All posts by jenni

Weaning… Preparing for life without Mum

Mum, Mom, Mam, Maman, Mamma, Mor… It doesn’t matter which language you speak, mothers are important. They provide comfort, sanctuary and protection, there are even books to tell us that: Jhn Bowlby describes parents as the “secure base from which to explore the world” (Bowlby, J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=465cNtjRJeAC&dq=%22secure+base+from+which+to+explore+the+world%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s). 

When I first wrote this my son Sam was 16 months old, and was exploring the possibilities of scaling the sofa. I was grateful for the spellchecker as I divided my attention between writing this article and supervising my eager toddler. Now he goes into nursery school and just about remembers to give me a kiss goodbye!

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I photographed this little filly during the summer of 2015. I didn’t know it at the time but it turns out she has two mums! One is her actual mum, and the other is another, possibly related mare, who also suckles her. Both are good secure bases for her.

Naturally horse mothers have the same job, in the wild this is often shared with the band’s stallion and older brothers, sisters and cousins, aunts and grandmas. The mother isn’t just a food source, but that secure base for the infant horse to explore the world from. The foal feels brave enough to do this because he knows his mother and all the herd family are there for him, as his protectors and comforters. It’s perhaps no surprise that after any excitement a foal always goes to his mother to suckle. This isn’t just for nourishment but for comfort too. Nursing is associated with the effect of “appeasing pheromones” secreted from between the mares’ udders in the early weeks that both facilitate bonding, and have a calmative effect. Suckling will always be associated with these two things as a result, and will balance out life’s stresses, restoring the ability to relax.

*You can use Confidence EQ – a calming pheromone product to help the artificial weaning process be less stressful. The American equivalent, Modifier Mist has been tested.

Clearly weaning is a very significant life stage for the horse; it’s about nutritional and emotional independence! Being able to cope without Mum, the secure base. Normal biological adaptation is for foals to move entirely onto solid food anytime from 10 or 11 months, just before a little brother or sister is due. But like everything natural there is variation! Some youngsters may still nurse as yearlings and two year olds – often as a quick comforter.

Natural weaning happens in two stages. The nutritional phase comes first. Mum begins to get more impatient with her big baby and begins to walk off more often and behave aggressively, usually around a month prior to giving birth to the next foal. This is because milking and the last stages of pregnancy come at a high energy cost to her. The key thing is it’s the foal’s attempts to nurse that are rejected, not the foal. The mare will still accept her offspring’s close contact and enjoy other interactions.

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Here she is, nearly a year old, starting to annoy one of her mums who is increasingly unhappy about her nursing.

 

 

 

Persistence pays off, mum gives up and goes back to grazing.
Persistence pays off, mum gives up and goes back to grazing.

 

The second phase is emotional independence. The foal, who is now a juvenile only becomes completely independent of mother somewhere between 18 months and 4 years when they are sexually mature and leave voluntarily in search of their own mates. The typical wild horse novel has the band stallion drive out the young, especially colts. However I’ve been watching hill ponies go through this process and it’s a more gradual thing. Youngsters go wandering, they meet other herds, they come back home again, and then they repeat their explorations. Then one day, most of them just move out for good. Just like us really! And just like us, there is sometime a filly who stays with her mum way into adulthood.

One year on, our filly is completely off the milk but still lives with her mums'. One of them has a new foal at foot too.
One year on, our filly is completely off the milk but still lives with her mums’. One of them has a new foal at foot too.

So what about when we wean our foals? It’s October now, many will be weaned already and others will be planning to. How do we accommodate each phase of weaning, nutritional and emotional independence? Without causing undue distress and future behavioural problems? There are many blogs and articles about the negative consequences of artificial weaning: gastric ulcers, separation anxiety, onset of crib biting, increased fear behaviour – get on Google and fill your boots. But I want to be positive and helpful here! So what if we just begin by asking:

Why am I weaning my foal(s)?

How soon do I actually have to do it?

What other adult horses do I have available for my foal’s emotional support?

Does my foal already know them?

Barring accidents and ill health there is usually a right time for everything.

