When we went into the enclosure where the foals were running loose on the second day, it was almost as if we hadn’t done anything with them! They still seemed petrified of us, and they
bunched together in panic as we approached. Gently, we guided each foal into its individual pen, making sure they had the same places as the day before. We’ve found that if we do this for the first week of handling it gives them a sense of security, and by the end of the first week they’ll more-or-less put themselves into their own pens as soon as the gate is opened. Horses are creatures of habit. When you want to try something new that can be a great disadvantage, but you can definitely work it to your advantage when trying to gain their trust.
Once in their pens, the foals settled relatively quickly. Orion’s amazingly laid back character hadn’t been a fluke on the first day, and he allowed me to walk up and fit a head collar on him without any fuss. Gaia and Demeter still had to be caught with a long rope, but they weren’t quite so anxious about being touched. Gaia, especially, seemed to be incapable of standing still and relaxing. Given half the chance, she’d run ‘through’ us (ie past us) so we had to teach her that wasn’t allowed by blocking her when she attempted it.
Interestingly, once we started teaching the ponies to lead, Gaia and Demeter were easier than Orion because their first instinct was to move whereas his was to stand still.
However, it was a different story when we tried to pick up their feet. Orion learned what we wanted incredibly quickly, and before long he was picking up any foot, fore or hind, when I touched above the relevant hoof and said, “Up.” He never panicked or tried to kick. In contrast Gaia was obviously terrified of having any of her hooves picked up. As her first reaction was to flee from anything scary, it was a big deal for her to give up that ability by giving us her hoof. For a couple of days I thought we’d never teach her. She was positively explosive, especially when we tried to handle her hind hooves, but she was incredibly brave and tried her hardest to do as we asked. We rewarded the slightest try – even a shift of weight in preparation to lift her foot – and after a week and a lot of hours of encouragement she’d lift each foot off the ground for us so we could pick her hooves out and examine them. Seeing how hard she tried to please us although it was the scariest thing for her to do was truly awe-inspiring.
I’d better explain here that ‘us’ was sometimes me and our daughter, Sarah, and sometimes me and a good friend called Caroline Fardell who was staying in the self-catering cottage for a week. Both Sarah and Caroline were a huge help.
Well, by the day of the inspection all the ponies would be caught in their pens without the aid of a rope (Orion was by far the best at this), would lead (Orion was still the worst at this!) would pick up their feet (Orion was a pro, Demeter was just about okay and Gaia was okay if you were really careful and did nothing to upset her) and would have their teeth inspected (Demeter was the most sensitive about her mouth being touched).
On inspection day, the inspectors seemed to be in such a hurry that they ignored my request to let Sarah and me handle the foals, sample their hair and pick up their hooves. Unfortunately one of the inspectors was particularly rough towards Orion. He slapped him in an attempt to get him to move, and pulled two large bunches of hair out of his tail for DNA samples, when a few hairs from his mane would have done the job just as well and been far less painful. This was a great shame because the three foals were understandably alarmed by several strange people handing them in different ways. At least the foals don’t have to be branded with hot irons anymore, even though the alternative, microchipping, isn’t pain free.
Since microchipping became compulsory, it’s now up to owners to decide whether they want their ponies to be branded as well. I personally hate branding, so I don’t do it now, but it is a very useful means of identification for unhandled ponies on the moor – especially as Exmoor ponies all look similar, with no white markings. At present, microchips can only be read using hand-held devices which are placed next to the pony’s skin. As you can imagine, this can be tricky with a wild pony! Branding, if done well, gives a pony an easily identifiable mark for life. However, in the past an unnecessary number of brands have been used and brands have often turned out to be illegible, especially in winter. Thank goodness work is now in progress to devise a better system.
After our ponies had been inspected and registered, we decided to turn them out into the small field (called a splat on Exmoor) behind the shed so they could relax. They came out into the back yard cautiously, but as soon as they entered the field they were off – galloping, bucking and chasing each other in circles. This must have done wonders for their spirits (and it did wonders for mine as I watched them) but it didn’t do the grass much good.
I’m very sad to say that when we got the ponies in again to handle them, they all behaved differently, especially Orion. He was obviously scared stiff (literally) of anyone coming near him, he resisted having his feet picked up and he was terrified of anyone moving towards his tail – so much so that he’d swing round explosively to protect himself. We could only put the change down to his inspection. There was no other logical explanation.