Episode 173: Teaching a foal to be bold

A listener calls in and asks reports that she can only touch her nine-month-old foal if she is holding food. In this episode, I describe how this situation might be viewed differently from the horse’s perspective…and how the caller might even be coming across as sneaky or suspicious. Then I describe one way to set up a situation where the owner can practice showing up and taking actions that will reward specific behavior in the foal. This exercise will increase the amount of emotional pressure the foal can handle, which will make touching and future training easier.


Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] But instead of me looking at the whole thing, starting over again, as being a failure, I’m looking at the whole thing, starting over again, as being a whole nother training session.

Announcer: [00:00:13] Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast, Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Stacy Westfall: [00:00:32] Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This season of the podcast is a Q&A season. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail For Podcast.” Today, I’m answering a question about a nine-month-old foal. Let’s listen to the question.

Caller: [00:00:59] Hi, Stacy, my name is Kayla. I’m from British Columbia, Canada. I absolutely love your podcast, your emails, everything that you’re doing. I absolutely adore the help and I enjoy every second of it. I recently got a nine-month-old baby and I’m working with her, and she’s extremely skittish. I can pet her and touch her. I can get a halter on her as well when I’ve got food, when I’m holding a bucket of her treats or a bucket of her mush that she gets for extra protein. But other than that, if I’m not holding a bucket of food, she won’t let me touch her. So far, I’ve just been trying to get used to her touching me with the food, but I do want to take the next step in being able to touch her and get that communication with her without the food. Do you have any tips or tricks on what I can do to move forward and that before I start creating too many issues for myself later on down the road? It’s my first baby like this, and I’ve been listening to a lot of your podcasts for extra help, and I really look forward to hearing from you. Thanks, Stacy. Bye.

Stacy Westfall: [00:02:06] Thanks for the question, Kayla. I’m going to answer this from a few different angles. First, I’m going to talk about the human viewpoint, or at least my human viewpoint, and then I’m going to share what I think the horses could be thinking about this situation, and then I’m going to give you some tips. I’m going to give you some action steps that you could take that I think will really help you increase your awareness and make some behavioral changes for both of you. So the first one I want to talk about is the human viewpoint of what you were describing to me. So basically, when I think about this, it’s actually pretty fresh in my mind because in the last, I think, starting in June, since June, I’ve bought three minis. And so minis for me trigger a lot of the same things that foals trigger in me. It’s one of the things I love about them is it’s like, I’ve got this permanent tiny little creature. When I’m working, and it was just in the last week that I was doing some work with my smallest mini, whose name is Nugget, and he’s 32 inches and he’s a stallion, and I was lunging him and I was correcting him, and I could feel my natural tendency to not want to correct him in the same way that I would a bigger horse. I can feel that pull, even though I know that it’s essentially the same thing. And P.S., he’s a stallion and it’s spring. So it’s interesting that I can feel my tendency, that desire to actually treat it differently. So I’m going to overlay that onto your question because I’m going to basically tell this answer from my point of view.