Here’s a case study: M was a surprise foal. Her mum, R was bought in foal, but her owner was blind to this fact, so was the vendor! It happens, the same thing also happened with a friend of my aunt. When R foaled she was kept alone in her paddock, so only had M for company. A few months later, Bay arrived, recently abruptly weaned from her mother. Now M had a playmate and the threesome took a few weeks to settle together. A while later on R, M and Bay moved to the owner’s new land, and were integrated with the owner’s gelding, Big M and not long after, C a three year old filly. Now there was a herd and they got along pretty well withing weeks. M was now aged around 6 months, the traditional time for weaning. There was a pressure on her owner to wean her – lots of advice was given, not all of it asked for. We all get that from time to time! M’s owner decided to let M get a few months older, and then an experiment was tried with putting M in the next paddock to her mum, R. Post and rail fencing and mutual desire for nursing meant that they found a way to continue – which simply informed their owner that neither were ready for this step. So the two were reunited and carried on life in the herd. At a little over a year of age the owner began to realise she wasn’t seeing M nursing, that M was spending more time with the other horses, and that she could take R out to begin work, and there was little disturbance over this. So R’s work gradually increased and life went on. Nutritional weaning complete and emotional weaning well under way.

 

4 Key Behavioural Attributes of the International Sports Horse #RoadtoRio

Olympics time again! But what does it take to be a globe trotting top competition horse? What psychological abilities does a performance horse need to deal with all the travelling and constant change and still be at the top of their game?

One: Habituation. The horse must be able to relax and be comfortable enough to work, rest and sleep in a variety of locations. Horses that frequently travel long distances tend to be less inclined towards becoming unduly stressed by long haul road and air trips. Familiarity with a variety of surroundings, and enough curiosity to engage with new places without fear are also important features in a horse who needs to be attentive to a rider competing at the highest level.

How would I prepare my prospective sports horse? From an early age I would make sure they were exposed to standing and resting in enclosed places like stables and horse boxes so that they can habituate to being in them. To help them along I’d want them to have the company of their mother and/or other reliable and relaxed herd mates who are already habituated – social learning is the tops here! I’d also gear their early learning to exploring new places, surfaces, sights, sounds and smell – letting them explore, not forcing them to.

Two: Social skills. For regular competitions the horse may well be travelling with the horses he or she lives and trains alongside, and so the travelling companion is a familiar buddy. The trip to Rio involved being boxed alongside an unfamiliar companion, from another stable or even another national team. Being able to rub along with new horses without anxiety would be an advantage to a horse who will need to be able to perform at their best within days of arrival in Brazil.

How would I prepare? Allowing young horses a more natural weaning, and growing up in a herd enables the development of key social skills which will help them get along with new horses that they meet later in life. Meeting new horses around 18 months to 3 or 4 years of age matches the timing of dispersing with other youngsters from mum’s herd in the wild. These youngsters are ready to go their own way in life, with buddies old and new.

Three: Resilience. Performing in one place one week, then within the month, being transported to another area entirely and performing well there too requires resilience. The sports horse needs to be a survivor, confident in their ability to solve problems thrown their way. Learning that they can predict and deal with adverse events helps them to do this, especially when unavoidable unpleasant events are sweetened a little.

How would I encourage this? Make sure that routines are predictable, that horses have reliable cues for everything humans require of them, that management is centered around the behavioural (ethological) needs of the horse, and that learning theory is used appropriately. Horses learn how to behave to avoid aversive stimuli, and to gain rewards (correct positive and negative reinforcement). That they are never trapped in frustration, fear and confusion: This will increase distress, anxiety and depression, the very enemies of resilience.

Four: Positive Mental Attitude. Horses who are optimistic anticipate they will be successful, even when presented with a new challenge. Horses who lead lives where they are frequently and reliably rewarded for their behaviour, and have freedom of choice and control over their basic living activities such as sleeping, eating, socialising, and staying safe will be more likely to have a positive mental attitude because positive emotional experiences bring about a positive mood state.

How do I make sure my horses’ glasses are half full? I enrich my horses’ living environment with free opportunities to socialise and to forage amongst a variety of safe fibre based foods (I’d use highly digestible super fibres and oil to fuel the requirements of a performance horse). Then when I train them I pay attention to fitness and correct gymnastic development, and have a hierarchy of training methods: positive reinforcement>negative reinforcement>punishment.

