Sunday, November 18, 2018

Useful Work for Weanlings

Weanlings, man! They're that "what do you do with them" age as far as training and conditioning go. Certainly it's a good time to be working with their feet, teaching them manners, and perhaps leading them over obstacles, but what else to do with them? Many people, sadly enough, spend a lot of time lunging them to condition them. Long ago, when working at a large Arabian training operation, I did so as well. The pressure on their immature legs isn't ideal, injuries from the nearly-inevitable youngster antics are frequent, and now I'm an advocate for avoiding extensive lunging, even with protective boots or wraps. Fortunately, there are other options.

Julie is seven months old now and slightly delayed in her training and desensitization process due to a severe laceration to her nostril. Where normally I'd have turned her and her mother out with the cattle earlier, I didn't want her sticking her sutured nose into cow germs until she was completely healed.  Thanks, too, to another shoulder injury, I haven't been able to do the physical work I normally do with them during those rare uninjured spells. Today, with the help of my other half, was the day to begin some meaningful work with Julie. It was a full day for her.

First, since Julie hadn't met the cows, I let her follow her mama Chica up to the arena / cow pen. She happily walked right in. From there, I took Chica's bridle off and let Julie and Chica loose to run and get their ya-ya's out. Chica immediately introduced Julie to the cows. With her mother at her side, Julie wasn't at all concerned.

After a few minutes of letting them romp, I hopped back up on Chica, Julie still free to do as she pleased. I simply trailed the cows, moving them slowly and in a relaxed manner, but not letting them get away with anything that would break Julie's confidence or teach her bad habits. This means I wouldn't let the cows get behind her, rush at her, or push her back, nor would I let Chica turn her back on the cows (not wanting Julie to learn to do that). Julie was immediately interested. She comes from "cowy" stock, and has a natural affinity for chasing cattle. 

Pretty soon Julie had the hang of the whole "all animals are equal but horses are more equal than cattle" equation. As you can see by the photo below, she's engaged, interested, and not fearful. Her ears are attentive and her eyes are fixed on ever-patient Buttercup. Before too long, Julie was quietly "pushing" the cattle. 

Next, with Russ's help, we moved onto Julie's first lesson in being ponied. Nothing beats ponying for exercise and training combined. If you don't have a solid pony horse, better to leave the youngsters grow up at pasture than to stress their legs with constant work-in-the-round. Opinions vary; this one's mine, for what it's worth. Ponying offers a number of advantages for training babies: it doesn't limit them to round work or ground work; it familiarizes them with seeing a rider above them; they learn verbal commands as well as learning by watching the senior horse; and they can be exposed to trail work, obstacles, and further work with cattle. They also learn patience that translates to being ridden; always try to spend a few minutes just letting your mount stand and breathe while ponying, and the baby will learn to do so also. This can prevent the youngster "fidget" habit. Eventually, when you're getting your youngsters under saddle for the first time, you can have someone pony them during those first few rides. 

Russ's horse, old faithful Musty, is no novice at ponying other horses, young and old. He's reliable and calm, and he helps school them on their role - when they start creeping up ahead of him, he'll discipline them by snapping at them. Pretty soon all he needs to do is pin his ears and tilt his head and they'll know to back off. Julie has never been turned out with Musty (as evidenced by his still-long tail - she's chewed the tail off every one of her stable mates) and has no bond with him, but she quickly trusted him and was calm beside him.

At first I rode alongside Julie; then, when she decided to grow resistant and drag back on the lead, I moved to the rear and slapped her on the topside when she'd become obstinate. Eventually I took the lead; she was good, then, about keeping up with her mama horse. Due to my shoulder injury, I couldn't pony her from Chica, but keep in mind that ponying from the mother horse is a good beginning. 

We didn't push her too much, and limited her lesson to half an hour. There's no benefit in doing more at this point. I don't want her getting sour because of fatigue, mental or otherwise. When we move up to taking her on trail rides, we'll be able to go farther and longer because she will be interested in the new scenery. 

Ponying takes some practice. Don't dally the rope onto your saddle unless you're an old hand and you have a good roping saddle and a horse that won't flip over backwards when you drag livestock behind him. If you're reading this, you probably already have the basic knowledge to never, ever, ever wrap rope around your hand or other limbs. Try not to keep constant pressure on the lead rope or you'll teach resistance. Take and give; take and give. Also: wear gloves.

