Starting the young horse.

As always we had better begin by defining what we mean by ‘starting’! And since any decision about where to draw the line and say “from this point on” has to be arbitrary, why not start from conception?

For any living creature it is the environment, interacting with genetic makeup, which produces the individual. This is true to such an extent that we can usefully begin by discussing the condition of the mare from fertilisation through to foaling, since the womb is the first environment a foal experiences. 

Thanks to the massive amount of research that has been carried out on the development of the human embryo we have a good understanding of those stimuli that get through from the environment in which the pregnant mother grows her foetus. So we know that stress, whether physical or emotional - especially prolonged or high level stress - has a powerful impact.  And from this we might generate a very basic starting rule that we are most likely to get a complication-free birth, and calm, easy to handle foal by paying a lot of attention to management of the pregnant mare. And while this article focuses on the young horse we can make a couple of short statements about what mares require. 

As with all horses a management system that allows expression of natural behaviours is favourable. So ideally she should be part of a cohesive harem group of perhaps 6 or so adults – including stallion. The group should have access to sufficient space such that they are fit and active, and be provided with grazing that provides quantity, quality and variety of herbage. There should be shelter from the elements, adequate clean water and good management of parasites – both internal and external. And while the ideal is safety, the environment should not be sterile: mental exercise is good for the horse also, so an element of challenge in the terrain is a good idea – given that it is not greater than that which the horse can reasonably meet. 

The point of these few statements is not to say that this is the way things must be, or that anything less is not good enough, but to give us a point of reference that can be used as a foundation on which we can build our discussion. My wife carried our own first child through a period of high stress – which produced a veritable little tigress – by the third child, things were far more comfortable, resulting in a baby that was so very easy you could almost forget that he was around! Of course some of this is to do with both the hormonal and experiential impacts of successive pregnancies, through which the mother becomes increasingly better at dealing with the process. And in this respect mares are very similar, first foals often being smaller and more temperamental than later offspring.

So let’s first look at the logical results of environments into which foals are born and that fall somewhere short of the species ideal.

Probably the most common departures from the ideal are those mares kept alone and with no supportive social structure, but even then it will depend to some extent on how the mare herself was raised. With luck she may have been raised in a social group, in which case we can hope that she will have been exposed to the sight of either her dam or ‘aunts’ (herd ‘sisters’ of her mother, not necessarily biologically related) foaling and had some opportunity to watch a pattern of effective maternal behaviour and, at best, to have been able to act as a ‘baby-sitter’. Clearly a mare with such experience is far more likely to ‘know’ what she is doing than one that has never seen a foal before. And, given the increasing number of unnaturally kept mares that refuse to have anything to do with their new-born foals, it’s reasonable to suspect that the lack of such experience is a critical indicator.

So let’s move on and say that our lone mare has accepted her foal. What are the likely deficits in the situation? Social contact will be greatly reduced and, if the situation continues, the foal will most likely fail to be able to discriminate between what is appropriate behaviour towards a parent and another unrelated horse. Parents tend to be indulgent toward their offspring, allowing them far greater latitude for lack of manners than an unrelated horse could be expected to. This may well colour interactions with handlers too in which case manners, or the lack of, are likely to be an ongoing issue. Taking this a little further, there is good evidence to suggest that colt foals will be particularly badly behaved when raised by a lone mare.

Other problems that may arise are that the mare becomes very tired, perhaps to the point of exhaustion. In the natural social group the mare is supported by the herd’s security network, in which one horse, and invariably more than one, is always keeping watch for danger. A human analogue of this would be that the new mother might ask a female relative to “keep an eye on the house and watch the baby” while she takes a nap. Filly daughters, and even colt sons, will carry out this important task, leaving ‘mum’ to take a bit of time for herself during which she can graze further away and look for particular plants that sustain her milk yield or merely rest lying down, allowing important REM sleep that she cannot get while resting in a standing position. And beyond these sibling ‘babysitters’ the outer cordon of defence is maintained by those adults without duties to young foals. The lone mare has none of these comforts and will need extra feed and care in order to compensate for the effects. 