Natural Horsemanship Hater

I wrote a blog over on one of my sister sites, the Gower Pony Experience. It was about play behaviour in the hill ponies: https://gowerponyexperience.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/horseplay/

Just after I wrote the blog I went out to work, one on one, with a young horse I’ve been producing for a client over the past year. He had me thinking about energy, how it goes up and down, and that my responsibility as a horse trainer is to keep that energy on an even keel. Just like in the natural games of the hill ponies; play ebbs and flows according to how each partner feels and responds to the other. Monty Roberts describes horses as approach and retreat animals. Using techniques that approach and retreat can help keep that energy on an even keel. But of course I am a natural horsemanship hater, so I’m being pretty generous mentioning Monty?

I watched and documented natural horse behaviour before I was ever involved with NH. I never saw hill ponies doing any kind of join up with the young members of their groups. I never saw ponies playing the seven games of natural horsemanship. But I did see play and other social interactions working in an advance and retreat, in an ebb and flow as ponies responded to each other. Because I had watched and documented natural horse behaviour, and because I knew from being a student of animal welfare science, I knew I wanted my horsemanship to be as natural as possible for what sometimes gets called an unnatural relationship – a human controlling a horse.

This brings me back to the young horse. In the past year I have taken him out and about exploring the world beyond the yard gate. The world around has changed through the seasons, cattle in a field one month, sheep the next, the hedge gets cut, the farmers harvest their silage, the telecommunications guys dig up the road, the community veg growers lay their hedge, the neighbours put up and take down fairy lights. All sorts of novel experiences for a young horse to explore and learn about, in all weathers.

Yes I have applied some learning theory so he knows some actions to go with some cues, so I can direct him about a bit. But we have gone closer to natural behaviour. I let the youngster set the pace of his discovery of the world around him. When he was keen to explore I went with him and flowed along with his energy. I did my best to be the parent, and give him a secure base to gain confidence from. When his energy was ‘stuck’ or ‘blocked’ (pick your own description) I went first with an air of quiet curiosity – he needed reassurance of safety and what better than to be a good example. So I never dragged or lured him up to anything; all his approaches were his own authentic learning. He would look and smell and touch, and get to know what was around him. When he relaxed I’d reward him – hey, it’s nice to be out, and move on. When he was relaxed I upped the tempo of our ride and helped him discover the joy of forward movement, and find that bringing him back to a more boring pace could be rewarding too. When he was unsure about his situation, but did what I asked, I rewarded him. With nurturing he became a more and more willing partner, enjoying his excursions into the local countryside and becoming braver and more knowing.

Journeys with horses allow time for nature. Natural horsemanship hater?

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5 Weeks in the New Field

The first five weeks of grazing a field that’s barely been touched by a grazing animal for years!

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I learned that despite the lack of grazing animals, the dung beetles were ready for action.

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It’s a good idea to strip graze when the grass is so tall. Then they can’t trample too much.

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The local verges contain a lovely mix of native grasses and wild flowers. The boys from the council strim them as they go to seed, so a useful source of free seeds for the bald patches the ponies uncovered.

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The girls spend a lot of time mutual grooming.

Bronwen loves to eat bramble shoots, which is just as well as there’s lots of them!

Neither like to eat long grass when there are thistles and mature bramble stalks waiting to ambush them.

I should have got an energiser for the electric fence. I’m two posts down from their escapes.

The gate area is lovely for loafing in, which is just as well as it’s the only area of hard standing and it still drains well where there isn’t any hard core.

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The ponies are about to leave the field to give it a rest. When they return there will be fewer brambles. The gateway area will be their centre-point area for drinking, loafing, shading from flies and generally resting up. The rest of the field will be split for rotation, and I will buy an energiser (and more posts). They may also be penned on what will be the former bramble patches with hay to allow the hayseeds to sow the land, and their poo to mulch it.

 

Case of the Week: Foal – Dangerous Attention Seeking

Frankie, a Welsh part bred colt foal, and his mum, Gemma.

Presenting Problem: Charging up to people, and rearing, mounting and nipping them.