Teaching a horse to be politely ponied is one of the most useful tools you can give them. Eventually, teaching them to pony other horses is equally useful. It's a good idea to equip them with those skills long before you're ever on a trail ride and need to either pony them home or pony someone else's horse off your own horse due to an emergency.

Julie will soon be moving onto trails and obstacles. I'll keep you posted!

Copyright (c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thanks for sharing, liking, tweeting, reposting, and otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thanks for stopping by! * Affiliate links may be used in this blog, meaning that I may earn commissions based on products I recommend here, but I will not recommend products I do not endorse!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Olivia's Little Burrito

I'm not the earlier riser my other half is. Years of working the midnight shift on patrol ruined that long ago. This morning, I clung to the pillow for those last precious sherds of sleep as Russ did the feeding. I heard the sound of his footsteps on the gravel, much faster than usual - and in he comes, his iPad in hand, waving it in my face. "What the **** is THIS?" he cried out. And there - despite his tone of mock indignation - were some lovingly-taken photos of the morning's surprise.

I'd watched Olivia's bags in the almost-two-weeks since she arrived, and had seen no noticeable change; I wasn't truly certain she was already bagging up for the new baby or if she'd been recently separated from a former foal. Maybe her bags were waning, I thought. Nor was she particularly large of belly. Nothing made me think that she was due to foal any time soon.

And yet, there she was: fuzzy-headed long-eared innocence in all its glory. A perfectly formed, perfectly healthy burro baby, a ... a burrito. And she was already dry, walking, and ready to greet the world around her. She greeted Russ (a good tactical move, destined to win his heart quickly) and let him scratch her neck. She greeted Ethan the McNab pup quite confidently. She touched weanling Julie's nose through the rails. She let me imprint on her. She was nursing, Olivia had already passed an intact placenta, and all was wonderfully well.

Russ deemed her name to be "Onate," (Oh-NOT-ay, as we pronounced it - without the tilde, which would certainly be appropriate - but heck, it's our baby and our name!) She has floofy legs, wonderfully curly and soft ear tips, and a forehead that one Twitter pal described as a "Hasselhoff perm." I couldn't describe it better myself. She is beautiful.

Olivia, despite her newness to the human world, has been amazing. She let me treat the umbilical cord and handle her baby, always keeping a watchful eye, and she let Ethan make friends. Yet I pushed the envelope just a little too far after we'd had them turned out and tried to usher them back into the stall. I decided I'd just pick up the little girl and carry her, and Mama would follow. Well, I picked up the little girl no problem, but Mama Olivia had run out of patience with me and attacked, butting me with her face. She was surprisingly gentle, but she meant business. I set Onate down, patted Olivia and made friends with her again, and promised her I wouldn't take her by surprise again.   Tomorrow I'll work with her again, and tomorrow I will respect her maternal instincts properly.

So beautiful, ridiculously adorable Onate has joined our family. Ethan is fascinated with her and runs down to the barn to check on her before coming in on each outing. He's gentle and kind with her, as McNabs are. 

Olivia, you've done a fine job!

Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, sharing, tweeting, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Clicker Training Olivia the BLM Burro, Session 1

Although I've long understood the principles of clicker training, I've never been diligent in using a clicker - mostly because I've never really needed to. With Olivia, though, I felt that a clicker would be the most appropriate technique for such an intelligent, but apprehensive, animal. Yesterday, my pack of clickers arrived late in the afternoon. I had already begun to accustom Olivia to the treats I'd be using - often, treats are an acquired taste, so I introduced them by adding them to her feed for a day or two. I chose  Manna-Pro Peppermint Trail Size Bite Nuggets because peppermint has a strong enough aroma to be useful when training,  they are small enough not to choke a burro, and they don't crumble readily in my pocket.

As soon as my clicker pack arrive, I was eager to begin, but I was running out of daylight. I spent a few minutes just clicking and rewarding as soon as Olivia gave me an interested look. Today, I gave her the first "real" training session with the clicker.  Olivia has been wearing a halter since I brought her home, but has had no halter training. I chose that for today's lesson.

For clickers, I chose a four pack of Big Button Clickers with wristband. The last thing I want to do when training a wild burro is to tie up a hand holding a clicker, so the elastic wristband comes in handy. I stuffed peppermint treats in my pocket, slipped the clicker bracelet on, and took a lead loop and lead rope into the stall.

