Connecting from the start

As spring begins to emerge from an ever-lasting winter, snow the broodmares have carried on their broad backs begins to fade and the “seems like forever” waiting game of a prospective foal is coming to an end. This is an opportunity to share with our Morgan mares and prepare our new foals to become lifelong partners. In this article we address how we clarify the gaps between our roles as caretaker/food provider, companion and leader.

 Desensitization: A Path to Mutual Trust

katrina_crie_1Morgans as a breed tend to be deeply sensitive and aware, carrying many generations who were bred, foaled, and handled in a mixed human/herd environment. One of the keys to success in understanding their maturation process and trainability is to honor and work with these preexisting, strong genetic traits. If we want to engage fully and utilize these gifts of awareness and sensitivity, we can begin the process before the foal is even born. The pathway begins with our willingness to use proper herd etiquette and solid boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not as we introduce ourselves as reliable herd leaders while remaining responsive to the sensitivities that each horse presents.
Broodmare management offers some great windows for preventive care prior to foaling. Ideally, these mares are well-socialized and -versed in the routine of basic grooming, allowing herself to receive in a quiet, patient manner. For the maiden mare, we can take some extra steps to help ensure that the intimate aspects of human involvement at all stages are accepted. We know that mares do just fine on their own in the wild, but this window of opportunity, to bond and connect prior to birthing, is real. And one can use it to good benefit later in the foal’s life.

Grooming to prep for foaling includes the usual: curry, (hairbrush sometimes is really helpful to get through feathers and thick manes and tails), stiff brush, medium brush, soft brush for face and legs, finishing off with a towel (even though the coat may be heavy). A small, face or hand cloth sized towel of dark color is useful if your mare finds white alarming. And while it’s effective to pick up dander and loose hairs, the real goal is put a lesser barrier between your hand and the mare’s body. Remember that, for the Morgan with a strong flee instinct, your fingertips feel similar to the claws of a predator, and so an overreaction to feeling your fingers in their hindquarters, or sensitive area between stifle and belly, or under tail is not uncommon.

If the mare has areas of sensitivity or a reluctance to “let you in,” be sure that you don’t raise her concerned energy by getting frustrated or rushing the process. Instead, slow down the speed at which you are moving. If no movement is tolerated, then set your hand as close to the area in question as you can, and take a deep breath. The next session you might keep your hand in that spot long enough to take two deep breaths and add a slow stroke, in the direction of the hair growth. Be sure your body is positioned well back to avoid a warning cow kick. And try various tools. One who cannot tolerate a brush may welcome a hand sized piece of sheepskin. Vary the degree of contact you apply. If a fingertip is a trigger, try laying the flat of your hand or even your entire forearm on the mare’s body as you near the area of concern. Often a very light touch will be annoying, so try a slightly heavier connection. In this way, instead of proposing to the mare that there is simply one way, our way, and she better get used to it, we agree to explore the nuances of what it must feel like to live in her body. We respectfully agree to find a way to meet our goals that is mutually acceptable.

Have no agenda, be creative, take your time, and imagine it going well. If you don’t have time and are in a rush, do not ask that particular tough question. If the mare’s energy is high is when you begin, (busy feet, anxious tension, inability to stand quietly) you can mirror that energy with quick movements as a means to connect. By mirroring quick energy, we acknowledge their present state. Then, slowly alter your rhythm and slow things down. See if you can bring her energy into your calmer, quieter sphere. As herd animals, equines are attuned to the rate of our breathing and the subtle pheromones (odors) we are unaware of that tell them of our emotional state: fear, worry and frustration are all readily picked up and not safe-feeling for an anxious horse. So, provide some low key, doable tasks when these issues are up. Whether we acknowledge it or not, each and every time we engage with the mare, it is a training session. So seek to make each engagement a successful one, even in the smallest ways. And allow those small successes to be enough.

As with all training, repetition is critical. For the maiden mare who’s just given birth, the combination of discomfort of a bursting udder, hormonal crash and fear of the foal nosing around in a sensitive area can be a recipe for poor bonding. So we handle those areas well in advance of foaling, taking gentle care to build mutual trust. By going slowly, over time we can turn what was once a valid fear reaction into pleasurable shared time. Many mares acquire a buildup of mud and bug bites and smegma-like substance between their teats, so once we gain access with our towel, we can gently convince her that this shared allowing is very nice. And in this way, we become valued in her herd world as one who grooms where others cannot. As the temps allow and the mare becomes comfortable with this intimate contact, you can dampen the towel with warm water. Again, by introducing elements that will later be normal (wetness of towel equating with wet little foal mouth) we further desensitize and familiarize the mare with all that will be expected of her as a mother. For our benefit, a mare who’s comfortable with her teats, tail and labia being cleaned and handled is one who will also tolerate your checking for wax, testing milk quality, vet palpations, and we across the board help her become a better citizen. If we apply these same techniques to handling legs, head and feet, we often see payback far down the road in situations that require the horse to remain still for treatment or extraction from a bad circumstance without the trauma that instinctual reactions can bring. As well, a mom who responds with contentedness sets the stage for her foal to take human interaction in stride, without fear, as well.

