The Impact of over-handling foals and support in rearing mine

ROTH – Horse Psychology Project
By Clea G Hall

During the ROTH Foundation Course Week One at Zuma’s, Anna had me work with Fitz, a gelding mustang 5 years old, for TLC, and Justice, a 6 year old gelding, in the obstacle course (along with Zoey, a schoolmaster mare, and Matson) Both of the young geldings were born and raised at the rescue. With somewhat similar personalities, they’ve been labeled as overhandled, desensitized, and therefore horses that only staff or advanced horse people can work with.

My experience with each of them was differeFoals52nt, though both seemed to test my boundaries and ability to follow through and commit in ways that I may not have understood without Anna’s guidance and support. Both of these young horses have a playful, humorous demeanor to them, which can get frustrating the longer you’re working with them. They can encroach on one’s personal space, be mouthy, bite, lean into you (which I learned is considered body slamming) and could be considered stubborn. When I was working with them, and they stopped and literally stared at me I found myself smiling, and I watched others working with each of them do the same. I observed myself going back and forth from being serious and focused, to smiling and unsure, as I learned how to work with each individual.

I wanted to learn more about them, their history, how they came to be “over-handled and desensitized,” and to have a better understanding of what those terms mean, largely in part because I am rearing foals of my own. I trust that these beautiful horses are my teachers, and that it was no accident that Anna paired me with each of them.

I currently have four foals: Storm was born at our home to Mesa, his mom, a Placitas Mustang. He’s 7 months old and starting to wean. Orion is probably about the same age. He was a feedlot foal, that was separated from his mother when she went to slaughter, and was rescued by ROTH for the foal gentling clinic in Colorado. He’s currently with my 3 year old mustang gelding, Friendly, and my 5 year old rescued Arabian mix Jordan. Storm joins them to get away from the girls, and be one of the boys, which is how he’s weaning himself, daily. I also have two younger foals. Traveller is almost 3 months old. He is a half orphan. He never was able to nurse, though his mom Eva, also a mustang, did not reject him completely; she’s fulfilling her motherly duties, minus nursing. I provide the milk and feedings for him and Aster, a three and a half month old filly. Her mustang mom died when she was 3 weeks old, leaving her with the rest of the band, who cared for her, but could not provide milk. We had to separate and trailer her to my house to ensure her optimal nutrition. She’s been taken in by Eva, Traveller’s mom, and her yearling filly Frida, which is great! I also have two more mares that I’m pretty sure are pregnant. I want to do right by them, and I am learning as I go. Any useful information to help me raise them is helpful. Fitz and Justice, are teachers for me in numerous ways. They taught me about myself through working with them directly, and I believe their stories along with Jodi’s knowledge gained from raising them, can help me decrease the chances of over-handling and desensitizing my foals.

I spoke with Jodi at Zuma’s to learn more, and did some research online to help gather additional information, to have more clarity and a conscious awareness of how horses come to be over-handled and or desensitized. I’ve been seeking advice and insight regarding things I should and should not do with the foals I’m rearing. I also want to identify what I’ve possibly already done “wrong” and “right”, which will help me as I move forward. Although each individual is different, I do think knowledge is power and that I can utilize universal boundaries and guidelines to set us all up for success.

Lets get to know Justice and Fitz a little better through Jodi, the owner of Zuma’s Rescue Ranch, where both of these geldings were born and now call home. Justice’s mom Liberty, who also still lives at Zuma’s, originally came from a breeder and was headed to slaughter. She was feral, and had been untouched living on 400 acres. Though she’s not a mustang, she is a registered APHA, with top blood lines. Liberty was one of the reasons Anna was brought in to help, and the ROTH methods were first introduced at Zuma’s.

Justice had a natural delivery, free from problems, as did Fitz. They were both gelded at about 6 months and weaned at about 8 months. They were halter trained and moved away from their moms, though still in sight of them to start. I was curious about the reasoning behind separating them. Jodi explains, “in my heart I’d love to let them stay together, as a family. But because we are a rescue, and our intent is to adopt them out, I feel we have to separate them so that they do not get overly bonded to their moms or to one herd.” That way moving locations and having new herds is not as hard for them.

Jodi recalls that Justice has always been high strung, with a lot of energy, and very pushy and strong-willed. “He came out pissing vinegar,” she says. He had a sponsor who was working with a trainer at Zuma’s and purportedly practiced the Roth Methods. Unfortunately, they were somewhat fearful and over using training tools. Katie had to step in because Justice was too
much for them. “The overly sensitized horses don’t go back to being beginner horses.” said Jodi.  As a result, Justice will always be a horse only to be handled by intermediate to advanced people. They found Justice picking a volunteer up by the shirt collar one day. This was sometime after he’d been in the arena with a “dummy,” which he picked up and shook — behavior that may appear funny initially, but quickly becomes dangerous when it is repeated with a real person.