There has been a great deal of talk over the past 10 or so years about ‘imprinting’ or ‘imprint-training’ as it is sometimes known. But of all the useless bits of jargon of the last decade, this has to be one of the most misleading. Imprinting in equines is something that occurs between mare and foal only; it is an innate behavioural process through which the two become very specifically bonded, and which is essential to the survival of the foal in the natural environment. It ensures that the foal follows its mother only, and does so automatically and without question, so that there are no potentially fatal delays when survival requires a rapid escape. And, just as importantly, it ensures that the mare’s maternal instincts are focussed on her foal only. According to recently released research the process is supported further by pheromones in the mother’s milk that promote very rapid learning so, during imprinting, at that all important first suckle, the ability of the foal to learn its mother’s individual smell and her unique voice, is enhanced. And from this it becomes very clear that the process cannot include other individuals; brothers, sisters, aunts and even fathers are not allowed to interfere.  So the notion that an individual from another species, and a predatory one at that, can imprint or be imprinted on the foal is quite bizarre. Were it to actually succeed it would be nothing short of a disaster.  

Of course there isn’t anything wrong with early handling, as long as ‘learned helplessness’ is not the dominant feature. But such handling should not start until imprinting is over and, if we need a cue as to when such handling should start, ask mum! It is very simple to read from her body language when she feels relaxed about letting others begin the ritual of greeting the newborn, particularly if she is part of a social group. After a few hours other group members will be seen making very discreet and short visits, not to touch, but to look from a few meters away. And, in the natural herd, other mares will often take responsibility for either refusing or regulating visits from older siblings. So we might reasonably conclude that this protocol is what we should also follow: look, but don’t touch! There is no analogue of the human desire to ‘hold the baby’; imposing one is a good way to try your mare’s patience and increase her stress. Given that you have a good, trusting relationship with the mare, she’ll be quite happy for you to get involved after one or several days, depending on the mare. And at that stage, contact can begin without causing unnecessary stress. We have to keep it firmly in mind that the foal is learning at a faster rate than it will at any other time in its life, so what we do should lay the foundation for trust, rather than fear! Ethically it has always seemed to me that forced interference against the mother’s wishes, unless there is an extremely good medical reason, is very questionable. Surely the mare has some rights in this most central element of what it is to be a mammal?

One last comment on this before moving on; studies have shown that such early handling, even when well done, does not achieve anything that cannot be equally well done later, so there is simply no valid reason to impose such practices on mare and foal, except that of wishing to exert control for its own sake.  

What is certainly true is that the period during which the foal is running with its dam and, hopefully, its social group, is one that offers countless opportunities for ‘teachable moments’. So let mum teach junior how to pass safely through gates and yards, get on and off trucks or trailers, eat concentrate feed from a container. A large natural part of a foal’s early learning occurs through a process called maternal facilitation. Simply put, the foal is encouraged to do what it sees its mother doing, but this simple beginning is also the start of the foal’s induction into mother’s culture and is the wellspring of those experience-based behaviour patterns that it will carry throughout its life and that will shape much of its interaction with the outside world. What mother begins will continue through a very similar but extended process; social facilitation. In the equine social group the foal will continue to learn by observing the behaviour of older siblings, of mother’s herd sisters and of the group stallion. Each is able to contribute to the growing foal’s knowledge set and, with each contribution, the ability of the growing youngster to make sense out of its environment and – that most precious commodity, the ability to predict the behaviour of others – and to place itself within a variety of contexts. We know that studies of domesticated animals have shown a reduction in brain case size compared with their wild cousins. These studies suggest that this is most likely due to the reduction of opportunity to react cognitively to their environment. So, if you want to ‘start’ clever horses with well developed brains the answer is pretty obvious, raise them in social groups, add the dynamic of interaction with other species (humans, dogs, cats, cattle – each one contributes an extra dimension) and play your part in facilitating their learning of a complex equine culture!

