lot of work for trainers. They get a lot of horses in, and they can tell which horses have been over-handled because they tend to not have any respect for you. They walk all over you. Those horses don’t train well.
“So it certainly can be overdone. They need time to be a horse and build a bond with their mom.”