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.
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.