Preparing foals for their future

BREEDERS GUIDE Preparing foals for sale BR Farm
SELLING FOALS: Whether it is a Thoroughbred foal or a Sport horse foal, all buyers want to be able to see a potential future athlete in the stock they buy. (FW40-558AH) PICTURE: Anne Hughes

WE all want to know the secret to making a profit when selling foals and it is fair to say that a lot of it depends on breeding, pedigree, conformation and LUCK! There are elements that we do have some control over when it comes to putting our best foot forward on sales day and optimising our foals’ chances of selling well.

From The Beginning

Preparing foals for the future all starts when choosing a sire for your mare. This decision influences how commercial your animal is at the point of sale. Seek advice and research your mare’s previous offspring and her strengths and weaknesses, then choose a stallion that will help to enhance any offspring she may produce.

During pregnancy, a good parasite control and vaccination routine should be used for mares and their welfare should be priority at all times. In late gestation make sure your broodmare is fed good quality feed of a suitable type.

There are many opinions regarding handling a newborn foal. Some people advocate imprint training, whilst others recommend carrying out very little handling to let the mare and foal bond. A little regular handling from day one can help you create a well-rounded, well-mannered individual. From the first day a foal is turned out, handlers should use their voices and cradle the foal to encourage the foal to walk with them rather than just follow the mare. As time progresses, the need for two handlers is reduced down to one, eventually working towards using a leather head collar (foal slip). With initial handling it is a good idea to feed the lead rope through the ring on the headcollar as opposed to clipping it on. This enables quick release of the foal should the handler get into difficulties.

Preparing for Sale

All of this desensitisation work will ensure that good foundations are put in place. This makes your preparation job for any sale easier. From about three to four weeks of age, your foal should see a farrier on a monthly basis, as it is at this early stage that a farrier can influence your foal’s appearance or way of going as the growth plates in the foal’s legs are still open at this stage.

The majority of foal sales tend to occur in November. A vast number of foals born from January to June will be at the sales competing for the best price. Whether it is a Thoroughbred foal or a Sport horse foal, all buyers want to be able to see a potential future athlete in the stock they buy. It is unrealistic for one specific routine to work for all types of foals and that is where you must be able to judge a foal’s strengths and weaknesses. If this is something you are unsure of ask the professionals, such as your vet and farrier.

Weaning tends to occur in the Thoroughbred industry during the months of July and August. Historically, this has been linked to the foal’s need to adjust to being weaned and to give the foal time prior to the sale to recover from the stress of the weaning process. Creep feeding should be well established at the time of weaning. The foal should also be showing signs of independence from the mare. Sport horse foals tend to be born later and are subsequently weaned later in the autumn time. Often these foals do not tend to need as much recovery time after weaning or preparation time for sales. Sport horse foals that have been handled well can often cope with three weeks preparation prior to sales. Most foals will need approximately four weeks to prepare for sales; however, some weaker foals may need six weeks of preparation.

The key to working with youngstock is repetition. New equipment and routines should be introduced slowly. The first and only real aid you will have to work with is your voice, so from the moment you start handling any young stock, use your voice when asking the animal to stop, walk on etc.

In most cases, you are dealing with foals that have been out all summer, so they have to be given the opportunity to adjust to stable/ pen life. It is in these early days that your foal needs to get used to being handled regularly. Introducing a gentle grooming routine may be a nice way for your foal to build up trust with its handler.

It is important to put foals in individual stables where possible, as weanlings often build up bonds with others. If penned in groups, when it comes time to separate them it can be like going through the weaning process all over again. Depending on your circumstances and facilities, it is a good idea to start walking your foals in groups of four in an enclosed, flat and safe arena. You can start walking foals off their head collar to begin with, getting them used to their surroundings. If you do not have other weanlings to walk with, use a quiet pony or older horse to give the foal an initial lead and some confidence. It is important to keep using your voice and to start from the first day with a good active walk, where your foal is moving forward well.

The first few days you should be content with your foal having a good rhythm when walking and being able to stand still for a few seconds when asked. Positive reinforcement is more beneficial than negative. Leading from a foal’s shoulder means the handler is less likely to get kicked. It is important to start slowly, working your foals for three minutes on both reins, in order to build up even muscle. Walking can be carried out either in the morning or evening. However, remember that these young animals also need time out from stables, so turning them out daily for two hours or more will help to keep your foal content.

Towards the middle of the first week, when your foal has settled into the routine, it may be a good idea to introduce the bridle and bit. This process should be done slowly and quietly, so as not to stress the foal. Some people believe in putting a small amount of honey on the rubber bits in order to improve the taste. It is important to take the bridle apart at the bit. The bridle should be placed on the foal’s head with as little interference as possible. The bit can be slipped into the foal’s mouth from the side and reattached to the bridle. If the foal is content with the bit, leave the foal in its box for five to 10 minutes, while you are present to monitor it. Continue this process daily, increasing the time that the bridle is left on.

By week two, you should aim to be walking your foal with a bridle on under the headcollar. It is important that you do not lead the foal directly from the bit until the foal is walking well, has got used to the bit and is listening to instructions. If the animal is standing quietly when asked, start encouraging it to stand in the correct open stance that is used at the sales. Always use the foal’s shoulder to help it into the correct stance rather than pulling on the bit. Remember that foals’ mouths are fragile.

As the weeks progress, you should be leading from a coupling attached to the bit and noseband of the bridle. The foal should walk with impulsion in a good active rhythm and be happy to walk away from other foals and stand in an open stance when asked. Prior to attending the sales, your foal should have worked up to walking 15 minutes on both reins giving a total workout of 30 minutes.

To Trot or not to Trot

In flat Thoroughbred sales, a good walk is often sufficient for the purchaser too see what they need in a potential athlete. However, at Sport Horse and National Hunt sales, the purchaser often will ask the handler to trot the foal. Every buyer has different preferences, so with this in mind, it is a good idea to incorporate a trotting section into your sales preparation at home. Often a trot can help to improve a ‘laid back’ foal’s way of going in the walk.

Fit not Fat

It is vital that the foal’s growth and development is monitored weekly to pick up signs of potential developmental problems. The monitoring of foals by taking pictures and weighing them on a weekly basis is good for analysing progress. A common problem in foal preparation is overfeeding. Overfeeding plus excessive exercise can often cause damage to young animals’ legs and joints. Many professionals believe it is better having a slightly lighter foal then one that is overweight. Usually a week to 14 days prior to going to the sales, you need your vet to assess the foal’s health for the foal’s European Health Certification.

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