Teaching a Foal to Lead: 9 Essential Lessons

Teaching a Foal to Lead: 9 Essential Lessons

Nine exercises to teach a foal how to accept a halter, give to pressure, lift legs and, ultimately, lead.

bay foal with white blaze wearing leather halter (Credit: Jason Duquette)

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From The American Quarter Horse Journal

A solid foundation sets your new foal on the right track in life. With the exercises shared in this article, you'll prepare your foal for future training and learning. 

Keep in mind:

  • These foal-training exercises are done after a foal has already been through the imprinting process. 
  • Start these exercises while the foal is still small. Especially with the restraint exercises, you wouldn’t want to try those on an older, stronger foal who might put you in harm’s way. 
  • Make certain that your mare is OK with you handling her foal. 

Lesson 1: Haltering Your Young Foal

The foaling stall should be safe from anything that might injure the foal. It’s important that the halter fits properly, so you might have to get the smallest adjustable foal halter available. Add a few holes for a proper fit. If a standard lead rope is too heavy, you can use a nylon dog leash. With the initial imprinting in place, the foal should be curious and easy to approach in the stall. Approach from the left side and let the foal inspect the halter. Then, slip the halter on and off the foal’s nose. He has a natural response to jerk up against foreign pressure on his nose, so it’s important to get him accustomed to someone handling his nose, face and ears during the initial imprinting prior to the halter lesson. The halter going on and coming off gives the foal trust in the halter and seems to encourage acceptance.

Lesson 2: Teaching to Give to Pressure

When the foal is comfortable, put the halter on and buckle it. Do not, at any time, leave the foal alone with the halter on. This might be an invitation for serious injury or even death.

Stand on one side of the foal, take up the slack on the lead while applying pressure on his hip with your hand until he moves away from the pressure. This is the beginning of a turn on the forehand and will discourage him from turning around on you in the stall. Repeat on the other side. If the foal gets frightened and pulls back during the lesson (which he probably will), apply gentle, supportive pressure to keep him from hitting his head on anything. It’s important not to jerk on the lead during this time because he is very sensitive to injury. If he pulls against the pressure, go with him, maintaining light pressure, and release as soon as he gives to the pressure. You will have to develop a very light and sensitive touch.

Lesson 3: Track to the Left, Track to the Right

Within minutes, the foal will discover that giving to the pressure allows a release reward. Move slightly off to one side – but still in front of him – and slowly, gently ask the horse to come toward you using light, constant pressure. Release-reward as soon as he moves toward you. Tugging will not teach him to give to pressure. Just use light and constant pressure, maintaining the pressure as he tests the halter and releasing as soon as he gives to the pressure. Then step to the other side. This exercise lays the foundation for successful leading, tying and trailer loading as a weanling. It’s important to do both sides evenly on all these exercises.

Lesson 4: Praise and Stroke the Foal During Lessons

Stopping and praising the foal after he successfully gives to pressure is very important. It will teach him to recognize and look for praise, and this positive reinforcement will stay with him forever. It builds trust. 

Lesson 5: Restraining Using Your Leg in Front of the Foal

Restraining the young horse at this early age is invaluable. Done successfully, he will be more inclined to accept restraint as he grows older and larger. He’ll learn the meaning of “Whoa” and learn to trust you. It’s also handy for administering medicine should the foal or young horse become ill, and it lays the foundation for picking up the foal’s feet.

Stand on one side of the foal with the slack lead in your hand closest to his rump. Widen your stance and bend your knees for balance. While blocking the foal with your thigh/knee against the foal’s chest between his front legs, place one arm around his chest. Hold the foal close to you in this position for a few seconds, softly saying, “Whoa.” If he tries to escape your hold, stay with him and praise when he relaxes. Repeat on the other side.

Lesson 6: Restraining Using Your Leg Behind the Foal

Stand on one side of the foal with the slack lead in the hand closest to his head. Widen your stance and bend your knees for balance. While blocking the foal with your thigh/knee at his rump, between his back legs, put your arm around his chest and hold the foal close to you. Keep your head up and pointed toward his rump so he doesn’t hit you if he tosses his head. Hold this position for a few seconds, speaking softly and saying “Whoa.” Release and praise only when he relaxes. Repeat on the other side.

Lesson 7:  Lifting Front Legs

Stand facing the foal on his left side. Put the lead with slack in it in your left hand. Bend your knees, placing one knee in front of his right leg. The foal’s neck can rest over your thigh. Put your left arm around his back and support under the girth with your left hand. With your right hand,pick up the foal’s front left hoof and raise it. The foal may feel like falling down and, if so, you can use your left leg for support. The goal is to teach the foal that he can stand on three legs, so try to move off and let him discover his balance. Do not let the foal pull his leg away from you. When he relaxes, place the hoof on the floor. Praise. Repeat on the right side.

Lesson 8: Lifting Back Legs

Using the same body position as you did for the front legs, reach back and pick up the foal’s back leg. The natural reaction is to kick and try to escape the hold. Hold on and do not allow him to pull his leg away. Keep talking softly and place your foal's leg down as soon as he relaxes. Praise and repeat on the other side.

Lesson 9: Leading the Foal in the Stall, Then in the Pasture or Arena

After the foal has learned to give to pressure in both directions, you can begin to teach him to lead first in the stall, then outside. Start on one side of the foal, open your arms and hold the lead with the hand closest to the foal’s head. Place your hand closest to his tail on his rump and give a little tickle or pinch until he begins leading. As he moves forward, place your arm over his back. Continue around a 10- or 15-foot circle, and stop and praise. Repeat on the other side.

Final Lesson When Teaching a Foal to Lead

Horses are right- and left-handed, just as we are. It might be easier for the foal to lead from one side or the other. Regardless, it’s important to teach your foal to lead from both sides. This will lay the foundation for longe-line training and evenness in riding both directions, as well as loading into a trailer from either side.

Halter Breaking Your Foal

Need more insight on halter breaking a foal? Ensure your young foal gets the proper start with AQHA’s FREE Halter Breaking Your Foal e-book. Download the e-book for critical information about fitting a halter on your foal, introducing the lead rope, leading techniques and more.

Giving Your Foal a Safe, Healthy Start in Life

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