The loop-style lead is a handy thing. Similar to the loops or "tab" style leashes for dog-training, they're indispensable if you have goats or if you have occasion to need a quick "handle" in your pocket for handling horses. They're also ideal for initial halter training with a burro, as it turns out. I first showed the loop to Olivia and as soon as she extended her nose to sniff it, I clicked and rewarded. I snapped it onto her halter, clicked, rewarded. Then I began introducing the "give" to pressure she needs to learn as a basis for all future training. I gently applied lateral (sideways) pressure on the loop and the second she gave to it, I released pressure while clicking, then rewarded.

A few words on the "give": First of all, you don't need a "big" give. All the animal must do is stop resisting pressure for a second. Also, it's always easier to get livestock to move sideways than to move forward. Use that to your advantage. So often people get into tug-of-war battles by pulling forward. Burros, especially, will sit back and wait you out - they're far more patient than you are. For those first important "gives" and steps, I opt for lateral pressure.

At first, I just asked for Olivia to bend her neck towards the pressure for her reward. As soon as she was comfortable with that, I attached a regular lead rope, using the same sniff - click - reward followed by attach - click - reward method. From there, I began asking for first sideways gives and a couple of sideways steps. Within just one pocketful of treats, I had a burro who was quite willingly walking on the lead. I was astonished. Now it's possible I'm just an amazing trainer, or that I have a prodigy of a burro, but it's more likely these techniques really are ideally suited for a burro's mind. Olivia certainly took to the clicker work rapidly.

During today's session I also reapplied fly spray to Olivia's legs and face, using the clicker while doing so, and picked up her front feet. She's becoming quite comfortable having her forefeet handled; I always tap on them when I do so in order to simulate future trimming work.

While doing all of today's clicker work, I made sure I consistently spoke to Olivia and gave her verbal commands when asking for actions: "Olivia, come," "Olivia, walk on," Olivia, step up," "Olivia, pick up," and so forth. These will be the same commands I use in a variety of future training, from trailer training to driving. I will also, of course, be using the clicker.

One final note from today's clicker introduction: It's important that from this point forward, Olivia does not get hand-fed treats unless she works for them. I don't want to "train" her to be a big mooch. I have enough of those already.

*Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be used without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Products endorsed and recommended in this blog may include affiliate links for which the author receives compensation * Thank you for linking, liking, sharing, tweeting, sending via carrier pigeon, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by! 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Olivia's Progress, Day 4

Olivia is surprisingly well-adjusted for being fairly new to the ways of captivity. She's bonded with Lily, the goat, and seems to have become fond of Ethan, the McNab pup. Yesterday, Olivia let me pet her face and neck and, amazingly, let a friend approach her and pet her neck as well. I'm not attempting to halter break her yet, and instead am focusing on building trust and being able to touch her.

Today, I let her out in the turn-out while I did chores, but she opted to return voluntarily to her stall and wait for her feed. When I brought it for the usual morning routine of coffee with Olivia, she confidently approached and ate from the bucket between my feet. Before I allowed her to eat, though, I asked to pet her on the face and neck; with very little concern, she allowed it.

I know she's already aware of the benefits of having a human scratch her itchy spots, so I was eager to introduce a brush to the equation. Happily, Olivia accepted the brush immediately. She enjoyed being brushed so much she stopped eating and just stood happily as I brushed her face, neck, sides, back, belly, and front legs.

The flies are horrible with the warmth and the recent moisture. Olivia's not ready yet for fly spray, but she let me use a fly roller to apply it to her legs, face, and neck. I then rolled spray onto the brush and brushed it over the rest of her body.

I expect to be able to pick up Olivia's feet shortly. They're in excellent condition so I am not in a hurry to have them trimmed - which will make that first experience with the hoof trimmer all the better, as I'll have time to get her well accustomed to it. And, of course, having her halter broke first will be something of a benefit.

One burro characteristic that I'm enjoying is Olivia's natural curiosity. I buy large, hard plastic balls for the McNabs and the young horses. Weanling filly, Julie, hasn't been interested in the one in the turnout - but today I kicked it a bit while cleaning, and Ethan played with it for a minute in front of Olivia. Olivia couldn't resist, and eagerly approached it to give it a look. She hasn't attempted to play with it yet, but I suspect she'll soon start nudging it. Given her aptitude for observation, she may learn to push it around by watching Ethan and me.