Stacy Westfall: [00:03:59] So a lot of times when I hear the question like you’re asking, the first thing that comes to my mind is that I suspect that when you go in to feed and you’re holding the bucket, that there could be a little bit of–I’m going to call it this, I’m going to call it like a little bit of a sneaky energy or a little bit of a apologetic energy. A little bit of a like, it’s OK. And so it’s got a little bit of this feeling of I’m going to actually say, like, apologetic, but I think it comes across to the horses as sneaky. So it’s really interesting to me is that sometimes when we start doing this and we don’t actually view these younger horses like they think like horses, which is amazing to me that they just think horsey, right from kind of early, unlike our human children. So it’s kind of interesting for me to turn this around and think that if I go in there and I start acting really slow and cautious that if I look at it, like, it could come across them as sneaky. Now, look at this, if you think about it, if you think about horses out together I think that it is much more common that the powerful horse just is there. So now you’ve got this food situation where when we go out and we throw down, you know, hay or something that they really want, like just one little pile and there’s a group of, let’s say, five horses. We can see what happens pretty quickly because of almost like a domino, as they will say. So the more powerful one controls the food and the other ones kind of come up and they’re like, Can I please? But they’re not necessarily confident as they’re approaching this all-powerful horse. Now, imagine you’re in the stall with the food. If the horse is viewing you as this all-powerful because you’ve got the food and then you’re carrying some kind of what I’m going to call a sneaky energy, or apologetic. But it’s kind of there’s this like, can you get the vibe I’m going for there? If you’ve got that mixed in, can you see how that could read like a trap? This is what I think. I think that when we do this, it does a couple of different things because you kind of–you want to be able to touch her. And you also are probably–I’m going to just fill this in on my own–probably afraid or feel a little bit guilty for also being the thing that’s scaring her. So if all of that is happening, then you’ve got this really mixed energy, which makes you even more sketchy to be around. So then when I think about that one pile of hay in the pasture, five horses around it, I start picturing Gabby. She’s my dominant, lead-type mare, and she shares when she wants to. She doesn’t have a problem with sharing. She just thinks if she flicks an ear, they should all go wherever she tells them to. So what I want to recommend is that when I’m describing this scenario or what I’ve actually been doing with my more timid, scared mini, Latte, when I describe it to you, I want you to really stop and think about this a little bit more from a horse to horse perspective. What I want you to do is I want you to think about how you’re going to show up and then some of the movements you are going to make and some of the movements you’re going to reward her for. Basically, this is going to be an exercise in how to build your foal’s confidence. But I’m going to phrase it in a little bit of a different way to make it more clear what we’re doing and I’ll be interested to know what you think about my choice of words. So what I want you to do is I actually want you to think about building your horse’s assertiveness. Can we make this nine-month-old foal a little more assertive here? And when I wrote that down in my notes, it felt perfectly appropriate exactly what I wanted to convey and then to double-check myself, I hit that little, you know, dictionary search feature on your computer and it popped up, confident and forceful behavior. And I thought, well, how did I get that so wrong? Why don’t I pitch your assertive as forceful? I mean, I can see it, but that wasn’t what I meant when I was writing it. I thought, how did I mess this up? So much? So I did a Google search. And then with the Google search, I got the definition that I had in mind. So here are two of them that came up. Assertiveness is a social skill that relies heavily on effective communication while simultaneously respecting the thoughts and wishes of others. That’s the assertiveness I wanted to have you have in mind that you’re teaching this foal to have. Here’s another version: assertiveness is a healthy way of communicating. It’s the ability to speak up for ourselves in a way that’s honest and respectful. So keep in mind, when I use the idea that we’re going to build this foal’s assertiveness, I want you to be thinking in this frame of mind because I want you to teach her how to approach with respect and also this confident way of being. And I think sometimes when we see behavior that leans a little bit towards assertive, we get a little bit concerned, a little bit towards that confidence. Like, where is that line? And this depends a lot on the person who’s receiving that assertiveness from the horse.

Stacy Westfall: [00:10:29] If you’ve ever watched the Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac, what really worked in that YouTube series was that Jac was very assertive. He was honest and open, and he didn’t have any boundaries at first, so it was questionable whether he was respectful, but he actually really was. He tried to stay away from me. He wasn’t coming after me. So this is an interesting concept for anybody listening to kick around with their own horse. But I really want you to think about it with this foal that you’re actually trying to train this foal to come to you a little bit more confidently. And that may lean towards what I’m saying is assertive. So here’s how I would approach training a foal like this, or I’m going to use my mini, Latte, as an example because she was very suspicious and very jumpy, and this is exactly what I’ve been doing with her. So I’m going to share it with you. The first thing when you go out to do this training exercise, the first thing to remember is don’t act creepy. If it feels like you’re trying to bait a trap so that you can touch or catch, you’re going to come off as a version of sneaky. And if you come off as a version of sneaky and you’ve already got a horse that’s a little bit eye, radar, looking for this, it just doesn’t work. So you actually want to practice going into this and picturing yourself like a tree or a post or something neutral. Because what I’m going to have you do, I’m picturing you going into a stall with the bucket. When I’ve been doing this with Latté, I’ve been going into the little pen where she and Mocha are, and I’ve been going in and holding the hay that I’m about to give them. And so we go in and I just stand and hold the hay. And I’m pretending I’m a tree, I’m pretending I’m a post, I’m pretending, I guess I’m a hay bag in this case, but I’m just standing there and waiting for her to come take a bite. And when I first started this, I would let her take a bite. And she would be chewing it, and then I would take a step back. And even me moving a step back, she would get a little bit scattered. Now, keep in mind, Mocha’s moving around here, so she’s trying to read me and Mocha at the same time. So I would take a step back and then stand and wait and breathe because at this moment you might be tempted to hold your breath. I’m picturing you in the stall, holding the bucket, takes a bite, picks her head up, and you take a step back. And I want you to do a couple of things. I want to see how many times you can step back during this entire hand-fed meal. So I want you backing around the stall. So it’s like she takes a bite, picks her head up, is chewing, you take a step back and you wait. And while you’re doing this, I want you to notice your breathing, if you’re talking, some people are talking when they’re out there with them. I am. Then I want you to notice like, are you having this urge to talk baby talk and soothing? Or are you kind of talking to yourself to ground yourself? Because I don’t know what would a tree sound like? But I want this to sound grounded, so I don’t want it to feel like you’re apologizing. So watch whatever you have the desire to do. Notice tension in your body. Are you holding your breath as she goes to take the bite? What are you doing? What are you feeling when you go to take the step back? Are you taking a step back almost in that sneaky way? Or are you taking a step back and then letting her do whatever? And like I said, Latte would kind of startle because she had multiple things. She was trying to figure out what in the world is Stacy doing today? Why didn’t she just drop the hay and leave? Where’s Mocha? Is he coming after me? And–and like, what’s going on? How do I get another bite of hay? So there’s a lot that’s going on for the horse in this situation, even though you’re not doing a lot. And instead of not doing a lot, notice all of your temptations to hold your breath or to talk apologetically or whatever. And what I want to know is at the end of day one, let’s say you took 50 steps back while you were doing this exercise. It’s interesting because if you’re paying attention, if you’re in a stall and you have to take 50 steps back, you’re going to have to turn a corner at some point. So be watching her. Don’t just be paranoid about, are you doing it right or are you doing it wrong? Be watching her. Is she coming to the bucket quicker now that you’ve stepped back 10, 12, 15 times? Is she coming to the bucket quicker when you had to turn the corner in the stall? Because I’m still picturing you in a stall. Did she get funny when you had to take that step to your left or right? Notice all these little things and breathe. And you don’t really want to have an agenda during this one because you’re just watching, but over time, like over, I don’t know, a week, two weeks, whatever a time frame, not just this one feeding, your goal is to see her approaching quicker and quicker. And if you’re really watching, you’ll be seeing some of those things that trigger her and you’re going to be noticing whether they trigger you too. So let’s say you go to step around the corner and it makes you step to the side and she darts and you have a desire to apologize, have a desire to do something.

