From the Archives: How the King Ranch Trained Its Foals

From the Archives: How the King Ranch Trained Its Foals

The legendary ranch shares how handling horses at an early age makes for safer and more satisfactory mounts.

King Ranch cowgirl Henrietta Armstrong with a yearling (Credit: Bee Silva)

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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. 

“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. 

“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.”