In the next few sessions I'll repeat much of the same routine while also introducing gentle pressure on the halter. As with horses, we'll work on the "quick give" - when I apply pressure, the very second she gives into it at all, I'll release. Mules and burros aren't as yielding to pressure as horses are, so this will take considerable more time and patience, but I've got both.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Olivia's Progress, Day 2

Olivia is a quick learner. With those ears, she's a great listener, as well; and that's a good thing, because for now, I'm just doing a lot of talking to her. Today, though, she made great progress. I turned her out in the turnout for a couple of hours this morning, hoping she'd return to her stall voluntarily when she saw me put the feed inside, but she didn't. It took only a moment to usher her in with a driving whip.

For the uninitiated, the driving whip is but an extension of one's hand. It isn't a tool of abuse or striking; it's a way of safely reaching out toward an animal in a non-threatening manner. It is the driving whip that I'll use to teach her to trust me touching her legs; burros are accurate and lightning-fast kickers, and it's far better that they kick at a whip than at me face, hand, or leg.

Once inside her stall, Olivia promptly and quite happily busied herself eating her hay. First, though, to my delight, she approached me and again touched me with her nose and sniffed my hair. Satisfied I was not a threat, she settled down to breakfast. After some conversation and a few more country songs, I decided she was comfortable enough for the next step in our relationship.

I slowly worked my way toward Olivia, mindful of that quick back end, and when she retreated to the other corner of the stall, I followed. I extended my hand first, palm up so as not to appear threatening, and she indicated her willingness to continue by reaching out and sniffing my hand. That's a good sign.

I picked up the driving whip and extended it very slowly, letting her sniff it also, and when she reached toward it, I stepped back a little. She eventually let me touch her on the shoulder with it. I used it to touch her neck, side, and belly.

To my surprise, she was fine when it made contact with the underside of her belly. A lot of equines are ticklish there and will react negatively, but Olivia was perfectly happy. I put the whip down and moved closer to her empty handed.

I was astonished at how trusting Olivia was. She didn't even fudge when I reached out and put my hand on her withers. Her ears slightly back with attentive apprehension, she let me pet and scratch her neck, side, and chest, resisting only when I rubbed her eyes (but minutes later accepting that as well). She wasn't ready for me to touch her lower leg, but no matter - I am thrilled at what progress we made. She's coming along far faster than I'd have anticipated.

Many times, the way to an animal's heart is to scratch what itches. Livestock, like cats and dogs, often have favorite scratching spots. I haven't found Olivia's yet but she seemed warily happy to have me try.

Although not emaciated, Olivia is definitely on the lean side. A fat burro isn't a healthy burro, but she'll benefit from gaining some weight; in the top photo, you can see how meager she is above the hips and along the ridge of her back. I have her on timothy hay, bermuda pellets, and just a handful of  timothy / alfalfa chop. She wasn't crazy about the Calf Manna I gave her, but when she acquires a taste for it I'll add it to her feed to give her a bit of a vitamin boost. I'll also start her on a small amount of rice bran to help her coat bloom. Of course, she has a mineral salt lick available as well. Below, she's enjoying her bermuda pellets. As a side note, I chose the bermuda pellets because the vendor I visited to pick up some hay for her the other night was out of bermuda - the recent rainfall has ruined many crops - and as she had been on bermuda hay before I adopted her, the best substitute I could find in a pinch was pellets plus a beautiful, clean compressed bale of timothy. I like the timothy so well I will probably leave her on it.

Copyright (c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by!

Monday, October 22, 2018

A Burro's Progress: My BLM Burro Arrives

Meet Olivia.

One of the infinite joys of the equine world is even after a half-century of working with them, there's always a new experience, a new pleasure, a new goal to be achieved. Since reading Marguerite Henry's "Brighty of the Grand Canyon," as a child, I've wanted a burro - but not just any burro, I wanted to adopt a BLM burro that once roamed my home state here in Arizona. The timing hasn't been right, before now; sometimes life is a series of speed bumps and cul-de-sacs. Yesterday, the forces of nature aligned and, thanks to the help of my forever friend Cindy Mathers and a talented young horsewoman named Christen Milhon, I brought home Olivia.

Until just a few weeks ago, Olivia ran feral in the Cibola region of Arizona, when she was rounded up. Olivia was put up for adoption three times, without success, at which point she was available for direct sale to the public. Christen Milhon steps in on as many of these situations as she can and rescues burros and mustangs before they end up in the kill pen. Olivia (whom she had called "June") was a recent rescue.

