Back to basics

by Alan Leavitt

Now is as good a time as any to go over some basics that are essential for good horsemanship.

Since it’s the foaling season, all foals should be “socialized” before they stand up for the first time. This means putting hands on them, picking up feet, rubbing their ears and face, and rubbing them all over. Also called “imprinting,” this early handling will make the foal much easier to handle for the rest of its life.

Then, the first morning of its life, the foal should be haltered. From that early moment on, wherever the dam is led, the foal should be led also. For the first few times mom and son or daughter are turned out, a butt rope is helpful in getting the foal broke to lead.

It only takes one person to lead both mare and foal. The foal goes in front, and gets most of the attention, the mare brings up the rear, usually just tagging along on a slack lead.

There are so many ways a foal running loose can get into trouble, plus breaking them to lead early on makes them so much easier to handle for the rest of their lives.

Doing things this way also makes them easy to catch because whenever mom and kid are being brought in, the foal has to be caught so the lead can be snapped onto the halter ring. Some years ago I spent some time with Carter Duer as he showed me his teasing methods. In passing, he happened to mention that he could walk out in any field where his mares and foals were turned out and catch any foal he wanted to catch. Carter is one of the best horsemen I’ve ever known, and that is just one example of his skill.

Weaning time can come any time after the foal is three months old, and I like to stick pretty close to that. I realize that some farms can’t wean until they bring their yearlings in to start sales prep, because they use the same fields for each crop.

If you possibly can, it pays to give your fields a rest between each crop. If you do, the field should be chain harrowed to break up the manure lying in it. That way it can be absorbed by the land, and thereby enriched.

Here, a factual correction. When a pregnant mare loses her pregnancy through a process that doesn’t involve abortion, the mare has “resorbed” the pregnancy, not “absorbed” it.

Here a general rule regarding turn-outs, whether mares, yearlings, or horses in general. Horses should always be turned out in even numbers. Horses are buddy animals, and if there is an uneven number of horses in a field, they will always be a “lonely only.” Which means some poor horse who is picked on by everybody else, who gets last crack at the feed, whose life is unnecessarily unpleasant.

Somehow the plight of the single horse in this situation reminds me of the lonely guy who stays up all night playing solitaire with a deck of 51. On request, I’ll sing it for you.

As for weaning itself, it should be the least traumatic as you can make it. Assuming you’re dealing with a field of nursing mares, every few days you remove one mare. Eventually, you are down to one mare and a bunch of foals, now weanlings. At this point you move everybody to the field where the yearlings will be raised, and after a few weeks you can quietly take out the one remaining mare, and all her foster kids will hardly realize she is gone.

The next important stage is yearling sales prep. In addition to all the usual grooming tools, a vacuum cleaner is very useful. As for feed, a high level of corn oil does wonders for a horse’s coat.

I like a mane pulled. It’s easy to do with a mane comb. If an occasional yearling doesn’t want to stand, a blanket clip on his or her nose will solve the problem. I was taught early on to pull the mane the length of a dollar bill, and I still do today.

Videos are essential in yearling marketing. Music is just a distraction as far as this kid is concerned, but others love it. If you must use music, at least use good taste. I’d recommend Dire Straits’ Walk of Life.

I shoe all my yearlings, trotters and pacers, with 5/8’s half rounds. I also put bright, white rubber bell boots on in the front. The boots accentuate the yearling’s action, and I’ve never grasped why everyone doesn’t use them. The little weight they add will also help to keep the yearling on the trot the whole way.

This means videoing both trotters and pacers on the trot. From all the years I spent with Howard Beissinger, I’m confident I could get my pacers to pace in their videos, but it never has seemed worth the trouble. If anyone wants to try it, start by leaving the yearling barefoot in front and shod with a side-weighted shoe behind. But again, the pacers will bring just as much money with a good trotting video as they would if they paced, so why bother?

Finally, an interesting message from my dear friend, Moira Fanning. She sent me a report on the leading sires in Europe in 2021. The major trotting countries, France, Italy, Sweden, and Norway were dominated by familiar names like Love You, Maharajah, Ready Cash, and Varenne.

But working your way down the list of European countries where trotters are bred, one comes to Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary. Lo and behold, the champion sires in all three of those booming standardbred breeding hot beds are sons of Conway Hall!

So I walked down to his paddock, where he lives in glorious retirement, and fed him a handful of Mrs. Pasture’s Cookies For Horses. And as he rested his beautiful head in my shoulder, I whispered, “Szép Munka” in his ear. Which as every well educated citizen of the world knows means “Well done” in Hungarian, thanks to Google.