All right – let’s suppose that we have got this far – foal and mare as part of a little social group – what next? Forced weaning! To wean or not to wean – and if yes, when? Pretty much everyone is in agreement that forced weaning is extremely stressful for both mare and foal yet, oddly, they carry on doing it. Why? Well, listening to what is said; it seems some believe that this is the only way to breed a foal per year without the mare becoming exhausted and the size and quality of foal decreasing. And it is certainly true that suckling a foal takes a whole heap of nutrition! But we know what it takes, since each and every requirement has been very well studied and researched by a veritable army of equine nutritionists, so what’s to stop us supplementing mum’s intake with high value concentrates that contain the whole range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals that she might need? It would be crazy to argue that cost is the problem; the foal is going to need this nutrition whether it gets it from his mother or from the owner’s feed-bowl. So isn’t forced-weaning another of those bits of traditional equine management that may have been required in the past – before owners had access to such complete information – but is no longer necessary now? Most likely yes! Of course, if there are no good reasons why forced weaning should not be done, then the point is moot. So are there reasons, and if so what might they be? And why am I calling it ‘forced weaning’ anyway?  

Definition time once again! First ‘weaning’; this is very simply the process that all mammalian mothers go through during which their young are gradually given less and less milk and finally stopped from suckling altogether. If the mare is in foal, a good part of the process occurs normally within her body’s autonomic system, with some extra assistance from her genetic programming that assures her limiting behaviour towards her foal plays the necessary support role. This is one of those elements of being a mammal that evolution has got down to a fine art and, after 600,000 years of practice, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

Next: ‘forced weaning’; the process in which humans interfere, quite unnaturally, to prevent the mare suckling her young, most often by physically separating the two. Now I suppose that a human mother weaning her baby early, for whatever reason, is not a lot of fun for the baby but at least junior still gets the warmth of mum’s cuddles to comfort him, and bottled ‘replacer’ to suck on when breast milk is refused or unavailable. There is no such comfort for the foal. Not only does the poor little creature stop getting milk but it also loses mum completely! And if this sounds like a severe emotional trauma for a young creature – it is! Not that the mare is going to enjoy the process either!

Now let’s look at what would happen in the wild, and why, and determine whether we can easily create an analogue for use in modern management. In the natural state young horses leave their natal band between 2 and 3 years of age, depending on development. Easy conditions in which there is an adequacy of food would tend to lower the age (which is what tends to happen under domestic conditions) while harder conditions make it later. In small groups of, let’s say, 6 or so adults including stallion, all mares are likely to foal once per year, given that there is sufficient feed to support them. If conditions include periods of drought or other factors that serve to impose critical limits on feed, mares will spontaneously abort. Equally, if group size increases, let’s say to stallion and 10 mares, then high status mares will foal less often, perhaps only once in every three years, but they will make a far greater investment in each foal. It seems likely also that a greater percentage of such foals will be male. In the larger group, as long as feed is adequate, lower status mares will continue to foal each year. This then is a brief outline of the naturally occurring ethogram, as it has been for many, many thousands if not several hundreds of thousands of years. If, during the process of evolution over that period, a better variation had developed, which supported a higher level of evolutionary survival fitness, then that would have become the ‘default setting’. That it did not argues that there are benefits in this that go far beyond suckling. And logically, if it is not about growth through milk, then the benefit that accrues must have a largely (or completely?) behavioural component. So let’s investigate what that might be. 

