Have you ever watched young horses? Foals and even yearlings and two year-olds, out in the field as they experience the world? Many natural horsemanship types have written entire books about how the relationship between a young horse and his herd as a basis for creating a relationship with horses and training them. But I'm talking less about herd dynamics and more about watching a young horse learn about himself, develop his personality, and figure out how his massive and powerful body works.
Watching really young foals move into the world is very much like watching a computer boot up. First the legs bend, flex, reach, step, plant…check. Then the back, up and down…check. Ears, hey, these things move! Check. Neck, that moves in way too many ways, but check. The first time they really get out in the open and start trying to use all their parts is one part hysterically funny, one part awe inspiring. We take more than a year to move all of our significantly more simple parts they can do feats of spectacular athletics in a matter of days.
Very often you can see them do something, throw in a big buck, get galloping at a new, faster speed, leap over something that they find in their path, and when they “stick the landing” to steal a phrase from another sport, you can see their little eyes grow wide and their little tails fluff up, as they say “Wow! I am AWESOME!”
Of course, they don’t always stick the landing, and when they pull themselves up out of their heap, they’ll either get up sheepishly and stroll off to find Mom, clearly saying, “I hope no one saw that,” or they leap to their feet and take off bucking as if to say, “I MEANT to do that!”
By the time they are a few months old, their personalities begin to emerge, and you can begin to see what you’ll have when they get older. Some are bold, while others are shy. Some are cheeky and pesky, others are dreamy or drowsy. I was recently watching my yearling play with his baby brother. Mom was still on the scene with the brothers, and Big Brother had endured a lot at the hands of his little brother. The wee one would tease the big one mercilessly, grabbing his tail, biting his lip, trying to chase him. And big brother would take it patiently, while clearly glancing over his shoulder at their mother, as if to say, “I’ll be nice to him, don’t get mad at me.”
The older brother is clearly a more dreamy, hang loose sort of horse, willing to endure a bit of torment, not interested in pushing the envelope with his mother. Baby is a far more cheeky character, looking for entertainment, and a playmate to keep him amused. I expect when they are older, this personality traits will make for two very different sort of riding horses, despite their identical genes.
There are differences in gender apparent at a very early age – colts, as a rule, are much rougher than fillies, My sister-in-law who until last year, had somehow managed to only produce fillies in her small breeding program, was shocked and somewhat horrified by the much rougher play of her two, now yearling, colts compared to previous years’ babies. However, fillies tend to be bossier and more involved in creating a hierarchy with each other. Fillies will test your authority earlier than colts, but they’ll knock off the wanna-play-can-I-stand-on-your-head stuff a lot earlier too, if handled properly.
And, in my experience, even breed differences are apparent very early. Prior to breeding my first full Thoroughbred several years back, I had spent most of my time with Warmblood and Quarter Horse babies. They played, and could be wild and silly, but I was somewhat unprepared for the way my Thoroughbred baby just wanted to RUN everywhere. My warmbloods had spent a lot of time practicing their dressage moves, caprioling, piaffing, passaging, and levading around their field, but they had never just galloped around for minutes without stopping. It was quite an eye opener for me.
I’ve often spoken with people who say that buying babies is so hard, because you never know what you are going to get. While it certainly is a greater risk-taking venture than purchasing a mature horse, I think if buyers could spend a few days just watching a group of babies in the field, I bet they could tell a lot about what they’d end up with. Who is high energy and low energy, who is tractable, and who likes to test authority, who is brave and who is shy.
If you know what sort of horse suits you, you can find them, even at a young and tender age.