I dubbed the lovely three-year old burro "Olivia" in honor of Olive Oatman, the famous pioneer Arizona woman who'd been kidnapped by natives, her face tattooed, before eventually being rescued. Olive's family gave its name to the small town of Oatman, famous for the burros that roam the streets and sidewalks and beg treats from tourists.

Olivia had the advantage of a short time with Christen, but is neither tame nor halter broke. She's cagy and apprehensive, but neither aggressive nor ill-tempered. She has a sweet eye and responds sensibly. She watches everything - I like that trait in an animal (as well as in people) - and I know she'll learn a lot simply by watching everything I do in the barn area, and that will inform my work with her.

Because Olivia is an observant beast, I waited to feed her until last today. I wanted her to focus on watching my every move. Although burros are notorious for aggression towards canines and wildcats, I let the large dogs out this morning so she could begin to familiarize herself with them - and they with her. Ethan, the rambunctious McNab pup, is a vocal dog and initially barked at Olivia, recognizing her as a new sort of creature unlike the horses, goat, or cattle. As soon as Olivia gave him a side-eye and shifted her ears in his direction, he'd quickly dodge out of the pen.

Once I'd cleaned the barn and fed everyone else, I brought a mounting block as a seat, a cup of coffee, a flake of timothy, and a bucket of bermuda pellets for my first session with Olivia.

I plopped the bucket down just in front of my foot, sipped my coffee, and waited. Within a few minutes Olivia ventured forth and checked out the bucket.

After a few minutes, a tentative Olivia was eating happily, but alertly, while I sat. I tried to make some non-threatening noise and, I admit, I sang Hank Williams songs to her. If you had ever heard me sing, you'd consider that threatening, or torturous, but Olivia seemed calmed by it.

I avoided reaching out to her in any way. Prey animals instinctively view those extended arms as outstretched claws until they have learned to trust you. I'm in no rush, and I let Olivia just munch her food.

After a few more minutes, I moved the bucket of pellets between my feet. Olivia wasn't pleased, and wandered off to the other side of the stall for a bit, acting uninterested in the food. Of course, she soon came back.

Olivia, fairly confident now, was unconcerned as she munched her breakfast. Every few minutes, Ethan would approach; Olivia was more trustful, now, and merely watched him. Every so often, Ethan being Ethan, he'd bark.  I'd also let Lily, the goat, out during morning chores. Lily came by regularly, her goat-bell clanging, and Olivia gave her a curious, almost welcoming look.

Finally, I reached down slowly and rested my hand on the bucket. A few minutes later, Olivia returned and ate from the bucket, her nose just inches from my hand. Again, I never tried to pet her; I just was.

That was it for my first session with Olivia: just letting her decide it was safe to approach and be near me. A few times during the session, of her own volition she reached out and touched my hair and face with her muzzle, smelling me. I took advantage of these moments to deeply exhale, communicating to her my sense of peace and calmness. Eventually, she'll learn, as the horses do, to draw confidence from those moments: if the herd boss (me) isn't alarmed, neither will she be. 

Copyright (c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced, including photographs, without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are appreciated * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for stopping by!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How to Make Tempting Mashes for Feeding Medications to Your Horses

It happened again last night: an after-dark emergency veterinary call-out. Four-month old Julie, Chica's filly, had managed to rip a 3-inch section of her nostril into a dangling flap of carnage. After the sutures were knotted snugly into place, it was up to me to keep Julie on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication.

Rather than make a paste of the antibiotic (SMZ tablets) and use a needle-free syringe to squeeze it into a not-so-eager mouth, I prefer mixing medications into a bran or grain mash. Should you have to do this - whether feeding pharmaceuticals or supplements - here is my method, with hopes it's useful to you.

Prepare in advance of emergencies. For me, this means keeping the antibiotic on hand so when the vet says, "Give SMZ for ten days," I have a ready supply. I also keep red bran, grain, and either molasses or dark Karo corn syrup available for making a tasty mash that hides the flavor of the medication or supplement.

For older horses, I mix equal portions of red bran and whatever grain they prefer. I use the universal barn measuring device: A one-pound coffee can. For feeding SMZ, I fill a glass jar with a cup or so of fresh water, drop the recommended dose of tablets inside, and let it sit for about ten minutes. It dissolves fairly quickly. For some reason, SMZ doesn't dissolve as nicely if you pour the water onto it rather than dropping it into water. Go figure.