Medical issues: None.

History: Gemma was rescued in foal and underweight. Due to her aggression towards other horses, Gemma and Frankie were kept alone, out at grass. Gemma is tolerant of her son’s playful behaviour, but doesn’t play back. Frankie has had a lot of attention and handling from birth, but isn’t cooperative with haltering, grooming or hoof care. Their owners visit them twice a day to feed and groom them, for approximately 20 minutes each time.

Assessment: Frankie loves people and seeks their attention at every opportunity. He’s a very playful colt who only has people to play with, and directs normal colt play towards them. This makes them try to chase him away by flapping their arms and pushing at him; which only makes him more persistent because he is so highly motivated to play. When his owners try to halter him, or handle him, he is easily confused and stimulated to push, nip and rear in play.

Treatment: To arrange for another pony to come to live with them, for Frankie to play with after a strategic and graduated introduction procedure – although the risk of maternal aggression from Gemma is much lower now Frankie is older (4 months old). To teach Frankie that attention is earned and sustained by remaining calm, and that his owners will step away from him and ignore him (even leaving the paddock) if he persists in coltish play. Care must be taken to read his body language in order to respond earlier in the play wind up. Frankie is also to be taught how to respond to haltering, grooming and hoof care through more gradual reintroduction of these activities and well timed breaks and scratches for cooperative behaviour.

Outcome: I supported Frankie’s owners over the phone during the weeks following the consultation, and then later through the weaning and rehoming process of both Gemma and Frankie.

Free Download: Learn to Earn – Horses

Case Study of the Week; Ben

Ben, an Exmoor gelding

Presenting Problem: Difficult to catch, bolting when led.

Medical issues: Sweet itch, hot branded.

History: Ben is a moorland bred Exmoor pony and was rounded up and separated from his mother and hot branded, both on the same day. He has always been difficult to handle, previously people resorted to cornering him. His present owner spent time using approach and retreat techniques using natural horsemanship methods and has had some success. But it would be better if he was happier; and he is still not perfect to catch and he bolts.

Assessment: Ben is scared of people. He strongly associates them with being trapped, with pain and with separation from his mum. Although his owner has taught him how to behave to get release of pressure, and distance from people, which has helped his confidence, the fear is still prominent and resurfaces in panic such as when being led through gateways and lanes. Being caught is a precursor to that, and warns him of the pending panic.

Treatment: To further breakdown, into even smaller steps, all the tasks that frighten Ben. Still applying the same principles of approach and retreat, as these increase Ben’s sense of confidence in the situations. As each small step is accomplished and Ben can remain calm, he is also rewarded with food and scratches (via clicker training) to counter condition his emotional response to people – from fear, to enjoyment.

Outcome: I worked with Ben’s owner on a weekly basis for several weeks to the point that he was putting his head into the head collar, was able to lead safely, and have his feet handled for hoof care. Once this had been accomplished his owner expanded her use of clicker training to teach Ben horse agility.

Free Download: Catch me if you can!

Moving Yards… Part Two

So the plan went a little off piste… But not by much.

The aim of the operation was to avoid winding up Penny and Bronwen any more than could be reasonably helped. For their sakes, as well as ours since we needed a smooth operation on the loading and delivery front to allow Bro-in-law away on time for nephew’s sporting events.

I got to the yard before the trailer arrived to deliver Bronwen’s dose of ConfidenceEQ, and got a nice snap of the herd in relaxed contentment:

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I then went to help get the trailer, which we got parked in position on the yard before bringing the girls in as usual for their very limited short feed on the yard. That meant they got to have a look at the trailer while occupied in normal activity, allowing a little breather before attempting to load.

Bronwen was first on, and that was calmer and quicker than any other time, so a PB for her! I think the pheromone helped quite nicely along with being patient and some good old wither rubs for every try.

Penny twigged that since Bronwen was on board, this was not a training session, so became tense and needed a little time before she decided she could walk in. Perhaps she should have had the ConfidenceEQ too? But then we were away:

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I had a few more things to pack, but I caught up with them halfway to the new field. I was really happy to see some reassuring, friendly behaviour between them – Penny touching Bron’s nose at frequent intervals, which she also did when first loaded. Ten minutes later they arrived in the new field where we parked up and let them loose to explore!

