Many dream of buying a foal so they can “create” their own dream horse. One that’s well behaved and kind and who trust you 100%. One that might excel in whatever sport you’re doing (even if that sport is cutting your lawn), and who neighs at you when you say his name. A few of you guys have noticed that I got Brego when he was just a colt, and one asked me how it was to have a baby horse in the stable. Asking me a question that might take a long time to answer is dangerous, guys – but alright, lets go!
Baby Brego with his ribs poking out, tired after 5 minutes of “do’s and don’t’s”. Yes that is Lillens rope halter, by the way…
Buying a little colt or filly can be great. They are curious (adorable!), they are totally dependent on you (aww!), they are in serious need of bonding and guidance (how cute!), and you can describe them as blank canvases ready to become the most exquisite artwork (perfect!).
But take a deep breath. You’ll need it.
Having a baby horse is adorable, yes. Having a baby horse will also test your knowledge about animal behaviour, your ability to guide and teach, your timing, your patience (oh gosh your patience is up for a 6+ year trial) and your ability to hang in there.
See; a baby horse doesn’t know shit.
Or, as a matter of fact, he knows shit. It is about all he knows. He knows how to put things in his mouth and make poop. He also know that eating poop from healthy horses might be good for him if his tummy feels weird. But can he be lead around in a halter? Nope. Can he walk inside the stable without freaking out because the ground looks different? Nope. Does he understand you better if you get frustrated? Also nope.
The baby draft looks more like a potato on toothpicks, but hey, he’s adorable.
See, when you’re tired and just want the dang (adult) horse to listen to you, you might just end the argument with a grunt, some angry body language, or a whip (single smack, only used by people with short temper who feel very ashamed afterwards). And here’s the thing; the adult horse usually get’s it. They have lived long enough to have an idea of what humans want and don’t want. They have us humans figured out pretty good,, as long as they’ve spent enough time with us. They know we can get fairly angry fairly quick.
The baby horse, however, doesn’t know this. The baby horse has no tools in his toolbox. He has no screwdriver for when his drill stops functioning. A smack doesn’t give him knowledge. He doesn’t know how to behave “better”. And if you put him in a situation without giving him the correct tools, he will have a meltdown. That meltdown might happen in the riding arena (safe place), or in the middle of a road (not a safe place). And that situation might be a situation you had not planned or prepared for, which still happened, because you know; the world does not adapt to your needs.
A human baby can be picked up from wherever the meltdown started and carried to safety, where they can finish the meltdown and restart their brain. The same does not apply for baby horses. They’re flight animals, who’s brain doesn’t restart. When they’re out of capacity, they’re out. Good luck dealing with that.
I still remember that time I took Brego out for one of his first strolls – along a quiet gravel road just to keep it calm and safe. Guess what we met? A fire truck! And all you riders out there know the deal about large trucks slowing down. You know, that hydraulic “PSSHHHTT”. Yeah. Yes, exactly. Me, and my little baby horse who had not seen anything else than a regular sized car in the distance, had been forced off the road and into a ditch when this unpleasant noise was thrown right at us. But we sorted it out, after Brego almost ran face first into the side of the truck because he was so blinded by fear.
There’s also a lot of things you can do wrong. There are about 20 different ways to create a well behaved, kind individual, and about 6000 ways to create a four legged piece of terror.
He will learn everything you teach him.
Good or bad. Things you meant to teach him, and things you most definitively did NOT mean to teach him. Positive reinforcement is defined as positive by the horse, and if it makes him feel good, he will want to do more. When having a baby horse, you will experience this a lot. After all, this is what we should base our training “system” on.
I had worked very hard at teaching Brego that hacking = exploring and not parking head-first into a bush to eat leaves, when I ruined it all by laughing my ass off that one time he reared up to eat from a tree hanging over the road. Brego’s mind said “hey, this was fun!” and there you go. Now he rears up to eat leaves like a damn giraffe no matter who he has on his back, and what I thought was hilarious one time has turned into something that will scare little children away from ever getting up on a horse ever again. Way to go, Emma, your horse now scares baby humans. Great job.
Brego and his Mr. Pengwing (named after Benedict Cumberbatch inability to say ‘penguin’)
Watching him grow and develop is moving, and I feel like a proud parent whenever he calmly lets younger and inexperienced kids fix his hind hooves.
Because I still remember that god damn time he had a meltdown whilst I was trimming his hind hooves, and he sat down on me. And not just a slight lean, but with such force my only option was to counter his weight by picking up his entire hind and slam him into the closest wall, so he could support himself on it whilst I got away. Surely; he was only two and a half years old at the time and not the biggest horse, but I did lift his entire hind (bum and two legs included) up from the ground with my thighs, and moved him a few feet to the left in order for me to escape unharmed. He was just as surprised as me. Let’s just say he stood very still the next time I picked up that leg.
The thing about having a baby horse in the stable, is that you never know what he might do. I’ve taught him how to be lead in a halter, but do other people use the same body language as me? Have I been thorough enough in my teaching so he is equipped to understand more people than just me?
If something scary happens, is he as calm with another person as he is with me? Does he look at other people and think “this person knows what’s up! I’ll trust her!”, or is it just with me? Have I taught him to trust other people of all ages and levels of experience? How will he ‘test’ others?
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that your baby horse has to become a dream horse for other people too.
Sure, I don’t get scared when he rears up to eat leaves. Will someone else get scared? Most definitively. Will they end up punishing him for rearing? Most definitively. Because scared humans do that.
And my biggest concern with Brego has not been how he would handle a rider once he got old enough for that, or what we would do if we met a truck on a narrow road. My biggest concern has been whether I’ve taught him humans good enough. I don’t punish my horses. Other people might. Have I taught him that ‘shit happens’ and that he shouldn’t take it personally? Have I taught him that different people behave differently? Have I prepared him for the outside world? If I died tomorrow, would he find ease in someone else’s hands?
After getting my own ‘blank canvas’-horse, I’ve been very aware of painting a picture that everyone can enjoy. I don’t want to be selfish. I want him to go out there and say “HELLO I’M BREGO AND I’M THE BEST AND I LOVE ALL HUMANS” instead of “hi I’ve lost my mommy and I don’t know what to do now”.
The secret is to give your baby horse a hell lot of self-esteem, and a massive interest in paying attention to what humans do. Boost their self-esteem without making them spoilt or blind. Once your baby horse thinks he’s the best, AND wants to play along to anything you do, you just have to go ahead as a good example and he follows as a great one.
It sounds easy, but it’s not.
Having a baby horse in the stable has been funny and nervewracking. But when I see my ‘baby’ walk around like the handsome young man he has become, boy has it been worth it!
(I know I sound a bit overly dramatic but it’s true!)