Don't add the molasses or corn syrup to the water / SMZ mix, or you'll be frustrated trying to scrape it out of the jar. Wait until you've poured the water / SMZ solution onto the bran / grain mix, then add the flavoring syrup and stir well. I use a carrot to stir, and then sticky, bran-covered carrot becomes part of the mash.

Other additives your horse may like: Carrot shreds, salt, apple bits, pellets, or horse treats. Not all horses accept carrots, but if your horse likes them, go for it. Shredding them is preferred as they may otherwise steal the carrot and leave the rest, or may dump some of the mash out trying to get the uncut carrot.  You know your horse and what his prankster rating is, so feed accordingly.

For young horses, carrots may not yet be an option as they may not have developed a taste for them yet. In Julie's case, she didn't like the red bran, either, and she didn't want to finish the entire mash I made. I separated her from her mother (mom kept busy just outside the stall eating hay) so Mom wouldn't steal the mash. Julie was a reluctant eater, so the second dose, I used nothing but half a can of junior diet pellets, the SMZ solution, and dark corn syrup. I did not give her any hay until she ate her mash - which took about an hour.

Molasses is a more nutritious choice than corn syrup. It's high in potassium, wonderfully viscous, and almost irresistible. Also, you get to lick the spoon. However, some horses (and I'm looking at you, HYPP-positive horses) can't or shouldn't have potassium. Corn syrup is your best option. It's also readily available in many bakers' pantries. I wanted to use up some corn syrup I had on hand, so Julie's mash will be made with Karo for a few days.

If you don't have either molasses or corn syrup around, you can substitute brown sugar or even pancake syrup. Better idea: put molasses on your list now and keep it in the cupboard. You can even buy a handy two-pack here  on Amazon (affiliate link):  Brer Rabbit Molasses. This is the brand I use. (It's also excellent for those molasses cookies I love.)

If you need to rehydrate a horse or encourage an older horse to eat, try a soupy bran mash. My old girl Holly, Julie's 31-year-old grandmother, loves a sloppy mash of red bran, molasses, senior diet, and carrot shreds. You can add electrolytes if necessary - but realize the potassium in the molasses will give them a boost as well.

Young Julie finishing off her medicated mash this morning.
(c) 2018 MJ Miller

Good luck ... and enjoy that beautiful molasses aroma!

Copyright (c) 2018 by MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared and are encouraged. * Thank you for linking, liking, +1ing, Tweeting, sharing, emailing, carrier-pigeoning, and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Stress-Free Halter-Breaking, Lesson One

Like most contemporary horsemen, I prefer not to put avoidable stress on my horses. Long gone are the days of fighting it out and "breaking" a horse with a snubbing pole and rough handling. I avoid conflict with them when possible and especially so with the babies.

We all have our own way of doing things, though, and there are several halter-breaking methods people use successfully. I'm sharing the method I've used for the past thirty-five years in hopes you find some or all of it useful with your own babies.

I imprint on my foals as soon as I can. Having missed little Julie's birth, I imprinted on her after she was already up and nursing. That included particular attention to her face, ears, muzzle, and eyes. The next day, I put her halter on for the first time.

The traditional web-type halters are pretty useless on a newborn or young baby. The crown piece inevitably slides back onto the foal's neck. I hand-made the halter in the photo above out of leather in a figure-eight style with an adjustable nose and crown. The short lead strap is only a foot or so long. Since halters should NEVER be left on unattended foal, the strap is affixed permanently. It's short because you don't use it to actually lead the foal that young - you use it in conjunction with a butt rope. If the foal gets away from you, that short strap is a lifesaver; they won't be stepping on it, tripping, and perhaps breaking their fool necks.

The first time I expose them to the halter, I do nothing but put it on them and leave it for a few minutes. You certainly can do more and give them their first lesson, but over the years I've gotten a little bit less motivated about the first-day lesson. Julie was good about her first haltering, and after I took it off I petted her for a while and hung out with her to establish that I wasn't going to pester her. Then, other than daily handling (petting her just to continue that bonding), I didn't do any halter work (although I did put her fly bonnet on).

