Foal training: Serenity
Object training with tarps
In general, horses that have been accustomed in a casual and relaxed manner to as many external stimuli as possible during their foalhood tend to develop laid-back personalities when they grow up. In doing so, it is important to proceed with caution, to not overstrain the foal, and to respect its own pace of learning. Chaba, the Arabian mare riding pony foal, and her favorite human being Lea demonstrate in the following video possible first steps in serenity training; they use an object, in this case a tarp.
Subtitles available in English and German
Freedom of choice right from the start
We deliberately let Chaba run free in this crucial first training session with the tarp. This gives her the opportunity to explore the tarp at her own pace, and she is free at any time to withdraw from the situation in case it gets too scary. Of course, we will do our best to avoid unpleasant sensory impressions; yet, we are no clairvoyants. It can happen that we progress too rapidly, and create moments that bombard the foal with a variety of stimuli so that it feels overwhelmed.
Take away the fear of unknown objects
Unusual training objects like the tarp that can be folded are often less or not scary at all if folded, and presented in their mini version, so to speak, in the beginning. So, we start small, have less trouble handling the huge tarp, and additionally allow the foal to literally grasp the task through physical experience. Lea presents the folded tarp, generously rewards Chaba for investigating the unknown object, and in particular, for her active approach towards the tarp. As a result, Chaba learns two things: first, she gets to know the tarp, and second, she understands that it pays off to courageously explore strange things and situations.
We casually shift the position of the object with regard to the foal every now and then. Furthermore, we can raise the tarp to create a tunnel through which Chaba should walk later on, and we can put the tarp on the ground to create an unusual surface for Chaba to walk over.
Exploring with all senses
It is natural for foals, and part of their behavioral repertoire to want to discover and explore their surroundings. They do not perceive objects just by looking at them but foals explore them with all senses. Therefore, it is important to allow foals to inspect an object with their teeth by chewing and with their hooves by pawing; always provided the object is sturdy enough. This enables the young mind to establish a complete picture of the tarp.
Do not narrow your own focus
Above all, we should observe ourselves to make sure we do not unintentionally aim for a specific sequence of actions or a particular partial step; our focus is on dealing with the new situation and the unknown object at this stage of serenity training. It is about pure exploration at one’s own pace, about developing self-confidence, and the time to train specific action in lessons will be later. The behavioral responses we desire will grow organically all by themselves when the foal’s trust in its own abilities and in human beings grows as well. This happens casually, and is a simple result of shared activity and rewards that are given with skill.
Best to quit right before you lose
We end the training before Chaba begins to lose concentration, and thus reduce the probability of mistakes and frustrating incidents that might devalue the positive experience of our training session. At this moment in time, it is absolutely sufficient that Chaba has faced the challenge with serenity and joy, and that her self-confidence has grown. So, we simply end the exercise with the tarp at an especially good moment when everything goes as planned, and we gently guide the foal out of this training situation. This opens up another field of learning. Chaba is allowed to stay, and can observe the human beings dealing with the training object without being involved herself. The assistants and Lea handle the tarp in a relaxed and casual way; they pay attention to Chaba’s reaction, and frequently allow her to interact. This means, Chaba does not feel excluded but remains a part of the group that consists of three human beings and a foal. Furthermore, Chaba has gained additional security because she has been watched by her mother during the exercise.
Rest and time
New learning experiences for young horses take time and require free space. Foals can cope even less well than adult horses with the hectic pace of life, and they easily get stressed when under time pressure. This stress can reduce their capacity for learning, makes them restless and insecure, and situations can escalate which can be dangerous for humans and animals. Therefore, safety takes top security for both sides, always; a calm working atmosphere most likely guarantees safe foal training. Lea watches Chaba very closely to not be surprised by the foal’s reactions; she detects Chaba’s gentle body tension, and observes her ability to take the treats in a relaxed manner. In case we perceive even the first minor signs of stress or discomfort, we should immediately be self-critical, and question the structure of our exercise. After all, we all want that our foal likes to remember its first steps together with us even years later; what is more, we want it to associate these beautiful moments with being close to its favorite human being.