Stacy Westfall: [00:16:12] This is the game of understanding with awareness, how you’re contributing. Because if you’re a tree or a post that you just got moved backwards and you’re just standing there neutrally, she’ll work it out much faster than if you are coming off as creepy. After, I don’t know, whether it’s day two, it will be with some horses, or it might be day five or it might be day seven, but it’s going to happen typically fairly quickly. They start to realize that you’re just stepping back. It’s not a big deal. You’re not after them. If anything, you’re stepping away. And what I start to do at that point when–when they’re–when I see that little bit more confidence is that I’ll actually throw in like they’re stepping towards me to take the bite. And I’ll step back just as they go to reach me. And that again, because you switch it a little bit, sometimes that’ll make them a little bit like, what? Or sometimes they’ll boldly step up towards you a little bit more because they’re reading you like, Oh, wait a minute, you’re backing away. So you’re playing with this idea. But when you switch from letting them take the bite and then stepping back to they’re reaching for the bite and you step back, there’s actually a difference there. So it’s an interesting thing to play. And again. What are you doing? Are you breathing? This is a common problem with us while we’re doing this. So eventually what we want to see is that she’s more and more boldly stepping towards you. You’re never trying to reach out and touch her. You’re not trying to do anything. There’s no ulterior motive. She’s like, might as well just step up there because the eating goes smoother and faster if I catch the bucket a little bit faster. And when you think about a horse backing away from another horse, again, I know you’re carrying the bucket. But if you’re out in the field and one horse backs away from another horse, it’s a yielding type thing, which is why I chose the phrasing that you’re teaching her to be more assertive. And we’re going to say that assertive can have a line. It can be like appropriately assertive and then it can go over the top assertive. But this is what I want you to be thinking is that you’re building her confidence by stepping back and giving her 50 opportunities during a feeding to be able to make that choice again and again. Can you see how that’s different than if you stand there and it’s you’re standing there and you’re trying to touch her while she’s eating? That has much more of a mixed thing than you backing around. I’m going to throw one more thought out there. If you’re in the middle of doing this, you’re stepping back and you know she’s coming up and you’re at step, I don’t know, 35 and something outside makes a noise. That could be snow falling off the roof depending on where you’re–where you’re living or it could be, you know, a loud banging noise of something falling or another horse or a person or a car. If she startles due to something else just act neutral or continue on where you were. Notice your reaction to possibly want to soothe her or to possibly think something terrible went wrong. You might be thinking I’ve backed up 35 times and the last ten times were perfect. She’s getting better and better and then, I don’t know, a cat jumps on something and it makes a noise and she spooks and startles. It’s very common for the person to think, ugh! OK, that’s going to cause a reaction in your body. That’s now going to cause a problem. Be a tree. Be a post. Be neutral. Let her come back. Basically, what I want you to start thinking of is that dance between the two of you because it’s actually possible for you to use this exact same technique over time and get bigger and bigger with your energy while still having her draw towards you. If she starts seeing that, you’re just stepping back constantly. Then what happens is they’re not under the impression that you’re coming after them. If anything, you’re yielding to them, and it makes this entire curiosity in them, and especially if you’re still doing it with loaded with you carrying the feed, it’s just amazing how well this exercise works.

