Looking Back 60 Years

How the King Ranch trained its foals in the 1950s.

How the King Ranch trained its foals in the 1950s.

6666 Ranch training foals in the 50's
Gentling horses at a young age can greatly increase their likelihood of becoming good riding horses. Journal photo.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal 

Editor’s Note: This article, reprinted from the April 1950 edition of The American Quarter Horse Journal, was originally excerpted from the booklet “Training Riding Horses,” published by the Horse Association of America.  

Training a young foal requires careful handling and skillful training if the animal is to develop into a horse for ranch work. Robert J. Kleberg Jr., manager of the King Ranch says, “It costs less in time, labor and money to train riding horses by starting their handling at an early age and proceeding. Colts handled in this manner make safer and, on the average, more satisfactory mounts. 

“Several years ago we completely discarded the old method of letting our riding horses go until they were over 3 years of age, at which time they were taken up, roped and after preliminary handling, saddled and ridden. 

“A good many bucking horses were the inevitable result, and only a small percentage were ever gentle and safe. Due to necessity of using force, many were injured and a good many of our men were hurt. We have records to show that we have more good horses, and fewer men injured, under the present system. 

“Foals were handled when young, ridden after cattle until 5 years old and are gentle. 

“The young foals usually are caught by first haltering the dam, then using her to squeeze the foal into a corner where four men – two in front and two behind – catch the foal by hand, locking hands behind and in front to form a cradle of their arms. This prevents the foal from injuring himself. A hackamore is then slipped on, and one man teaches the foal to lead – pulling him gently first to one side, then to the other till he finally leads. 

In “The First Week” seven-disc DVD set, Jim and his father, Bryan Neubert, got together with Joe Wolter to start 20 colts for the legendary Four Sixes Ranch. 

“Conditions permitting, all foals are gentled and taught to lead before 3 months old. When they are taken away from the mares, they are fed oats and a little sweet feed for about a month. They are then fairly gentle and do not fear man. They usually have to be caught by roping, and when the rope does fall around a weanling’s neck, enough pull is exerted on the rope to hold the animal’s head toward the vaquero while he quietly works up to the weanling and slips on a hackamore. 

“Actual procedure, whether a foal or weanling is caught by squeezing or roping, after the hackamore is on, is the same: quiet pulling, first on one side, then to the other, giving him a little sweet feed when he responds, until he leads. A non-slip loop then is slipped over the hindquarters to make him lead promptly. Usually the free end is drawn through the hackamore, to make a ‘straight ahead’ pull. 

“The hackamore they used was homemade. Soft rope is untwisted and braided into a flat, six-ply web. Cheek pieces to go over the head are quarter-inch rope, braided in on each side; no pull comes on this. Two pieces of rope, the same size, go over the neck and are tied to the end of the noseband, then to a 20-foot lead rope. 

“Training the foal to lead well on light restraint requires six or eight half-hour lessons. Pull is on the hackamore rope only unless the foal hangs back; then a pull on the rope which goes around his hindquarters will make him step up promptly, for he wants to get away from the pressure on his buttocks. A rope over the hindquarters should not be used until the foal is gentle and leads moderately well: if used too soon, it may frighten the foal and do more harm than good. 

Vaqueros report that after six half-hour lessons, the foal will lead fairly well. In work with a foal or weanling, they insist that he should be in a pen by himself, away from sight of other horses, so that he has nothing to distract his attention from the vaquero and the lesson he is receiving. Brushing and hand rubbing make the youngster realize that the vaquero will not hurt him, and a little sweet feed or sugar is a big help in building friendship. 

“Well-bred foals and weanlings, after being made gentle by several lessons, are next taught to yield a front foot. The men work quietly, patiently, picking the foot up and letting it down again – first one, then the other front foot – until the foal yields without resistance. No two foals are alike – some become gentle to lead in five lessons and learn in two lessons to yield a front foot and stand quietly; others take more time and many more lessons to become equally docile. 

“The next step in the education of the young foals is to train them to yield the hind legs and stand still while men work on a hoof as though they were trimming and shoeing the youngster. 

The First Week” is an exceptionally unique horsemanship video, shot entirely at the famed Four Sixes Ranch. 

“These good foals become docile fairly soon because their dams are gentle. A quiet dam sets the foal a good example. The gentling of the foal continues until he can be roped out in an open pasture and yields promptly to the rope. Foals are never snubbed to a post or saddle horn. Until thoroughly gentle, they are caught only in small corrals and never choked down – simply restrained gently and allowed to back into a corner, where a hackamore is slipped on with the utmost care not to frighten the foal. 

“All of the foals and weanlings, well trained to lead, are fed a little grain and hay through their first winter. This makes them used to being fed by men, makes them more gentle, and keeps them growing better than if they were on grass alone. But they run on pasture night and day, even in the winter. Sunshine is nature’s greatest builder of sound bone; growing horses never get too much of it. In the fall, when they are yearlings, they are roped for handling and their first saddling.”

17 thoughts on “Looking Back 60 Years”

  1. You can learn the foal that fighting humans is pointless. You do that by picking up they foal after it’s just born. You let it struggle till it gives up and than you gentle put it down. After a few hours you do the same thing. You do that for a few days. The foal will always think from that point on that humans are so strong that there is no point fighting them. Even when they are fully grown!

