Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — My First Foal, Part 3

During each lesson I also started picking up Khamette’s feet, teaching her to shift her weight to her other three legs. At first she didn’t know how to balance herself on three legs, and she would try to take her foot away and nearly fall down. So when I picked up a foot, I would lean against her a little to steady her and force her weight onto the other legs. She soon learned to shift her weight herself whenever I gently squeezed the back of her fetlock joint or tickled the back of her pastern with my fingers to encourage her to pick up that foot. I wanted her to be very nice about having her feet handled, so she would be easy to trim and shoe when she grew up. I was learning to shoe horses (starting the summer before, shoeing Ginger, when I was 14 years old) and wanted to be able to shoe Khamette myself.

Khamette out in the pasture, at three months of age

Our horses all went barefoot during winter, when they weren’t ridden much, but they all needed shoes in the summer when we were riding range and moving cattle. Our mountains are very rocky, and without shoes the horses would become tenderfooted and lame, wearing their hooves down too much. I wanted Khamette to be easy to shoe, so I practiced cleaning her little feet each day with a hoof pick and tapping on them to get her used to what would happen later when she was being shod.
When her little feet started to grow a bit long, I carefully trimmed them with hoof nippers. A foal’s feet are tiny, compared to an adult horse's, and the hoof wall is much thinner. I had to be very careful not to trim her feet too much. After a few careful nips I smoothed them with the rasp so they wouldn’t chip, leaving a rounded edge.

Next came tying lessons. I started tying Khamette to the sturdy pole fence, right next to her mother. The first time I tied her, she pulled back, and I had to push on her rump to push her forward again so she wouldn’t hurt her neck muscles. After testing the rope a few more times and finding out that she couldn’t get away, Khamette resigned herself to being tied up. After a few lessons she became very good at standing patiently.

Khamette learned to stand patiently while tied.

She no longer pulled back to try to get away, but occasionally, she’d become impatient and paw the ground or
chew on her rope. I always ran the loose end of the rope back through the loop of the “manger tie,” as we’d been taught in 4-H, to make it more difficult for the filly to untie herself. I also didn’t leave her tied for very long at a time, because at that young age she became bored quickly.

I worked with her nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, and was impressed at how quickly she learned her lessons. But I found that she got bored if the lessons lasted too long—and if she got bored, she became naughty or didn’t respond very well to what I wanted her to do. I found that the best way to get good results was to work with her often, but in short increments—no longer than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. A young horse, like a small child, has a short attention span, and a long lesson is soon resented. Short lessons, ending on a good note each time (if possible) accomplish much more.

It was very easy to teach her to lead at the trot, on cue, and to stop on command. To encourage her to trot, I merely moved my own feet faster, sort of jogging in place, and telling her to “trot!” in a crisp tone of voice. She soon realized this was the signal to move faster, and we’d trot up and down the lane together, with her shoulder right beside me. To halt the filly all I had to do was give a quick tug on the halter rope and say “Whoa.” If she was overeager and wanting to trot or prance when she was supposed to be walking, I’d give a few quick but gentle pulls on her halter rope and say “Walk” in a very calm, soothing voice. Before long, Khamette associated the voice commands with the proper actions and would walk, trot, or halt just on spoken command.

Khamette and her mother in our barnyard

I was very proud of her accomplishments. She learned much more quickly than the adult horses I’d taught to lead at the trot; I usually had to carry a long willow to tap them on the hindquarter when I gave the signal to trot, until they caught on. Khamette led so easily and naturally that I often trotted her in circles, figure eights, in and out through a line of posts (that my brother and I had set in the ground for a fence around our garden), and various other patterns, to test her maneuverability.

I probably did more groundwork and handling of this filly than with any other horse I raised, partly because she was my first one and I wanted her to learn everything I could possibly teach her, and partly because at that stage of my life (15 years old), I had time to do it. I tied a saddle blanket on her back several times and led her around with it. She was very curious and accepting of new things and quickly became accustomed to whatever I tried with her.

My First Foal, Part One
My First Foal, Part Two

[to be continued] 

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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