Orion the Exmoor Pony 3: Orion’s First Close Encounter With A Human

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.

The wild foals are easily scared and can move fast. This is Orion in the shed before he was handled
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.”
Orion and me
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.

Orion the Exmoor Pony 1


Orion as a foal

It seems that Orion the Exmoor pony is getting quite a fan club. By popular demand, there are going to be regular updates about him on this blog. He’s nearly a year old now, so I’ve got some catching up to do if I’m going to tell the story of his life so far. Bear with me, as I’m supposed to be re-writing A Stallion Called Midnight at the same time!

Here goes, from the beginning:

Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.
Orion suckling his mum, Ivy, when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.

Ilkerton Orion (265/035) was born on the moorland above West Ilkerton Farm in April 2011. In case you’re wondering, the number 265 is the West Ilkerton herd number and 35 is his individual number. Orion’s mother is Ivy (349/4) and his father is Ziggy, short for Acreswild Zeitgeist (230/3). Ziggy was our wonderful stallion for several years. He can now be seen with a herd of Exmoors on the moorland above Countisbury Hill, near Lynmouth.

Ziggy May 08
Acreswild Zeitgeist (Ziggy) was Orion’s dad

For any Exmoor pony experts out there, Orion’s grandparents are Liqueur (A/167-A), Cranbrookpaddocks Sanlucar (190/9), First Time (44/9-A) and Holly (A/79-A), so he has excellent bloodlines and a lot of the famous Anchor herd in him.

Orion and Gaia on the moor

Orion spent the first six months of his life as a wild pony, living with 34 Exmoors on about 800 acres of moorland. He had three other foals to play with, and life must have been pretty idyllic. Humans were, no doubt, of little or no concern.

Orion with his mum, Ivy
Orion with his mum, Ivy

However, that all changed in early November, when the herd was gathered and he was weaned. What a shock that must have been!

Mares and foals in the shed
Mares and foals in the shed

Weaning is never easy, but it was especially traumatic for him because he tried to jump through the cattle feed barriers to get back to his mum. Like Pooh, his tummy was the broadest part of him and, like Pooh, he got stuck. He became so terrified when we approached that we decided to back off and let him work things out for himself. Just as we were thinking that, like Pooh, he’d have to stay there until he became slimmer, he made a monumental effort and struggled free. As far as we know, no serious damage was done, thank goodness. As we often seem to say when dealing with livestock, “There’s always one!”

Orion was very upset about being in the shed
Orion was very upset about being in the shed

His mum and most of the rest of the herd were put back on the moor, leaving Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, behind. We kept them all together in a large shed with a tame mare I was given called Hell’s Angel (!) and her ‘surprise foal’, which was born in June, who we couldn’t resist calling Hell’s Bells. At her last home, Hell’s Angel had got together with a neighbouring Appaloosa stallion, and the result was Hell’s Bells. I suppose she could be the only Appaloosa x Exmoor in the whole world!


It definitely helps to keep unhandled foals with a calm and confident older pony, and Hell’s Angel was a very good nanny. The shed was open at one end, so the foals could get used to the sights and sounds the farmyard, but we didn’t attempt to touch them for several days. Then the fun began…
I’ll describe how I taught Orion to accept basic handling in my next blog.

Orion the Exmoor Pony 2: Tips on Handling Wild Foals

Some Thoughts on Taming Wild Foals 
There are many different ways of taming wild foals and, as with most things in life, there’s no ‘right’ way. However, some ways give much better results than others, and some are much kinder than others.
  I’m most definitely not an expert, but I’ve developed a method which seems to work well for me, feels right and makes use of the equipment we’ve got here on the farm. It’s based on what I’ve been taught by a horsewoman called Vanessa Bee, tips I’ve picked up from other people, information gathered from books and videos on the subject, and also what I’ve learned from our wild foals themselves.

Working in a round pen at West Ilkerton

The equipment I use is:

A large barn which is divided in two with secure barriers and gates. The floor has a deep bed of straw so the ponies won’t slip. The ponies run loose together in one side of the barn. There are three round pens (made up from about six or seven segments each) on the other side of the barn. Initial handling is done in these round pens.

Round pen segments I bought some mesh round pen segments a couple of years ago, and they were a great investment because they make handling so much easier. A round pen can be made out of lots of different things, though – big bales of straw, for instance. A normal stable or any enclosure with four walls will do, but if it’s got corners it will make handling the pony more difficult.

A long, thick piece of yachting rope with a noose and stopper at one end. This is for initial catching, before the pony has learned to be caught. It is like a thicker version of a lasso.

A long stick which is forked at one end You can use this to ease the noose of the rope over the pony’s head, (unless you’re good at lassoing!).

A head collar which is strong, fits well and is easy to put on and take off.

A good-quality lead rope which is about 10 feet long

Before I describe handling Orion for the first time, I think it would be useful to talk a little bit about the way in which I communicate with our wild ponies. Horses and ponies usually communicate silently (despite what you may believe if you’ve watched the film of Warhorse!). Most of the time, they use their bodies and their inner energy, and tremendous results have been achieved by people who have perfected the art of communicating with them in this way.
Here are some basic things I’ve learned:

First and foremost, always try to be as safe as possible. Prepare everything beforehand so you’ve got the best chance of achieving what you’ve set out to do. Practise rope skills and things like putting on halters beforehand. Do initial handling in a confined area which is large enough for the pony to have its own space. You should have an escape route out of the pen, but the pony shouldn’t. The surface of the handling area should be non-slip and soft (sand or shavings are ideal, but straw is also okay). Wear a hard hat, non-slip gloves, non-slip boots and clothing which doesn’t make a noise when you move. Ponies are very sensitive to smell, so be clean but don’t wear perfume!