She's three weeks old now and getting strong and independent. It's time now to get serious about halter training. Today she had her first "official" lesson.  If you have an assistant, it'll help tremendously, but if not, you can still use this technique as long as you're able to safely catch and control the foal by yourself. I catch the foal with one arm around her neck and the other behind her rump and then wait until she settles before slipping the butt rope in place.

Using the fattest cotton lead rope you've got, make a figure-eight of the rope so half goes around the foal's rear as shown and the other half around the neck as shown. The "intersection" of the figure eight will be held in your hand. Snap the bullsnap around the rope itself where it intersects. This will be the part you hold with your strong hand. In essence, you've got a slip-loop on the hind end and an unfastened loop in the front.

Let the foal settle. You won't be using the halter much; you'll slowly transition to that. You're going to use the butt rope only to move the foal.  After the foal has calmed down from the placement of the rope, take a firm hold of the handle - that part of the rope intersection across the foal's back, as seen below - and give whatever verbal command you'll use throughout your training. I use a firm "Walk on" in conjunction with clucking.

The foal won't understand that command, of course, so as you give it, gently but firmly pull the foal forward with the pressure of the rope on the rear end. The front rope is there to stop the foal from getting away from you; it's the brake system, while the rump portion of the rope is the gas pedal. Timing is everything in horse training: as soon as the foal moves, immediately decrease the pressure on the gas pedal. Do a short 5 - 10 minute session only, continually just asking the foal to walk on, letting off the pressure as a reward, and then gently stopping her with your verbal, "Whoa," and pressure on the front portion of the rope.

Don't jerk the rope at any time.  Let your movements be slow and assured. If you have to let go of the butt rope, since the front portion is not fixed, the rope will safely just drop off the foal's rear end without harm.

Now, if the foal is reacting calmly - and for Julie's first lesson today, she was calm, engaged, and reasonable - you will introduce the first ever-so-light touch on the halter itself.  With the foal standing quietly, gently take hold of the short lead rope and gently draw it to one side. As soon as the foal gives to the pressure, release it. Your intention is not to lead the foal by the halter, nor to panic it. Foals instinctively react to pressure on the head by pulling way. That's okay!  You're going to teach the foal to give to that pressure. Take your time with it. Apply light pressure, wait until the foal gives, and then give back. Simple. Don't let your impatience get the best of you. All you want is a little bit of give. 

You can see I have another soft cotton rope dangling over my shoulder. That's the leg rope. On your first lesson, you can begin introducing the foal to picking up her leg on command. This is the safe way to do so - and it pays off in many other ways later one. 

Loop that soft leg rope gently around the foal's pastern. Never tie knots or make a noose!  Just bring one end around the leg, holding both ends in one hand, and ask the foal, "Pick up." Again, apply light pressure and lift the foal's leg. If the foal is a naturally kicky foal, you may not get this far; just let the rope touch her leg a few times until the kicking stops. If the foal is compliant, lift the leg gently a few times - using your verbal command each time - and gently lower it (don't drop it! Lower it politely. Polite handlers make polite horses.)  

One of many benefits of this method of teaching them to pick up their feet is it familiarizes them with having ropes around their legs. This can save a horse's life should they ever get hung up in barbed wire, as well as making it easier to hobble train them. It's also a safe method for the handler. If the foal gets kicky, you can let go of the rope without anyone getting kicked or tangled up.

That's it. Lesson one is done. 

Now, for the next few days (or weeks, or whatever is necessary / possible), repeat the lesson. Once the foal begins to understand the concept of giving to the pressure on the halter AND moving forward on verbal command, you will start to transition away from pressure on the butt rope. Don't be in a hurry. You'll find that butt rope is awfully handy training the foal to load, also. Take advantage of it while the foal is young and introduce them to walking over obstacles such as tarps, stall matts, and so forth.

The idea is to never get into a tug of war with that foal with the actual halter. A foal's head and neck are sensitive and easily injured. Do not voluntarily yank or pull on that precious head! Once the foal understands to move forward and trusts you not to frighten or injure them, you will teach them to associate the gentle pull on the halter to "walk on." If they act as if they're going to flip over or run backwards against the pressure, either your timing is off and you're not "giving" fast enough or you are advancing far too fast for the foal. Slow it down! Spending a lot of time with these early steps are well worth it and will make up for the investment later. As the old saying goes, "Make haste slowly."

With proper timing and patience, before too long your foal will be willingly moving forward with good impulsion, stopping with gentle pressure, and looking forward to each training session. 