Fitz’s mom is a mustang named Ella. She came from the BLM with a colt at foot. Zuma’s sent her off to a trainer in Nebraska, who ended up having 200 horses starve to death. Thankfully she came back to them, although this time pregnant. Ella suffered and survived a round up, and near starvation. She gave birth to Fitz at Zuma’s, with no problems. Jodi had a halter on him in the first few days so that he’d get used to it being put on and taken off. They followed up with gelding, weaning and separating him from his mom (due to the reasoning explained above with regard to Justice). After he was separated from his mom he was placed with an older gelding named Ziggy, who is a good teacher for young ones. Another horse would be Kelvin, or the “schoolmaster mare” Zoey. The young horses are placed with other horses who are “fair leaders”.  They can still be playful, but are not placed with other “young punks”. This way they are schooled, and positively educated by their companions.

The same trainer who worked with Justice also worked with Fitz and a volunteer assisted him. They unfortunately flooded the horse, by doing too much for too long. Says Jodi, “the training was age appropriate, it was just done by unskilled, over zealous people.” With Jodi and Katy having so much to do and not being able to be every where at once, it was not obvious to them until later. The damage had already been done. Consequently, Fitz will not move off pressure, and has no sense of boundaries with personal space. He is great under saddle, though he can get bored and bolt. Like Justice, he is not a beginner’s horse. He is only allowed to be handled by staff or advanced horse people. He can not receive any programming without a trainer or instructor. Because he is “desensitized”, it is effective to employ a noise maker — made out of a can filled with rice and beans — while working with him, if needed.

I’ve heard the term “over-handled” numerous times in the ROTH courses I’ve taken this year. It sparked my interest and concern during the Foal Gentling clinic. I found myself thinking, “What exactly does that mean?” “Have I done it?” “How do I prevent it?” “What do I need to know NOW?!” At that time, I had 2 weanlings, whom I had since they were foals, and Storm who was 5 months old then. His mom and band of mares are raising him, but I’ve been helping and interacting with them daily. I wanted to know more. People have different beliefs and practices, but I deeply trust and appreciate Anna’s know-how, experience, and insight into anything horse related.

We can go back to the moments immediately after a foal is born, and explore imprinting. I’d researched it a little before Storm was born, and I did some with him hours after his birth. I was grateful, and somewhat surprised that even though his mom was, for the most part, untouched, she let me touch him all over, getting him used to me and creating a bond between us so soon. I was mindful not to interrupt their bond in the process. The subject of Imprinting could be an entire psychology paper on its own, which is not my focus. It is important, however, to acknowledge that some people believe it can be the beginning of over-handling if overdone. Though others would disagree and encourage it. I think the affects depends on the person and the motivating intent.

Foals28From what I understand, it is important to gentle a foal like we do in the ROTH Foal Gentling clinic, at some point in the foal’s first year. Gentling tactics might include touching the horse, getting a halter on, leading, desensitizing them to things like towels, blankets, etc., as well as working with their feet, with ropes for farrier prep, loading them into a trailer, etc. This is all essential and will continue to benefit the foal if done right. The foal that I adopted from the clinic, Orion, is a great example. We did all of those techniques in one week, and it’s very cool to see how it has positively affected him, even though I’m not repeating the training or exercises. If I go to halter and lead him, he is comfortable, confident and not fearful — though getting him in the trailer with greater ease could use some work. After the initial gentling/training, Anna’s advice is to let him or her “just be a foal” with other horses, without insisting upon or persisting with continued training. They are babies, and their brains need rest and  renewal. When we work with them in the clinic the sessions are short and they get plenty of breaks, to avoid burnout or becoming overwhelmed. After all, too much training too young can cause them to be over-handled and desensitized!

If foals are treated like babies without appropriate boundaries and have too much, or inappropriate handling, similar issues can arise. I realized this Early on with Storm. He was just born, a brand new baby foal, so small and cute. My initial approach was to get down at his level on the ground to visit. I soon found that his response was to investigate and play with me, in part by wanting to climb on me. It was sweet and cute at first , but I soon found myself realizing, that it’s not going to be so cute when he’s any bigger, and they grow fast! The way I remedied that was to stay standing tall, and to not invite, encourage or allow him to climb on me, chase me, rear up, or kick. These are all things that he experimented with when he was still quite small, but today at 7 months he does not do. One thing he does do however, is try to nip or bite — he’s a bit mouthy. What is the best way to address that? I have tried extinction, stepping back and claiming my space, as well as turning it into TLC when he starts. Instead of reprimanding him, I cup his chin in my hand and explore his front gums with my fingers. This is usually at liberty, without a halter. I’m open to feedback about that. I’m not sure if that would be advised or not.

I approached Anna and expressed my confusion and concern about over-handling my foal Storm, since we interact daily. The following was her advice: “If he is with other horses who are schooling him that is essential, and if you’re treating him like a horse and not a baby he should be fine.” I have yet to go through everything we do in the foal gentling clinic with him. I did start
haltering him young, to get him used to it, and introduced the horseman’s rope, some leading, etc. But I think it would be good to follow through, with Orion as my example, and introduce him to a towel, a blanket, the ropes on his legs, farrier prep, and trailering. That’s my goal with him.My concern was that because we have limited land and are co-existing, my day-to-day handling, petting, etc. could be in excess and considered over handling. But from what I understand it is ok, if done right — with clarity and boundaries. It’s the continuous training, and use of tools too much and too soon that can cause over-handling and desensitization to a foal who can consequently grow into a weanling/yearling with behavioral issues.