• Try to have a clear, still mind. Control your inner energy and emotions. I find it helps to follow Vanessa Bee’s advice and imagine a flame deep inside which I can turn up and down according to how much energy I want to project (like a Bunsen burner – do they still have them in science labs?). Try to keep in balance with the pony’s energy, so your total energy is a notional 100%. Therefore, if the pony’s energy is high (around 80%, say) you want to drop your energy to 20% so that the total energy you are both projecting is 100%. When dealing with horses, you should keep your ego (the part of you which makes you think you’re something special!) locked away where it can’t do any harm. There’s an old horsy saying: Pride comes before a fall. It’s true.

• Your eyes are very powerful tools. Make eye contact only if you want the pony to move. It’s possible to make a pony move a particular foot just by looking at that foot. Eye-to-eye contact is very scary for a wild pony. Ponies are also very sensitive to breathing, so try to breathe calmly and regularly. If you hold your breath you’ll make the pony nervous, but if you sigh deeply it can be relaxing (for you and the pony!).

• Make all your movements gentle, relaxed and flowing. But be confident, not creepy. If you’re creepy you’ll look like a predator. Ponies respond well to circular movements. Following on from this, they respond well to advance and retreat tactics when introducing something new (especially when introducing people, including yourself). With a gentle, flowing movement, go towards the pony and then away again, getting a little closer each time. Sometimes you don’t even have to move your feet for this to work – just lean in a different direction and change your energy flow. Similarly, introduce a new item like a headcollar by holding it out gradually and taking it away again, getting closer each time.

• Human hands and arms are scary to a wild pony. Introduce your hand with gentle advance and retreat movements, and offer the back of your hand with your fingers curled away rather than an outstretched open hand. (A predator’s claw would be outstretched and open.)  Everything you do should tell the pony that you ‘come in peace’.

• The first time you touch a wild pony (and for several times after that), it will probably jump away, as if it’s had an electric shock. It probably has, in a manner of speaking, because it seems that ponies are much more sensitive to inner energy than we are (or we’ve learned to ignore it to avoid sensory overload in our busy lives). Ponies have very sensitive skin – probably just as sensitive as ours. They seem to respond best to being touched with firm, slow, circular strokes or light scratching. Patting is usually not appreciated, especially a hearty pat which is more like a slap! Some ponies, especially those prone to sweet itch, have particularly sensitive skin and hate being touched.

• If the pony wants to run, don’t stop it, but don’t do anything to scare it either. Just stand passively in the centre of the pen. Running releases the pent-up energy from being frightened (I think psychologists call it trauma energy). If the pony is prevented from releasing that energy it can become neurotic.

• Read the pony’s body language constantly. The eyes, ears, muzzle and tail are particularly good indicators of its state of mind. A truly terrified pony may appear to be good because it’s standing still and allowing you to touch it, but it may have shut down completely – rather like fainting. Signs of this are a rigid body and a vacant, unblinking expression. If you think this has happened, leave the pony alone to recover, keeping a careful watch on it from a distance.

• Remember that being stroked or praised with words is unlikely to be a reward for a wild pony – the exact opposite, in fact. The best way to reward good behaviour is to walk away quietly and give the pony a rest. This has the added advantage of giving it time to realise what it did right. I like to give the foals I’m handling very small feeds in a bucket when they’re resting in their handling pens. This means they associate the pen with something nice, and the act of chewing is relaxing for them. I personally don’t like giving titbits by hand as a reward, but some trainers do. I find that it can be a distraction, it can make ponies pushy and may teach them to bite – probably because they associate hands with food.

• All horses and ponies are individuals. Constantly adjust what you’re doing to fit the pony’s reactions. Don’t stick to a set ‘one size fits all’ formula, and don’t let time be an issue. Like people, some ponies learn faster than others, or perhaps your method of teaching doesn’t suit the pony. (See my descriptions of Orion and Demeter in the next Orion blog.)

• Ponies will naturally brace against pressure. They have to be taught to give to pressure so they can be led or ridden. They learn to give to pressure amazingly quickly if you release that pressure (a pull from the lead rope, for example) the instant the pony yields to it. Never use more pressure than necessary. Your aim is to decrease the pressure needed until you just have to think something and the pony will do it!

• Keep handling sessions short but regular. Always end on a good note. When you release the pony, always make sure you walk away before it does. You should be in control of the pony’s movements whenever you’re handling it. Don’t let it move your feet.

• To quote Alice in the Katy’s Ponies trilogy, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Training wild ponies is incredibly rewarding but it can also be frustrating and it’s definitely time-consuming. Your aim is for the pony to want you to be its leader because it trusts you completely. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?!
Phew! I’d better stop there, or this will be the longest blog in history. Now you know some of the basics, it will be easier for you to understand my description of our first day of foal handling.

If you’re interested in good horsemanship and wild pony handling, the Equine Tourism website has lots of information and a discussion forum. We can all learn so much from each other. 

Vanessa Bee’s new book The Horse Agility Handbook has excellent advice about communicating with horses and ponies so that, eventually, you can work them at liberty.

Using a rope to teach foot lifting