This is a brief account of the first handling session we gave Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter. I hope it gives some idea of how different each individual foal can be.
After they’d been weaned, the foals spent a few days running loose with a tame mare in a large shed which opens onto the farmyard. They watched us walking around, but we made no attempt to touch them. In turn, we were watching them to see what sort of characters they were. Sometimes there’s a bully in the group and all the ponies are constantly unsettled. I don’t know whether the older ‘nanny’ mare was keeping them in order this year, or it may have been because there were fewer foals than usual, but there seemed to be remarkably little friction between them all. Gaia was inquisitive, and initially we thought she’d be the easiest to tame because she seemed to be the boldest. Orion, on the other hand, was always hanging back behind his sisters, watching from a distance. We thought he’d be the most difficult one.
So, this is what happened on the first day of handling. The foals were in one side of the shed, and we made three pens in the other side out of round pen sections (fairly expensive to buy, but worth every penny). Using long sticks with stuffed gloves on the end as extensions to our arms, we guided each foal into an individual pen. This was easier said than done, because they bunched together and moved fast; we knew they’d try to jump impossible obstacles if they became too scared. We’ve discovered that you have to think you’ve got all day, be very calm towards the ponies and fellow handlers, read the ponies’ body language and have just one or two people helping who are in tune with each other. The pressure on the ponies increases with every additional person in the shed, and they can tell instantly if someone’s anxious or impatient. Chris, Sarah and I now make a good team, but it’s taken us a few years. When you’re with domesticated horses for most of the year, it’s easy to forget how reactive unhandled foals can be.
One of the golden rules of horse training is you shouldn’t have a time limit, but the reality is that everyone has a time limit of some sort. My deadline was eight days, because that was when the Exmoor Pony Society inspectors were due. Before then, I wanted each foal to be easy to catch, relaxed about being touched all over and relatively happy about having its feet picked up and mouth opened.
Once the foals had been shut into their pens, we left them alone for a few minutes so they could get used to their confinement. Gaia made a terrible fuss, whinnying and charging around looking for an escape route. Demeter had a similar reaction, but she tried to burrow under the pen rather than looking for a way over the top. Orion was much more laid back. He inspected the pen at a walk, and then stood in the middle of it and looked at us. I decided to handle Orion and let Sarah get to know Gaia!
Having made myself as calm as possible, I entered Orion’s pen and stood just inside it, expecting him to move to the far corner or rush around its outer limits, but he stood still. After a couple of minutes, I took a few steps towards him and then backed away again. He stood still. Worried that he might have shut down with fear, I took a good look at him, but he seemed perfectly alert and interested in what I was going to do next. It wasn’t completely plain sailing (once or twice I approached too quickly and he backed off or did a circuit of the pen) but after about ten minutes he let me touch him. He was always keen to face me, so it took a bit of patience to get him to stand still while I touched his sides, but once he realised what he was supposed to do he stood still. Like a lot of unhandled ponies he was much more tolerant of being touched on one side (his right) than the other (his left). Each time he did what I wanted, I rewarded him by moving away. He learned quickly, and after about an hour I left him alone with some food and water.
Meanwhile, Sarah had resorted to a rope and stick (explained later) to catch Gaia. I must admit I felt rather smug, and allowed myself to think that Orion had been so good because I was becoming much better at handling wild foals.
Full of confidence, I entered Demeter’s pen. She instantly fled, desperate to get as far away from me as possible. After she’d calmed down, I started gently advancing and retreating towards her, determined that I was going to touch her without the aid of a rope around her neck to keep her steady. She allowed me to get so far, then rushed round the perimeter of her enclosure, with me standing in the middle. After about half an hour, I decided that I was getting nowhere fast; we’d settled into a pattern of her fleeing at the same point every time. In fact, I wondered whether I had been inadvertently teaching her to flee. Time to think again.
I fetched the rope and stick, and noticed that Sarah had finished her session with Gaia, who seemed much more relaxed about life.
“Shall I go in with Orion while Gaia’s having a rest?” Sarah asked.
“Help yourself, but go steady. The next stage is to put a head collar on him,” I said. “But I should put a rope round his neck first, just to make sure.” Secretly a teensy weensy awful part of me was hoping she’d be slightly less successful than I’d been.
I hung the noose of the rope over the long stick, and entered Demeter’s pen again. Despite introducing the contraption slowly and carefully using advance and retreat tactics, she fled whenever it came too near, dashing around and looking for an escape route near the ground. This sort of reaction to something scary is, I find, very difficult to deal with. It’s tricky to get a rope around a pony’s neck if it’s facing away from you with its head touching the ground! After about five attempts I managed to slip the noose over her head and remove the stick, and I retreated to let Demeter calm down. Glancing into the next door pen, I was astonished to see that Sarah had a headcollar and lead rope on Orion.
“How did you do that so quickly?” I asked.
“Walked up and put it on,” she said.
“No need for a rope or anything?”
“Nope. He was as good as gold.”
Back to Demeter: I now had a very nervous little foal with a soft rope noose around her neck. She was still keen to flee from me and try to burrow under the pen, so the first thing I had to teach her was to stand facing me. I did this by exerting just enough pressure on the rope to cause a reaction from her. If she gave to it at all (by stepping in the right direction or lifting her head to look at me) I let the rope slacken, averted my eyes and walked away. She learned fast. Within about ten minutes, she was responding well to signals from the rope. Within another five minutes I’d touched her for the first time. That first touch was pretty traumatic for her. She leaped backwards and tried to flee, but couldn’t because of the rope around her neck. Interestingly, once she realised that fleeing was no longer an option she became much calmer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have persevered for so long trying to touch her without the aid of a rope. I touched her on both sides, and then let her have a well-deserved rest.
Afterwards I felt that, although we’d got there in the end, I hadn’t handled Demeter’s first lesson at all well. I could have been a better teacher. She’d taught me what I should have known already: ego isn’t at all helpful when handling wild foals and, although general principles still apply, every pony needs to be approached differently.