Stacy Westfall: [00:20:46] I’m going to add one more thing about what I was doing with Latte out in the paddock. Now this is higher-level, and I want you to pay attention to why because this again stacks in here with, what we’re doing is basically we’re yielding to them, but we’re also upping the energy level. The higher-level version that I was doing with Latte out in the field, that was harder and at the end of the day, it ended up being more beneficial when she was ready for it was I’m standing there holding the hay, Mocha is trying to come up and take the hay from me. And he has a tendency to pin his ears because he’s the more dominant one. And I decided I’m going to hold the hay. I’m going to feed Latte, but I’m not going to let Mocha. So I’m now training the two of them at the same time. But this was really confusing for Latte because it meant that I was standing there neutral when she came up, or even backing away when she or after she took a bite, depending on what was going on. But then at the same time, if Mocha came, I would take my other arm and wave it and shoo him away, which, by the way, typically made Latte run away, and then the whole thing started over again. But instead of me looking at the whole thing, starting over again as being a failure, I’m looking at the whole thing starting over again as being a whole nother training session. This means I can get 50 training sessions in, in a very short amount of time with them walking up and taking bites of hay from me, or not taking bites of hay as I chase Mocha away. And it’s amazing. I can’t emphasize enough how much this has helped change Latté because she’s seeing the dynamic that I have the power to drive Mocha away, but also I’m allowing her and stepping back. So it’s playing with the herd dynamics. In this way where I’m just taking an extra five, maybe 10 minutes while I’m feeding them and it’s changing her as fast or faster than some of the direct training that I do that you’d think of with a halter and lead.

Stacy Westfall: [00:23:00] So there are a ton of other steps that you could take when you’re basically you’re asking the question about building this horse’s confidence and getting her to the point where you can lead her and do these different things and touch her when you don’t have the food. What I want you to think about is that this whole game is about her confidence and her ability to handle a certain amount of pressure. And that pressure is even just again when you had to turn around–when you had to back and turn that corner. And then can you imagine getting to the point where you’re backing around the stall between bites and you could maybe jump or flinch or laugh or snap your fingers or cough? Any of these things that can be subtly added in that are like these little moments of what could be considered pressure and she’s handling it in between. And I hope if you’re doing it the way that I do, my horses start to be like, eh, and this one’s just a little weird. My human’s a little strange. So, you know, she’s not threatening. She’s just a little weird. And what you’ve done in all of that is you’ve taught the foal to handle a sort of emotional pressure. And that’s the skill that’s going to transfer to touching her and to leading her. When you say you want to be able to take the next step to be able to touch her without carrying the food, I’ve been giving you a way to bridge that while you’re still carrying the food. Because what I really want is for you to build your own self-awareness while you’re building her confidence. And once you figure out this dance of stepping back to draw her in and not reacting when she doesn’t do certain things, that’s the skill in you that’s going to transfer without food. So again, I’m imagining you go into a stall and you have no food and you walk in and she turns and looks at you and you step back. And maybe she just, you know, looks away, looks out of the stall and you like, snap your fingers and she turns to look at you and you step back. Can you see how there’s a bridge there? Because she’ll start to realize it’s weird, but every time I look at her, she steps back. And most often, eventually, these horses, they get curious about how much they can move you. It’s a very horsey thing to do out in the field, like if that keeps moving away from me, can I move it more? And if you continue to play this game, this is how you can get them to come toward you because they keep noticing you’re backing away. This is a powerful tool with any horse. And just make sure that if you’re doing this with a horse that is possibly more assertive already, that you know how to drive them away because some of them will start asking really big questions about driving you and moving you around more and more. So at that point, you want to be able to answer by driving them away. But I think the concept is well worth exploring. Again, thank you for the question, and I hope this gives you some new ways of thinking about this, about pondering how you’re showing up, what kind of energy you’re in, and then some tools that you can use to play around with it. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.

Links mentioned in podcast:

Left to right
Mocha, Latte, Nugget

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