  2. This was a great article and on the cutting edge of ‘natural horsemanship’ methods where patience is far more effective than force – good then and now.

  3. This was a very neat article! Training has come far since then but this was the beginning of what we do now. I generally move alot faster with my foals, they never leave the stall without a halter and are imprinted at birth. I’m not into natural horsemanship, I think this is more about common sense and working with a horse instead of against them.

  4. King Ranch wouldn’t have been who they are without knowing what to do. Imprinting a foal begins in utero, I believe. For mass quantities breeders, gentling doesn’t work as you don’t have enough time to put in with ALL those foals, but the average person who has only a few babes can imprint before they are born.

  5. I so DO NOT believe in the picking up method of “imprinting a foal” it is unnatural, in the horse world, it is frighting for one to the foal and the mare.. just being quiet and presence during the birth and afterwards the foal will get to understand that you are not something to fear and even welcome your presence as you are giving your mare the needed care after birth.. allow the the foal to come to you on its own accord, it will.. and love you for this type of gesture instead of forcing yourself to it .. who wants some stranger all up in your space?? Would you ??

  6. Nice historical article with good common sense information. We teach our foals to lead within the first week by using the butt rope and leading them right alongside their dams as we lead them out to the pasture from their night in the barn. By week two, they are pretty responsive.
    It is also nice to only have 1-2 foals a year; allows me to work with each one for many, many more hours!

  7. An old cowboy gave me a great hint when working with my foals. We had a fairly good sized donkey, about 14 hands, and we haltered both donkey and colt and tied them together with a two foot trailer lead. I was expecting a rodeo, but all colts and fillies we raised never balked a moment with that donkey. In time, when they were used to it, we kept the together, using breakaway halters, 24/7 for about one month. Each of those youngsters would lead off with just the gentlest of lead on the rope. They never pulled when tied.

    When the donkey wanted water, the colt got water, when the donkey ate, the colt ate and even when released, the colt shadowed the donkey. it was a great old donkey with the perfect mind for this job, but I’m not 100% sure he didn’t want to kick the snot out of a few of those colts. Never did though.

  8. This approach seems to yield good results, especially if you’ve got a quiet dam to begin with. I’m guessing you could use pretty much the same technique to train draft weanlings for pulling, only starting from behind rather than in front.

  9. I’ve raised over 60 foals and was present for most of their births. The technique I used most frequently was to gently hold the colt with my arms around the chest and butt, even after it started to squirm (this was after the colt had nursed and was beginning to figure out how to use its legs). This technique accomplished 2 things: (1) it impressed upon the foal that I was stronger than he was, and that impression does continue through the rest of its life; and (2) the baby discovered that even though the foal thought he was going to die, it didn’t. And that’s the beginning of trust. Pretty soon the foal stands quietly, and then you can start scratching all those favorite spots to reinforce the good feeling. Of course, by day 2 you need to almost start over again because the foal becomes a little more independent, but it doesn’t take long. Handling horses first and foremost is a psychological game, even after they are adults. The sooner you learn horse language and their behavioral cues, the better off you are in handling your horses and having them responsive and respectful of you. It can even get to the point that if they are doing something they shouldn’t, you can yell at them from across the yard and they stop. As much as you get to know your horses, they get to know you even better because, after all, you provide the food and the best scratches. Amazingly enough, most horses like their belly buttons scratched!

  10. I find this artical verry interesting and true at least in my experence the gentel way works good for me to and i love all the diferent opinions which makes it great to read what other people try thats what makes aqha articles so great reading thank you
    Harry Horn

  11. Have only raised 2. The youngest is 3 and just started under saddle. They were both handled consistently and kindly when they were very small. They were brushed, petted, and given the opportunity to trust. I tended to work with them a little, and give them big gaps of “being a horse” time. It has seemed to work out well, as they are both on the way to being good citizens!!

  12. I have a 16mth old filly who is the love of my life. She is a foundation breed quarter horse. I imprinted her from birth – she fell asleep in my lap half way through the delivery, had a halter on at 4 hours old. By 5 days old she walked away from the damn outside the stall with a halter and lead rope. My point is, imprinting and working with a colt is incrediblely rewarding and only takes 15-20 minutes a day. It will pay off by the time she is 2 yrs old and ready to ride.

  13. Thanks very much for reprinting this very detailed, correct article. We raise 4-6 foals a year and have followed Dr. Miller’ imprinting techniques for 12 years. Mr. Kleberg’s statement about saving time, developing a safe horse, early handling, light resistance, leading to the side first, etc, are spot on.
    AQHA, please keep posting articles such as this.

  14. Iam buying a weanling that was born in April or March,that is just now being weaned.Any suggestions.HELP What is a good and gentle way to gentle him,without him hurting himself or me?

  15. This article captured my attention because it’s exactly what we did back in the 60’s and 70’s when my parents were raising horses. It worked, and we started the foals at a very young age. My dad never allowed any jerking or yanking on the lead rope. The rope around the back end was an excellent tool. This summer will be the first we have had a foal on our ranch since my husband and I bought my parent’s place in the 90’s. We will be using this method. Can’t wait!

  16. How can my son train his colt to cut cattle and to spin on his back legs and when can he start to put the bridle in his colts mouth? My sons colt is 10 months old.

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