Young people are very different from young horses in that one comes from a neotenous species (in which juvenile traits are held over into adulthood, e.g. our curiosity, potential for life-long learning and delayed sexual maturation) and the other from a precocial species (in which young are relatively mature and mobile from soon after birth, e.g. a foal’s ability to keep up with its mother in a high speed escape as little as 12 hours after birth.) Even so, we can still draw parallels as long as we keep this distinction in mind. Recent research on human teenagers has shown that brain development, particularly in terms of cognitive function, does not reach maturity until the early 20’s. One of the reasons this has been so vigorously studied is the alarming death rate of teenager drivers (and, even more so, their passengers) in car crashes. The research has specifically shown that the teenage brain is not as able to process information and derive a good danger assessment from it as an adult brain of 26 years or so upwards. So, the longer parents are able to accompany their offspring when driving, and the greater time they invest in helping them to recognise danger and take appropriate action, the more ‘fit’ (in a survival sense) they will be, and the more likely they are to learn safe driving habits. Of course it goes without saying that a parent who drives dangerously is unlikely to have the same effect! The point of this is that by keeping our children with us we are able to pass on a greater degree and complexity of ‘culture’ than we would otherwise. And in this ‘culture’ there are literally thousands of pieces of information about how to survive efficiently, happily and fruitfully (in terms of producing adults that, in their turn, become efficient carriers of ancestral genes.) 

Although horses are far simpler than humans, in terms of complexity of lifestyle, intellect and so forth, the same thing is broadly true. So, being with the parental herd is not just about milk, but about learning how to be an efficient member of a social species. And if 600,000 years of evolution has produced an ethogram in which the young horse stays, soaking up this learning, until it is between 2 and 3 years of age then surely it is illogical for us to ignore it, or to impose an alternative that offers far less support for the development of efficient behaviours.

Arguments that we have selectively bred this behaviour out of the modern horse are without any foundation whatsoever. Take a group of mares from the most highly and selectively bred horses on the planet – the racing thoroughbred, that has the oldest studbook – but which have had no experience at all of life in a ‘natural’ herd or in an extensive environment rather than intensive small paddock and stable, turn them loose with a stallion that is equally ignorant and, within a very short period, you will see them return to exactly this ethogram! How do I know? Because that is exactly what I did, spending close to 15 years watching it happen, and the development of a complex equine culture that is as highly efficient in terms of this centuries’ environmental challenges as it would have been for those of the past.

If the products of ‘traditional’ or ‘intensive’ breeding were socially and behaviourally adept and functional there would be no reason to look at this, but that is just not the case. Each year, greater numbers of horses are produced that go on to be dysfunctional in a behavioural sense. In the US this has got to the stage where the number of mares that are either unable or completely unwilling to raise and nurture their foals is so great that there are now ‘foal barns’, in which foals are raised without any access to adult nurture. Throughout the developed world large numbers of owners are frustrated by their horse’s (many of them extremely expensive) inability to socialise with others of their species without anxiety or aggression, often to the point where competing in an environment filled with equine ‘strangers’ is simply impossible, when at home they perform beautifully. Because of mares’ violent resistance (through fear and lack of natural courtship ritual) and stallions’ aggression (through frustration and deprivation of social contact) owners of mares and stud handlers have to dress up like some hybrid between an American football player and Darth Vader, and use all manner of ropes, sedatives and other control paraphernalia, simply to get stallion and mare to do that most basic of all animal functions, procreate!  And yet the proponents of the new ‘ethological’ riding continue to ignore ethology and the equine ethogram. And that, my friends, is very strange! You almost have to wonder whether the name has any other function than the manipulation of ‘feel-good’ jargon for commercial profit.  

Moving on again. When our ‘natural’ youngsters reach this point between 2 and 3 years of age what happens? Colts are driven out by the stallion and, being naturally very sociable and co-operative they look for and join up with a bachelor group. And in this supportive fraternal social group they will then stay, either until they mature into dominance and receive the assistance of their bachelor ‘brothers’ to run off a couple of filly ‘wives’ from the periphery of a harem group, or they become eternal bachelors, always deferring to higher status group members. Play fighting is one of the most compelling features of these bachelor groups (just as it is between colt foals and yearlings in the natal band) and particularly with the newest and youngest additions, who put a great deal of time and energy into these games and, as a result, become highly practiced and skilful equine athletes, fast, acrobatic and beautifully balanced. So important a function does this play serve that those colts born into a family group in which there are no other colts with whom they can exercise tend to leave a lot earlier in search of the male playmates they need.

