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Training a Filly

16 August 2011 No Comment

Training a Filly
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Hi – I am the owner of a two-month-old filly. I’ve never raised a foal before. I purchased a 13-year-old Tennessee Walker, who happened to be in foal (which I did not know and the people I purchased her from said they didn’t know either). Well, now I have a foal and am slowly learning how to take care of her. She takes a halter fine, I’ve taught her to lead and she has just learned to tie. I can pick up her hooves and clean them with little resistance.
My question is this; what is the best method to teach her how to step over a log, timber, cavaletti, etc.? Also, am I pushing her? I’ve rented videos but haven’t been able to find many good books about foal training. So far, I’ve been using the Early Learning video by Dr. Robert Miller but it doesn’t carry me much further than I am right now. Since I’ve never done this before I want to be comfortable with her training. I would appreciate any suggestions you can offer. Thank you for your help

Hi- Your filly will let you know if you’re pushing her. Any horse will let the human know if they can’t handle something mentally or physically if we are just wise enough to “read” the signs. Some of these signs, especially with younger horses that are being overloaded, are: ear flattening, balking, bolting, kicking, biting, striking, tail wringing, running backwards instead of going forwards, teeth grinding, etc. Older, more trained horses will also exhibit these signs too, but since they are trained, they may refrain from acting out badly because they know their “job”. Rather sad if you think about it because just because most horses are good-natured, they will actually let a human get away with pushing them too hard and they won’t fight back against their unfair treatment. If we create a partnership bond with our horse with the human in the position of the “fair, confident leader” then our horses will willingly follow us, or try to understand and do, whatever it is that we are asking of them. Humans need to endeavor to always be fair and “just” if they expect to have the “true” respect, trust and friendship of their horse.

It sounds to me like you have a very good relationship with your filly because you don’t mention any behaviors that lead me to believe that she’s being unduly stressed. Dr. Robert Miller was my veterinarian for approximately 15 years, so I am very familiar with his methods. While I do imprint/condition my foals, I do a more modified version of what Dr. Miller does in that I’m somewhat more low-key and not quite so aggressive in my approach. I mostly become a part of the youngster’s environment, a part of their day-to-day scenery, and they learn that I am leader, but I am also there for them to play with, to be social with and to gain confidence from. Their mommy and the other horses that they may interact with teach them the social skills of being a horse, while I teach them the human social skills. Since horses will be living in a “human” world, they need to adapt and learn and understand the human social structure too. All of my horses are pretty much bi-cultural! Because of this low-key, daily interaction, when I put a halter on a colt for the first time (sometimes not until they are 3 or 4 months old) it is no big deal. Just as leading, picking up feet, teaching to tie and trailer and such, are no big deal either. I don’t spend time trying to desensitize my horses to the world. I create instead a bond of trust, understanding and mutual respect and once this type of partnership is created, they trust that I will never ask them to do anything, or go anywhere, that will harm them mentally or physically. Once this bond is in place, I can ask my horses to go anywhere, accept new pieces of equipment and new experiences, touch their bodies all over, etc, and they willingly let me do these things, or follow where I lead because I am their leader and their friend and they learn confidence from me. The very important aspect of this type of relationship is to never ask the horse to do something that might hurt them mentally or physically and to also learn to read the signs of possible mental or physical overload.

To teach your filly to follow where you lead, create an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and confidence within your “herd-of-two” and also with your youngster, try to keep things light and your teaching sessions short because of the shorter attention spans that kids (both human and animal) tend to have. I also utilize modified clicker training in my approach with most all of the horses that I teach and train, so once a horse has complied with my request, in your case maybe walking over a low log or cavaletti, then I say “good” and offer a treat of either a little carrot slice, or just a nice scratch in one of their favorite spots. By doing modified clicker training, there will be the added motivation of a reward, so just as with humans, horses will tend to perform better if they have positive incentive such as a nice scratch or a food treat after they have complied with your request. Ask your filly to follow you to the low log or single pole (I do a lot of liberty work with my horses to teach them things, but you can have your filly haltered if you want) and when she approaches the log, ask for “whoa” and when she complies, say “good” and offer the treat (whatever you decide to use). If she’s very willing, then ask her to follow you over the log and as soon as she steps over, say “good” and reward. By doing it this way, you’re keeping things light, positive and fun, so your filly probably won’t think twice about following you wherever you go because after all, you’re the confident, fair leader and also her good friend in your “herd-of-two”.

I endeavor, with any age of horse that I am teaching, to watch for the signs of mental or physical overload and to stop a training session before it turns negative. Always do less, rather then trying to do more because if you always end on a positive, your next interaction will also be positive, with more progress being made because you’re working in a partnership of harmony with your horse.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

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