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I believe young foals can learn a lot. I am not yet convinced about imprinting but I do believe in "environment enrichment".
That means presenting the foal with situations it finds challenging but not so scary that it can't cope. They learn to deal with fear and are rewarded when they over come it.
All young animals learn naturally, so it makes sense to guide them through channels which lead them to learning things that will be of use to them and their owners in the future.
Kelpie meets Foxy. Meeting every day people and things is part of a ponies' education.
Morrich Darach gets his feet trimmed for the first time.
At the stud, our foals are encouraged to train themselves -- with a little help from the feed bucket!
The latest gadget used to desensitised the youngsters is a Tescoes umbrella! I think it cost £6 or £7 and is worth every penny (though it looks as if I'm going to need a new one soon).
Head shy? This is Lucy who became a bit head shy. Two hours later and she was keen to put the head collar on herself!
Head Collaring Foals for the First Time
For years, I struggled with trying to head collar foals that would not tolerate being handled.
Now I head collar them in the field without any trouble at all!
I remembered how I trained hawks to accept the hood.
Simple! Start with a head collar that is too large.
Encourage the foal to take pieces of carrot from your hand.
Feed the foal pieces of carrot through the head collar.
Gently scratch the foal on the head as you slip on the head collar.
Quite soon, it will be head collaring itself!
Teaching foals to tolerate scary things
Highland ponies never miss a chance to eat. So here at the Morrich Stud we exploit that to teach them to tolerate things they might otherwise find scary. When they see a fluttery plastic sheet every day, it becomes something to ignore.
Ponies find umbrellas quite scary.
...especially if they are flapping and opened and closed.
An old coat on a stick is good for desensitising.
Ponies are naturally scared of big things above them -- like a rider.
So it helps to get them used to that before risking life and limb.
Strangely, things dragged along the ground are disliked too, so we show them that they are harmless.
Start them young! Lots of handling when they are young will eliminate fear and make training a lot easier later on. Foals play with each other by biting, especially lower legs, so they naturally don't like being handled. I am a great believer in a plastic carrier bag on the end of a long stick. Just keep stroking them with it and they will eventually tolerate that, then you can start using your hand.
If the foal wants to get the hard feed in the bowl, she must tolerate the plastic.
They soon get used to it.
Lift the foot with one hand while popping a piece of carrot into the foal's mouth with the other.
And the right foot.
Putting on a rope halter
A rope halter is the perfect training aid, especially for catching a shy horse, and it does not take much skill to make your own. Just Google for instructions on how to do it. But when we went to look for instructions on the correct way to put one on, we found the videos were just not there. So we made our own!
The youngsters get a handful of hard feed in each bowl inside a small enclosure every day.
When they are used to that, some rails are laid
across the gateway.
"You cannot be serious!"
Their first thoughts are that it can't be done! Corry barked his shins on the rail and convinced himself he could not even step over it at 150mm or 6 inches high!
But after a while, they were all jumping in and out and I was able to raise the bar a little each day. They'd even pop in during the day to check whether there was any feed they'd over looked in the buckets!
What is involved here is a thing I call "awareness". Once you open an animal's mind to what it can do and build confidence, anything is possible.
This is the result. Kelpie seems to be saying this jump is just tooo small!
Ponies don't tend to be dog shy at The Morrich Stud!
Erosion of fear of the unfamiliar is one of the corner stones of training any animal at the end of the food chain.
Initially, the ponies might chase the dogs....but the dogs are used to that, they simply side step, and eventually both get bored, though occasionally they have a game just for fun.
Hard feed off a deer skin familiarises our ponies to the scent of fresh blood in case some are suitable to go on to be deer ponies for deer extraction on local estates.
First steps in training a deer pony
These youngsters are eating bruised oats off a fresh deer skin for the first time. Highland ponies have traditionally been used for carrying heavy loads across rough country, so they have always been used to carry culled deer. They are becoming more popular for this purpose as motor transport cannot be used where the terrain is too rough and where wheels and tracks damage the sensitive environment. The pony's hoof causes little damage which Nature soon repairs. Stalking clients love to see the ponies and even pay a premium where ponies are regularly used!
Morrich Finn carries a young Sika stag for the first time.
Finn finally graduates to fully trained deer pony.
Job done! Upperlochton Fergus with his new owner, Phil Burgess. Fergie has become quite famous on the Horse & Hound Forum. He can also be found on YouTube. Just do a search for HotBloodedHighland.
Teaching youngsters to lead
Sorry, the aspect ratio of this video is wrong! Our ponies do NOT look like sausage dogs (except in this video!).
Pressure and release is an essential concept to understand in horse training. We use rope head collars for training. When light forward pressure is exerted, that puts pressure on the poll. To remove the slight discomfort, a horse will try various moves. When it moves forwards, even the slightest bit, the pressure is removed. Horses learn by trying things out. Too much pressure and the horse may go into "escape mode", i.e. it panicks and may try a variety of things that it has been programmed to do by instinct. So "less is more". Gentle pressure works better than force. The key is to be gentle and reward the slightest movement in the direction you want the horse to move. In the video, Jen works two yearlings applying gentle pressure-and-rlease to get them to walk over various obstacles.
The youngsters are fed in the trailer and learn that it's a nice place to be. Later, they will be taught to load on command. I don't believe in going into a confined space with half a tonne of unpredictable horse flesh unless I have to!