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New Field 2

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It was really interesting to watch them exploring according to their individual needs and tastes. Penny, the seasoned mover, did as she always does, seek out the most delicious grass! Bronwen is a far more sociable creature and called frequently, to locate the other horses in the neighbourhood, and of course to attempt to inform the rest of the herd back on North Gower of her whereabouts.

The girls’ new human neighbours came out to meet them too, and as we left to take the trailer back they were getting to know each other over some carrots.

New Field 1

 

Moving yards… Part One

So here we go again, another change in my circumstances and my horses are affected. No drama for my part, I’m moving to South Gower with my family to spend even more time in an area where we already spend a lot of time. Good news for us!

Penny and Bronwen don’t know it yet, but I have arranged a field for them in reasonable walking distance from where I’m living so I can spend more time with them. I’m sure they will like the field. It’s not been touched by anything except sheep, and that was some time ago. There is plenty for them to eat, and plenty of variety so they can forage away to their hearts’ content (it will be fun to get an Equicentral system going). It’s a pretty dry field in relatively windswept location, so the midges that cause their sweet itch shouldn’t be a significant issue. Only thing is, they’ll be leaving the rest of their group, Millie, Asil, Kahli and Hope who they have been living with for nearly four years (OK, Hope came later). I think they’ll miss them and being in a bigger group. The picture at the top of the page shows Bron grazing this morning while some of the others took a nap.

Penny is now 19 years old, and Bron is 9. They’ve been together for the last 5 years, and have been through 3 previous house moves in that time. They groom together often so most likely they will settle in to their new arrangements pretty soon.

Penny has moved yard a total of 16 times since I bought her as a two year old. We last practiced loading two years ago and she was loving going in the trailer for pony cubes. I don’t have a trailer but I’ll be using a similar one tomorrow, so I think a little recap of that activity before we drive will have her in the best place she can be to travel 30 minutes down the road. I’m counting on Anthony’s brother being careful with his right foot! To be fair he did one of her longer journeys when she was 6 years old, including us getting lost around the Vale of Glamorgan, so I’m sure that part will be fine. We shouldn’t be able to get lost tomorrow at least…

Bronwen on the other hand associates being trapped in small spaces like trailers with being weaned and sent to the mart. To prime her for thinking the best rather than the worst tomorrow I used some ConfidenceEQ (equine appeasing pheromone), to promote feelings of love and security. That plus a belly full of fresh grass, we then did some quick work with her target and clicker to prepare her for the feared elements of travelling tomorrow: Crossing over funny flooring (a tarp), and walking into enclosed spaces, a garage, between a horse trailer (not the one I’m using tomorrow) and a wall, and between a silage bale and a wall. She got into the activity straight away so I’m encouraged – now and then we go explore the garage and the narrow gaps anyway, without the target, clicker or food. We don’t do target and clicker work that often, as most things we do don’t require that support. However, we don’t have the facility to explore the trailer like the gaps around the yard, so today’s unexpected, pleasurable experience will hopefully be the one she draws on tomorrow. She certainly hung around hoping for a little more before rejoining her gang.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

 

Trigger stacking? Hacking?

Sunny day, keen horse, lorry swooshes by out of nowhere, everyman and his dog is outside DIYing, and the farmer just turned his steers out! What’s the worst that could happen?

Turning this situation around, from disaster movie to ultimate horse movie?

Download your Free Guide: Happy Hacking

“Spring Special”:
Happy Hacking consultation, one to one help to assess your issue, tailor make your training program, and help set out your milestones. £70, no mileage charge if you’re in the Swansea and Llanelli areas.

Want to be social? Get your friends down the yard to join you and let’s do a half day clinic, £150 shared between all you. Learn how to assess hacking problems, tailor make the solutions and be each others’ cheerleaders! No mileage charge for Swansea, Carmarthen, Brecon, Bridgend and Cardiff areas.

We’ll take a closer look at what ‘trigger stacking’ is and what it means for your ride. We’ll also look at how to recognise when your horse is reaching their limit, how fear behaviour is acquired, how training works, and how to combat fear behaviour without distress.

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