Another sometimes forgotten issue can occur if a mare is foaling in a stall and gets positioned poorly against a wall or into a corner with insufficient room for the foal to slide out. Teaching the mare ahead of time to lift each foot with a soft, fat lead line or towel, we prepare her to accept this kind of handling of her legs and feet if she does get stuck or poorly positioned during foaling. If our only option to help a poorly positioned mare is to flip her legs up and over, away from the wall or corner, then we are all safer if she is familiar with the sensations of tug and pull of towel or lead, and trusting that we are not threatening her ability to flee during this vulnerable time.

Human as Herd Member, Morgan as Good Citizen

One super effective way we can take the knowledge we gain from books is to use our minds to visualize what we have learned. Animals receive knowledge and information through shared images, and though we may be unaware of how astutely our Morgans pick up the images we carry in our heads, attention to this dynamic can open huge doors for creating a trusting bond. When possible, I make it a priority to stable and turnout first time broodmares with a mature broodmare buddy. As the foal becomes more prominent during pregnancy, make a point of talking with it while grooming the mare, sharing my hopes that it is growing well and, more importantly, assuring that your voice will be a familiar vibration. For a breed so hardy and independent, making this connection at an early stage is a first, simple step to becoming a member and leader of the family group. By ensuring the mare trusts your presence prior to birthing, you welcome a foal whose full experience, subtle and obvious, includes faith in and familiarity with human presence. To imprint a deep and abiding foundation helps ensure trusting relationships throughout the horse’s life. For breeders who need to sell foals, we also set the stage for our young stock to move on and have successful, happy careers because we have instilled enjoyment in the process of learning. Thus, the degree and types of training they encounter once out of our hands is irrelevant; they are wired through positive experience to develop skills for interacting with humans with trust. We broaden their instinctive herd vocabulary to include tools for accepting guidance and leadership from a human. In doing so, those who have a generous streak will become the beloved ambassadors that successful programs depend on. And those who are highly sensitive have tools for coping and resiliency, rather than having those sensitivities become a liability for which they are labeled difficult or spooky.

Much has been written about the importance of imprinting the newborn foal, but it is worth noting that, done to excess or inexpertly, imprinting can result in a foal who views you not only as part of the herd, but as a playmate or peer not worthy of the respect that good, safe training requires. That said, shortly following birth, and up to the weaning period, we truly do have an opportunity to establish some boundaries and to defuse, to some degree, instinctual reactions that can stand in the way of safety and ease of training later.
A first rule of imprinting: do as little as possible until mare and foal have bonded. Their connection is sacred, and one we do well to honor. This means that, once the foal’s front feet and nose have presented properly within the amniotic sac, our only responsibility is to make sure that the sac is opened so mouth and nostrils wiped clean are free for intake of air. By watching from a distance, keeping lights dim, drafts to a minimum, voices and sounds low, we allow the mare freedom from undue cortisol flooding if she is anxious about our presence or external threat. We respect her high sensitivity at this time, and create an environment which she deems safe. Of critical import is the chance for mare and foal to exchange breath, take in one another’s odor, and allow some period of cleaning up to occur without human interference. In situations where the mare needs help with a breech presentation or getting large shoulders free, we help as needed and then back off. With safety in mind, a leather halter on the mare is well worn prior to and throughout birthing, so that if she is unpredictably defensive toward us or aggressive toward the foal, we can easily catch her and address the situation before any trauma occurs.

Robert Miller, DVM wrote the original book on equine imprinting, and these and their accompanying videos are still of value if the process is unfamiliar to you. However, newer studies show that, while we still do not know how big the window for effective imprinting is, consistent, regular handling of the newborn and growing foal are what ultimately equate with tractability, good socialization and willingness to learn.

Principles of imprinting assert that by introducing as first experiences the sensations, sounds and tactile expectations that will later be routine, we can defuse the instinctual reactionary response and replace it with trust. Thus, by tapping on the foal’s feet, handling ears, running contact along legs, gently manipulating the tail and anus, rubbing face, gums, nostrils, and eyes, running clippers and using them, toweling the body, during this window of &ldquordquo;what is this world about” openness, the foal is better able to focus on and cooperate in future. Critical to the process is never releasing the activity until the foal stops struggling. To allow the foal to escape the pressure of these requests is to instill the power of flight from things new and scary. If you have a strong-backed person, a powerful step in this process is to wrap arms around the foal’s hind end and shoulders, and to pick the foal up. This is obviously best done shortly after birth, while its weight and strength are conducive to successful holding and there is less coordinated and strong wriggling from the foal. This event definitely makes an impact when standing still quietly matters in the future. I had one colt who received first shots from the vet while being held, and I must say, inoculations were an utter non-issue as he aged.

