Tom and Margo Ball share more of their halter-starting program based on good, old-fashioned horsemanship.
“We don’t halter-break foals until they’re ready to be halter-broken,” says Tom Ball of Fort Collins, Colorado. For Tom and his sister, Margo, a longtime AQHA judge and trainer, that often means waiting a while.
“You don’t have to start halter training the first week of a foal’s life,” Margo says. “It depends on the foal and his temperament. If you start a foal too young, you can create problems. But if you wait until he’s mature enough to handle what you’re doing and used to humans, he’ll actually come along quicker and do better with fewer problems.
“Your program has to adjust to the temperament of the horse,” Margo continues. “Your basic techniques are the same, but you adjust as to how long you spend on a step or how old they are according to the individual foal.”
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, Tom and Margo took us through what they call “baby’s first steps,” the early part of their halter-starting process: letting a foal wear a halter, drag a lead rope and begin to learn to give to pressure and walk alongside a handler. That was elementary school. Now it’s time to move on up to junior high. The Balls take us through “baby’s second steps.”
Leading Alongside You
Margo: When we ask them to take their “first steps,” we don’t pull on them to go forward. We work on pulling them to the side to offset their feet, and they step sideways.
Tom: It depends on how well they respond to that as to whether or not we use a rump rope. Some will respond quickly and learn to give to pressure. So when you pull on them a little bit forward, there’s a little pressure, and they give to it and walk forward. Others say, “I am not going to do that!” That’s generally when we use the rump rope.
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You want to get foals to lead with their heads out in front of you, while you’re at their shoulders. So you hold the rump rope and the lead rope in the same hand, the right hand. When you go forward, you can move your hand forward without pulling so much on the halter, instead using pressure on the rump rope. Once you get him moving, you bring your hand back and release the pressure on the rump rope. Then you can take up the slack in the halter if you need it.
Margo: You get a little bit of pressure from the halter and the rump rope, but you’re not pulling on that halter, which you don’t want to do.
Tom: You don’t even pull on the rump rope. You just give a little nudge or a little tug on it. Most foals are goosey enough, they’ll respond to that. You get more response from a slight tug and release. That give-and-take has a better response than constantly pulling.
Margo: If you’re not using a rump rope and he doesn’t want to go forward, a lot of people use the end of the lead rope and swing it back to touch him on his side. I don’t like that because it tends to hit him in his middle and make him swing away from you sideways, not going forward. I like to use a long whip and reach back and just touch him on the hip. It seems to work better for encouraging most foals to go forward.
Tom: There’s one word that’s critical for him to learn: Whoa. When you start leading him around the place and you want to stop, say “Whoa,” short and to the point and with authority. I do it when his attention wanders. If his attention is way down there, watching the red fox go across the lower field, then he doesn’t know I’m here. If I say “Whoa,” and stop, that draws his attention back.
Margo: I like to start working with foals in a stall. I lace the lead rope through the stall bars and then brush on him. I like the “lacing” because it’s a one-man deal. You can do that and control the tension the lead has on him. You’re right there if he does get upset, but you’re brushing him, and most foals like that. You can hang on to that rope, and you’ve got control. A lot of times, if he pulls back, you can just say something to him and push him back up, and he thinks, “Oh, OK. It’s no big deal.” And he learns to stand. At the same time, you’re handling him, getting him used to brushing down his legs and his feet.
Tom: After you’ve worked with him like that a while, it’s important that at some point you walk off and leave him. That’s when we use a bungee tie or an inner tube to tie him with. We tie him and then go do other things in the barn, checking back in on him. We use a bungee tie with a safety snap in the stall. The inner tube is out in the indoor arena. We use hay string to tie the inner tube to the wall, the heavier kind that comes off big 4-foot by 4-foot bales. We wrap the string around the tube three times. The hay string is easier to cut through. If you attach it with a heavy rope and the colt gets into a bind, it can take too long to cut it loose with your pocketknife. The bungee and the inner tube are fastened high on the wall. So if he comes up off the ground, he can’t get a leg over. And he can’t get a good pull if he sets back. If it’s up high, he doesn’t have much leverage.
Margo: If it’s low and he pulls back, he could really hurt his neck.
Tom: If he decides he really wants to pull, we let him pull. With the bungee and the inner tube, there’s not a solid tie to him, so the impact at the end is reasonably comfortable. It’s not going to yank his head off like a tight rope. When he comes to the end, he’s going to respond, and, at the same time, the elasticity is going to pull him back. Which is the same thing you’re going to do if he tries to take off, you’re going to try to pull him back. It’s the same idea. It just takes the sudden shock out of it. You’ve got to judge where they are mentally. Use your common sense, and go from there. You may work with one for weeks just in the stall before he’s ready to be left alone tied. He first learns to stand and not resist the inner tube. He learns, “I’m tied and I’m not going anywhere.” Then he can learn to stand and be patient. With a young horse, as soon as he stands there two minutes with a certain amount of acceptance, I take him off. Then the next time, I might leave him 10 minutes. And this time, I might go up and brush on him while he’s standing there.
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Margo: It’s something positive. So he learns, “All I have to do is stand here. And I’m rewarded by getting to go do something else, or I’m brushed and given attention.” It’s positive reinforcement.
Tom: We very seldom ever have a colt throw himself to the ground. But if he does get himself into a bind, we don’t quit because he got into a bind. We get him out of that bind, whatever that might be, and put him right back into the situation he was in before the bind. As soon as he responds to what you want done, like standing quietly, then turn him loose. You don’t do that after he does something like throwing himself on the ground. You don’t dare quit then. A lot of them will learn that trick: If I throw myself on the ground, I get my way – turned loose. You’ve seen it with kids. A kid will throw himself on the ground and start screaming and finds out he gets an ice cream cone because his parents give him one to make him stop screaming.
Margo: You want to leave the lesson on a positive note, but where you want to leave it, not where the colt wants to leave it.
Margo: You do get what you expect. You need to handle the colt with confidence, and he’ll pick up on that. If you’re apprehensive or the least bit nervous or scared, and a lot of people are, he’ll pick up on that. If you expect trouble, you’re going to get trouble.
Tom: One of my pet peeves is talking to a colt in “baby talk.” Treat him like a grown horse, and he’ll turn out like a grown horse. You’ve got to be patient. And you’ve got to expect that he’s going to learn good manners.