A new way to approach the training process...
For this to happen, we must create an environment that I call the FOAL. This is an acronym, and if we take each portion of the acronym seriously, we may begin to learn something from our horse about what he needs in order to learn form us. What we must realize though, is that before he can learn from us, we must have the mentality to ask the question of the horse, “show me what I need to learn from you in order for me to teach you how to be in our domestic world.” From that conversation, partnership perspective, where we put our ego aside, we create potential for great possibilities with our horse.
When a foal is born, the first natural experience it has is imprint training from the mother. If you notice a foal that has just been born in a field, within hours that foal is glued to its mothers’ side, moving its legs as the mare does, stopping when the mare does and ready for flight as is necessary in a prey animal. I have my own view on imprinting a foal versus training them after a period of natural imprinting by their mother, but what we are evaluating here, is the ability to access a horse mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically in order to ‘train' him.
F – Faith
A foal is born with an instinctive faith in his dam, we have to earn that. We should not
expect a horse to trust us just because he is ours! Faith in us has to be earned and it is deeper
than just feeding and caring for him.
Other than birth and the stimulating process of cleaning and nursing the foal, the most
important contact within the first 24 hours of birth, is that of a visual contact between mare and
A visual contact with a human in order to develop faith, is also important, but we must
allow it during the process of speaking the language of equus.
This ideally should be developed at liberty, either in the field or a round pen.
Using the same language that a mare would use to communicate with her foal ~ asking
him to move his feet, turn, stop, change direction ~ all with eye contact on the human’s part
until the conversation is over. At which point the horse will determine whether he has the faith
in you to establish that eye contact bond without push or pressure.
O – Observation
Observation is a 2-way street. With a horse, they ‘observe’ your emotional state and
authenticity, which will determine the level of faith they have in you.
From the human standpoint, we must observe their movement, their body language, their
relaxation level, their instinctual needs and language each moment in their learning. We must
be more tuned in to their needs, than what we want to achieve in our session.
As a foal instinctively observes his dam, runs when she runs, stops when she stops, reacts
when she does; we can obtain a level of this interaction by being the observer of our own
actions and authenticity as well as of their actions. A horse wants a leader and the human must
prove that they are worthy in order to have a real partnership.
A – Attention
Once the first 2 practices have been established, the human handler can then begin to ask
questions, providing the faith and observation stay intact. We must remember to remember that
just because they are established one day, it doesn’t mean they will hold true the next. WHY?
In order to learn anything, all parties must pay attention. We must learn how to ask the
horse a question, without destroying faith and observation.
The question must always be at the level of the equine language, but because we don’t
have teeth to bite and legs to kick, we use other non-invasive tools.
Discovering how your horse responds to moving away from a particular aid, is the first
way to discover whether he can pay attention to you or not. Whether he does or not, your
response will pave what happens next.
In this phase, just as a mare would do with her foal, we invite the horse to move his hind
quarters away from us, then his shoulders, then his rib cage.
From here, if the conversation is 2 way, then we can go to the learning phase.
L – Learn
“From faith, observation is established; from observation, attention is willingly offered,
from attention learning can happen” – Debbie Davies
In this phase of returning to the FOAL, we learn how to teach so the horse can learn..
If attention has been offered with faith and observation still intact, we can then initiate
desired movement to begin influencing, or reeducating the horse’s body, so it can be prepared
to carry us under saddle, and at the very least have a weight bearing posture.
It is in the learning phase that we can retrain the equine body, re-inform the nervous
system and rebalance undesirable patterns in the body.
This is the phase most of us spend our time in, either with under saddle work or ground
work or both. Unfortunately, many people go about it without exploring the FOA before the L.
In this case Faith, Observation and Attention are replaced with, Fear, Oblivion and Absence,
which results in Lethargy; both for horse and handler.