One of the fears of over-imprinting is that we dull the foal’s sense of wariness to the point of lack of respect. It’s a situation we sometimes see arise in the case of orphaned foals who are hand fed (rather than bucket) and who lack other foals and mares from whom to learn manners and respect as doled out by a proper leader. There is nothing like a soft-eyed foal to turn us into hyper-tolerant partners. An occasional head butt or kick is not something cute or acceptable, and if you feel you need guidance about just how quickly or harshly to reprimand a foal for these infractions of your space, just spend some time watching other mares and foals. The best broodmares (from a training perspective) lay down a clear line. Swift neck swing, ugly face, a well-placed wallop with a hind leg all serve the purpose. We can mirror those actions by swinging our arm with a verbal growl and ugly face to teach a foal to back off and honor our space. We must learn how to be BIG, and use our intention to make a point, and once made, to back off and return to quiet leadership energy.

A simple, affordable tool that can help teach your new foal to lead and also desensitize to girth contact is a draft sized halter, leather, if possible. Properly fitted, the headstall section that goes over an adult horse’s poll is actually the girth attachment on the foal. By cradling the foal from the left, with the noseband section pointing toward the ground, slip the oversize halter over the foal’s head. The section that sits under the adult horse’s chin will lay just behind the foal’s withers and becomes a hand hold, after the headstall is loosely attached and sitting just behind the foal’s elbows. Much like a dog harness, this arrangement allows the handler to use their right hand securely on top of the foal’s back, (which gives some leverage for keeping the foal from rearing) and the right hand free to use a butt rope and loosely held lead to the foal’s halter. A long soft lead attached to the foal’s halter can be draped along the off side, snug around butt, and drawn back to the hand near their head.

Foals and untrained horses have a natural instinct to pull away from or flee pressure and contact. So in these early days, we can make huge strides in helping the brain create the neural pathways that allow our relationship of give and take to evolve. Once restrained, we can teach the very beginnings of “move away from contact” by touching them lightly and rewarding the proper response. We have the advantage of strength and can insist with a more powerful push if necessary, and then refine the request as comprehension (in the process of seeking relief from pressure) and repetition make clear that, from day one, we will say where the foal’s feet and body need to be in relation to us. To achieve a simple comprehension of whoa at this stage is also key. Just be mindful that more of standing still needs to be enjoyable than not. So scratching, rubbing, stroking and a happy sort of banter can go far to help instill the foal’s desire to be with you. And, as with imprinting, the session need only be as long as it takes for the foal to quit struggling, to “be with you” by choice, and then for you to release during a peaceful moment, and not when the foal is itching and about to explode. As with the anxious broodmare, we also need to keep our emotions in check. Raised voice, or utterance to impart, “Nope, not that” is fine, but must be dropped as soon its meaning is registered by the foal.

Don’t hesitate to use a second pair of hands if necessary for a successful activity. For instance, some foals need only a wall nearby to lean on as they learn to pick up a foot for cleaning. Others may have a deeply ingrained flee instinct and be utterly offended by the request. Here is another situation where the soft lead used to just lift the hoof off the ground a little bit, so the foal can learn and integrate the myriad balancing components of standing three legged. We can create success by making sure the three feet on the ground make a triangle. While we think the fleeing is all about inherent disobedience, it’s really more often about fear of falling or being restrained. Thus, be mindful about the quality of touch you use when picking up the hoof. Rather than grasp tight on the soft tendons and bones, take a solid grip on the hoof itself. And as with the touch-sided mare, remember that sometimes a broader range of contact lends some comfort to the horse. Lean your full body lightly along the entire hip and hindquarter. And give the foal time to process what you are asking. A light squeeze and tug upward between the lowest tendons on the cannons along the back of each leg is usually sufficient. And remember that keeping the hoof low to the ground (even if it’s hard on your back) helps the foal find their balance with ease.

And for leading, if a foal is not willing to follow its mare, another person to walk behind the foal and scuff feet or raise arms and adopt a “big posture” is usually enough to inspire a nice brisk walk. I do use the mare in front as a brake/wall, and all good care is taken when releasing mother and foal for turnout. They should be standing very near one another, and a moment taken to stand still and scratch before release. Then, releasing both simultaneously, stand back and know that each and every time you dictate the details of your mare/foal routine, day in and day out, you determine when freedom is appropriate. Obedient desire to please is instilled as the foal learns to look to you for direction when you are sharing space, and the behavior of the trusting dam reinforces that role.

So trust that simple, clear interactions, with multiple short, quick sessions rather than long, less consistent sessions will bring small successes on which to build. Be a calm, quiet leader, expect the best by visualizing each session going along in the best way possible, and use your deep, calming breath, and a quiet stroking hand and you’ll be well on your way to creating the trusting relationship that instills deep peace and trust for both.