There is much talk about beginning the training of young horses at two years (or younger) in order to cause that ‘loading’ on bones and tissue that promotes good profile and development. But, rather than experiencing this as something into which they are forced, and which is often made very boring for a young equine mind with only a very short attention span, how much better to let the bachelor group do the job instead? Now that would be Ethological horse training indeed! From experience, injuries from such play are far fewer than those that result from early training in round pens and schools. What’s more, the colt knows when he’s had enough, and his proprioceptors tell him when his joints are becoming liable to over-flexion due to tiredness, something the human trainer could not possibly do anywhere near as well.

Now, given that we have been steadily keeping up with the basics of handling, what is the best age to begin training for work under saddle? Perhaps we might take the word of someone who has achieved international recognition at the very highest levels of equestrian sport; Reiner Klimke, Olympic Gold Medallist, World Dressage Champion, European Dressage Champion and European Horse Trials champion.  Not only did Klimke ride these championship winning horses – he also trained them! What’s more if you track down photos of Klimke riding horses such as 1982 World Dressage Champion Ahlerich, or Maiko or Volt, it is immediately clear that these are well balanced animals, happy and relaxed in their work. Of starting his horses Klimke, in his book Basic Training of the Young horse, states; “None of my successful horses have been shown as 3-year-olds. I bought “Winzerin”, my three-day event horse at the 1960 Rome Olympics, as a 4-year-old in 1956. She had just been backed. “Arcadius” came to me as a 4-year-old just backed. I only started working him seriously at the end of his fourth year and when he was a 7-year-old in 1962 we won the European Championships in Rotterdam. I bought “Fabiola” as a 2 ½ -year-old , started riding her a year later, and won the Dressage Derby with her in Hamburg when she was a 6-year-old. I bought “Ahlerich” as a 4-year-old at the Westphalian Auction at Munster. I hardly rode him as a 4-year-old and only took him to one show. He won 10 medium and advanced classes as a 6-year-old and as a 7-year-old 9 Grand Prix classes. I am convinced that had I started these horses earlier I would not have been so successful. One must have the patience to wait until the horse is physically and mentally ready for the work demanded of it.” 

What is true of Klimke’s warmbloods is equally true of other breeds, and even more so of the hotbloods. Many an Arabian or Thoroughbred has been spoilt by demanding too much too early, resulting in a horse that is overly emotional and liable to become so excited that they simply cannot concentrate on the task at hand. For these horses a 20 minute session on the lunge at three years of age amounts to punishment rather than training – and can easily produce a base-level resistance that will become a defining restriction for the rest of its working life. Invariably such resistance will be characterised as ‘naughtiness’ or ‘disobedience’ on the part of the horse, rather than ‘impatience’ on the part of the handler.

Nor is the down-side of early training limited to emotional impact – there are severe implications in terms of bone and joint function too where horses are subjected to excessive weight carrying prior to 2 ½ years of age. Tiredness and overwork can easily result in repeated small overflexions, in which joints – or articulations – are made to flex over a greater angle than they should. Each time this occurs, the bony ‘stops’ and check ligaments that are responsible for controlling the degree of flexion may be damaged. Such damage may never amount to anything critical in the normal course of events but, at high speed, or during the pressure of top level jumping courses, it may become just that, resulting in a hideous broken leg and death. Anyone who has seen the result of this in racing will know just how sickening a sight it is to witness and the habit within the racing industry of starting horses into work as juvenile 2 year olds must surely account for a good measure of this damage. 

There is a lot of talk about holistic approaches to horse management and training, in which a total philosophy is first formulated and then put into practice. And what’s good about such an approach is that it protects us, owners and horses, from the confusion of disjointed elements and muddy thinking. So while in the past ‘starting the young horse’ was just about the process used to get a horse working under saddle, maybe entry into 21st century, instead of being used as an excuse to deny horses’ right or need to express natural behaviours, requires that we really look at how we do things. Sticking to a cohesive and well considered strategy might seem like a burden – but the benefits far outweigh the cost!              

(c) AD Beck 2006

RETURN TO ARTICLES LIST