When you've finished your session, slowly take off the halter. The process, as with all horse training, is more important than the goal. Fumble with the halter, pretending to unbuckle it, but don't do so. You don't want the foal learning to bolt after the halter is unsnapped, or - worse - to start running backwards with the halter dangling around the nose. Wait until the foal is completely settled to take that halter all the way off. And once it's off, just stand there, still holding the butt rope in place and confining the foal. Wait until she exhales before you slip the butt rope off. Once it's off, use the same technique and just stand there as long as the foal stands beside you. Let her slowly move away.

All photos in this post are from today's actual session with Julie, my new filly. This was her second time wearing the halter and the first time with a butt rope. Your results and actual mileage may vary. She's one of the more pragmatic, willing foals I've had, so don't be frustrated if your foal is a bit of an orangutan. Proceed slowly; never let the foal anger you; and do NOT expect it to know anything, even manners. That's why you're teaching them. This shouldn't involve any punitive measures at this point!  

Finally, one more word of caution. Halter breaking is often not linear. You'll encounter peaks and valleys. Just when you think that foal is completely halter trained, it'll likely regress and act as if it's never seen you or the halter before in its life. That's just a foal being a foal. Don't take it personally. Just start back to basics and keep those training sessions short and positive. That early bond you've formed with your foal is still there; it's just in hiding, and it'll return.

Good luck!  Leave a comment if you have a question.  

Copyright (c) 2018 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be used without the express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared * Thank you for linking, liking, tweeting, sharing, emailing, +1ing, and otherwise helping grow my audience * Most of all, thank you for stopping by!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The New Filly Arrives

After an unsuccessful attempt to sleep in the barn last night, I gave up and came in at 0200. The coyotes had been howling, Ethan the puppy was cold despite being curled up between my ankles, and every time Ethan growled at the yelping of the 'yotes, big-eared Mattie-K8 the Papillon - kept inside the house - heard him and barked in response. Chica was quiet and the stud horse, Ziggy, was keeping guard.

At 0530, Guitar Guy checked the barn as he left for work. I watched him drive off, meaning there was nothing going on,  and I drifted back to sleep. At 0720, I heard the distinctive sound of horses greeting a new arrival. I'd slept in my clothes; I had only to turn on the coffee and make my way down to the barn.

There, beside her mama, was a perfectly healthy, vigorous filly. She was already dry, walking well, and was nursing. She promptly passed her meconium - the first movement of hard fecal matter that had been in the bowel prior to birth - and came over to greet me with confident curiosity. 

Sandy War Chick "Chica" and new filly
(c) 2018 MJ Miller

Chica, the mare, had already passed the placenta (thankfully, it was in excellent condition and had no missing pieces) and had no apparent bruising, tearing, or other injury. She was ready for breakfast. It was a textbook delivery. Chica's a smart horse. Russ has been checking on her every morning at the same time for weeks; it wouldn't surprise me if she waited until he drove off and then promptly got to work at delivering her foal.

Any time I welcome a new foal, after I do the immediate obligatory routine - treating the umbilical stump, checking to make sure the placenta has been passed, and other tasks ensuring safety and health of mama and baby - I look for two things that always amuse me. I look at the foal's tiny hooves to see the "golden slippers" on the toes, soft protective coverings that nature provides to protect the uterus from damage from the baby's hooves. They are only there briefly before they fray and vanish as the baby walks. Then I look for the "milt." The milt is a gelatinous mass of sorts, rubbery in texture, that is in the baby's mouth until birth. I'm not always able to locate it; it's easily lost in straw or dirt. Today I found it, nestled in the straw in the foaling stall.

Now, granted, this may not seem exciting to those of you who turn ashen at the sight of raw biology in action, but for me, it has a certain earthy charm.  Back when, in my past life working with Arabians, I was told the Bedouins used to save the milt and dry it on the top of their tents for good luck. And in a nod to tradition, I'll do the same. Not that I'm counting on the extra good luck; I'm already lucky, with a healthy foal on the ground and a happy, proud mama horse beside her.

Ethan the McNab pup realizes he's no longer the baby in the family

And now it's time to brew another pot of coffee and head back down to the barn. These are the joyful moments - the great pleasures that make the hard work of horse keeping worthwhile.

(c) 2018 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No portion of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without permission of the author * Thanks for visiting!