Morrich Darach, gelding, foaled 6/1/2010, is sold and due to travel south soon. So he has been on a course of desensitisation as no one wants him to be stressed out during the journey. What has been achieved with a few minutes each day can be seen from viewing the video below.
Update: Gillies lorry arrived at the stud at 6.30am and Darach came to call, was caught in the field and loaded within 5 minutes. He walked up the ramp without hesitation and apparently travelled perfectly, including loading and unloading at the various stop over points. He then unloaded at his final destination as if he had been doing it all his life. His new owner tells me he consented to being groomed all over and having his feet picked. I think this confirms that the methods I've used in falconry and dog training for decades are easily applied to horses without major modification.
Teaching a foal to load
Warning: Before working with ponies and trailers, make sure the trailer is stable. This one has the rear stabilisers down but could still do with extra support at the front just to be sure.
Here are a few pictures of Aza ("Foxy"), the German Shepherd, and Fergus, the gelding, showing Morrich Finn the Foal that trailers are fun!
There is nothing like starting them young and letting a young animal's natural curiosity do the work in a gentle and gradual manner! But if trying this at home, be aware of safety. Always have the trailer attached to a suitable vehicle or have the jockey wheel and stabilisers firmly in place. And make sure all catches are secured so there are no sharp points to hurt your pony. You can help things along by putting food inside the trailer but never use force.
Aza: "Hey, Finn, why don't you go inside?"
Finn: "I don't think so. It smells funny!"
Aza (the German Shepherd): "Oh, come on, this is fun!"
Finn: "Well...If you are really sure...".
Finn: "Oooh! Here's another door!"
Aza: "There, I told you so!" Finn: "Yes, it is fun!"
Finn: "I think I'll try it this way this time".
Finn: "Hi Uncle Fergus, look what I'm doing!"
Fergus: "Yeah, big deal!"
Finn: "Well, I don't know why I made such a fuss! I can see so much more up here!"
The usual way to load a horse is to lead it in. But that is a problem because most accidents happen when a handler is in a confined space with a nervous horse. I read of another way; simply train the horse to load itself! So the mares have been trained to load on command. The first step was to familiarise them with the trailer which was left attached to an old Land Rover and left in the same field over winter. Then hay was left in the trailer so they learnt to go in and out to feed. Next, the trailer was left backed up to a gate. To get to fresh grass every day, as the electric fence was moved, the ponies had to go in at the rear ramp and out of the front ramp! Initially, they'd through at the gallop, then after a while, they'd walk through, then would linger to pull at a hay net.
Note in the photographs that the front jockey wheel is down and the rear is supported on stands. If you don't have stands, either attach the trailer to a vehicle or support the rear with blocks, otherwise the trailer could tip.
Left: Gracie walks through the trailer from the bare paddock beyond the trees.
Left: Molly comes through the trailer to join Breagha. Both will now have access to fresh grass on the left.
Left: Gracie has gone through the trailer and now has accessto fresh grass behind the electric tape. Breagha can be seen walking through the trailer.
When they reached that stage, the front ramp was closed and the ponies were worked in a small corral. If they so much as put a foot on the ramp, the pressure was taken off and they were allowed to rest. Everything up to this point was done with the centre partition removed. Gradually, they were asked to go further into the trailer. Each day, the pressure was removed when they put a foot an inch or two further up the ramp. After a while, they would go half way in -- but come out immediately. This is all part of the process and I read that they should be allowed to come out without any force being applied. It reassures a prey species to know that it has a safe escape route from danger.
Below: Molly finally relaxing in the trailer
Gradually, the ponies relaxed and would pull at a hay net hung part way down the trailer. Inch by inch, they were encouraged to feed further and further in. Each time they went to go into the trailer I'd shout "Load up!". Finally the day came when I had a visitor. As we stood leaning on the outside of the coral I explained what I had been doing. Then I shouted "Load up!". Molly obligingly walked straight into the trailer on cue. My visitor was most impressed. Now, at this stage, the mares are taken from the field to the corral where they go into the trailer for treats (a small ration of bruised oats, chopped apples and carrots). They canter down the field and go straight into the trailer without being asked while I bang the sides, clatter bum bars, and generally de-sensitise them to strange noises. Molly is even tolerating my rocking the trailer from side to side on its springs!
The mare and foal were put through a similar routine. At first, the foal would not go into the trailer, but after mum had gone through, he was pushed through and soon got the idea. After a few goes he was walking through quite unconcerned. Success!! I really do enjoy training as it makes me think how the animal's mind is working and that is always interesting.
The purpose of lunging is to teach the horse to respond to voice cues -- walk on, trot, whoa -- then, gradually, to accept guidance from reins or long lines. This is done by attaching a long line to a head collar or special lunging cavasson. When the horse is proficient in this, we move on to the horse wearing a bridle and the line attached to one ring of the bit, then led over the head too go through the other ring of the bit. Finally, two lines are attached, one to each ring of the bit, then going through rings on a lunging roller or stirrups of a saddle. This is NOT a guide how it should be done, so consult books and videos for that information. All training should progress by a series of steps, each logically leading to the next.
Lunging with a single line atached to a lunging cavasson.
This page is under construction!
Long reining with two lines through a lunging roller and attached to the cavasson.