By Joanne Verikios
For those who have asked (thank you!) for a copy of my contribution to the Horses & Foals article "34 Equestrian Bloggers Teach You How To Bond With Your Horse", here it is.
We were asked to answer two questions.
1. How do you bond with your horse so that you can get him/her to trust you?
Horses are naturally gregarious and inquisitive. They also respond best when they feel calm and confident. We can use these characteristics to make the bonding process as fast and as durable as possible. To bond with a new horse and get him/her to trust me, I would ideally keep them in a small yard to begin with. This is also a sound idea for quarantine purposes, before you introduce a new horse to an existing community. The yard situation gives me the opportunity to provide everything the horse requires: water, food and companionship. I spend time just watching the horse and hanging out inside or outside the fence, making no demands. Depending on the horse, I may also do some grooming, scratching, cleaning out feet etc. Once the horse is comfortable with approaching me, I introduce a catch, reward and release routine for no particular reason. If the horse is already friendly and well-handled, the bonding can be achieved quite quickly. If the horse is unhandled or fearful, the process can take a little longer. When the horse greets you with a smile and a whinny, you know you have the beginnings of a successful relationship.
2. What is your best tip for bonding with a new horse?
My best tip leverages two elements: time and pleasure. By giving the horse your time in a quiet and undemanding manner - just observing them as I like to do, or sitting and reading a book, or mediating, you show them that you pose no threat, you are a friend and that they can relax and simply enjoy your company. This is an intangible gift to the horse and very, very powerful. Do whatever it takes so that you can hang out with them for as long and as often as possible. A few minutes once or twice a day will be enough for some horses; others with major trust issues will need longer. Once the horse accepts you, you make the connection pleasurable by providing more tangible things the horse will enjoy, such as grooming, exercise, mental stimulation (ie, teaching new things) and the occasional earned treat.
Quick story: Some of the visiting broodmares sent to my Warmblood stallion, Highborn Powerlifter, were not very well handled. I remember one couple dropping their mare off with the instructions to never remove her head collar and never let her go in a big paddock. When they came to pick up their now in-foal mare about six weeks later, they saw to their dismay that she was grazing down the far end of a large paddock and furthermore, was not wearing her head collar! I could see them exchange panicky glances which clearly said, "Oh no! How long is this going to take?" Their expressions changed to relieved amazement when all the horses cantered up the hill when I whistled and I was easily able to catch their previously elusive mare. How did I do it? They were keen to know. Apart from the steps outlined above, I would also catch and release her once or twice while she was eating or just for fun. No big deal and she soon came to consider it a pleasant part of life.
A question that I get asked a lot, especially by first time breeders, is what is the best way to wean a foal?
There are many ways of achieving this objective, but the winning horsemanship way of weaning aims to provide the safest, kindest, least stressful experience for all concerned: mare, foal and owner!
At the Highborn Warmblood Stud, I designed my yards and paddocks to facilitate peaceful weaning (see illustration above). You may not have the facilities that I set up, but if you have good fences and adhere to the basic principles outlined in this post, all should go according to plan.
I usually weaned several foals at once, which gave both mothers and babies the benefit of companionship. However, the following weaning procedure will work just as well for one foal.
My tried and tested method, refined over 16 years, is to enclose the mare in a yard. Enclose the foal in an adjacent paddock. Make sure there is a bit of "no-man's-land" between mare and foal, so there is no opportunity for physical contact between them. A couple of metres is good. Don't make the gap so wide that the foal feels the need to try to jump the fence to get back together. We want to maintain the idea of togetherness, even though they can no longer touch.
The physical separation helps to speed the process but it is also an important safety precaution. If there is a way to nurse between wires or rails, your foal will find it and your mare will make herself available. Foals are very ingenious - but not very experienced - and you don't want your precious progeny hung up in a fence, so provide a suitable gap.
Arrange things so the mare doesn't have to go anywhere for food and water, but the foal is obliged to move away from the mare to eat, graze and drink. This way, the foal always has the security of knowing where Mum is, but learns to be increasingly independent. Any time they find themselves too far away, all they have to do is run back. Similarly, Mum can see the foal at all times so everyone is (relatively) happy. Moving away from the mare becomes the foal's idea. I found that this simple habit of autonomy can help young horses to avoid separation anxiety and other herd-bound behaviour in later life.
Occasional episodes of getting out of the comfort zone with lots of whinnying and zooming around are to be expected, but will decrease every day and eventually cease altogether.
It really helps if you can wean two or more foals together (having more than one mare in the yards provides company and moral support for the mothers too). If that isn't possible, then another quiet horse (or even a sheep, goat or cow), introduced to the family group well before weaning time, will provide company for junior as he or she moves further afield and stays away longer.
About a week's separation should do the trick, but it's best not to reunite mare and foal for several months afterwards as some mares will welcome baby back in a flash!
There are two sides to the weaning story: both mare and foal. Having the mare in a yard being hand fed allows you to monitor her for undue discomfort. It is natural for her udder to get distended and possibly even to run milk. It is no fun whatsoever for the mare, but the lack of a suckling stimulus will lead to her drying up naturally. Many mares rather welcome the end of providing milk on demand and shut down production quite quickly, but some are tremendous milkers. For the latter group, you may need to gently (and carefully) milk her a little, once or twice a day, to relieve the pressure a bit, but only on the first couple of days.
I have personally never had to deal with a case of mastitis but if you suspect your mare is in trouble, then call your veterinarian immediately to discuss.
Good luck with your foal's rite of passage!
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends. Got some weaning suggestions, tips, stories or questions? Please leave a comment below!
For more information about raising and training your young horse, read Winning Horsemanship by Joanne Verikios.