One example would be Fitz. After Greg and I had the chance to work with him during spook-busting, more questions and greater clarification around the issue of over-handling arose.  Anna said that “it creates behavioral issues that can stay with a horse for life. Due to basically being handled incorrectly. The behavior can be modified but not changed. It becomes part of the horse’s nature.” For example, we both experienced biting with Fitz. If he grows bored, which he does easily, he will revert to it, a learned behavior pattern. During TLC with Fitz, I had to continuously correct his head so that he was not leaning into me, body slamming, and when he was mouthy, biting the dually, etc., I had to repeatedly address it by using the line, with a quick pull on the dually. I had to continue to do this while leading him at a walk and at a trot. Greg used similar tactics while spook-busing with a parachute on his back. We were multi-tasking while staying in the present and remaining attentive to him so that no one got hurt. We did not want to encourage his learned behavior of biting or body slamming, because if we did, it makes it that much harder for the other people working with him. We did our best, and always ended on a positive note.

What tools and remedies are being used for Justice and Fitz, who are already over-handled? Is there hope for them? And what can I do moving forward with my foals to avoid over-handling them and ensure that I’m rearing them in the best way possible? First and foremost, yes there is hope! One approach to address Fitz’s and Justice’s less than ideal learned behaviors is extinction — meaning ignore the behavior, and focus on moving forward with something else, versus encouraging it or punishing them for it. Having the knowledge and awareness of who they are and the behavioral issues they possess is essential. The key is to not let anyone inexperienced or unaware work with them, because addressing these issues incorrectly (or not addressing them at all) could ultimately reinforce the behavior, or make it worse. Jodi believes that, “every interaction with any horse is either training or un training.” This includes day-to-day activities like feeding, shoveling manure, being in the paddocks with them, catching, haltering, and leading them. What she learned, partly from what happened with Justice and Fitz, is that every volunteer has to undergo training in order to work with the horses at her rescue. It’s best for everyone. Therefore, they are training and educating the people to work with, handle, and train their horses.

I feel that I still need to clarify the distinction between the training techniques that lead to “desensitizing” a horse, and the ROTH training methods we employ. For example, we practice: being able to put one finger in each of the horse’s ears at the same time during TLC; which can be called desensitized, in a good way. We introduce new objects like towels, blankets and ropes when gentling a foal or mustang as a way to desensitize them; we move through oil, with a slow yet not creepy approach; we use pressure and release to allow them to feel the objects on their bodies (then they can get used to them with minimal fear and anxiety). This is all in contrast to “desensitizing,” or flooding a horse. Where, the training is overdone, or done in a way that is not
good for the horse. It consequently impacts them in a negative way, to where they no longer move off pressure, or respond to visualize, energize, body language or even the line. One example would be how Justice acted with us in the obstacle course. I was doing everything I could think of to ask him to move on forward: seeing it, asking for it, eyes on eyes, stomping my feet, waving my arms, jumping up and down, swinging and smacking myself with the line, and throwing it at him. His response: standing there, watching me, nibbling on a fly mask hanging from the panel. Proof that he’s “desensitized”, and not in a good way.

One of the keys with foals and horses is establishing boundaries. This sets them up for success as they learn and grow. An example would be to not to allow them to lean into people.  They need to balance themselves on all four legs. We experienced this with Fawn in the foal clinic. She was the smallest of them all, super sweet, pot-bellied, and innocent. She also seemed to be not completely in her body. Fawn would walk over to us, ever so gently, somewhat sadly, and lean her body into our legs or shoulder if we were down at her level. Anna had to keep reminding us, “She’s not allowed to do that. She has to balance herself.” This can escalate or turn into “body slamming” when they are bigger, for which they will be reprimanded or punished depending on the person/trainer addressing the learned behavior. When working with foals it helps to take into consideration, if what they are doing would be acceptable for a grown horse to do. If not then it should not be ok for them as foals. Everything they learn as foals carries over to how they interact as full grown horses.

Fitz and Justice may have been “over handled” and are now “desensitized”, which is unfortunate. Yet they are still great teachers simply because of who they are. Jodi and Katie learned a lot from their experience raising these guys from foals: the pros and cons of having help, how to ensure the quality of their help, and how it affects their horses. They are all, to this
day, teaching others by example and reflection about the do’s and don’ts of raising foals and using volunteers and trainers.

Fitz and Justice seem to be happy horses for the most part. One of the remedies that Anna mentioned is to keep moving them forward so they don’t get bored. People have to be creative and forward-thinking. One of Jodi’s remedies is to have a clear goal or intention upon entering a paddock or a lesson with all of her horses. She also has a back up plan so that if she does not
achieve her primary goal successfully, she will follow through with the backup. The key is to make a contract and end the interaction on a successful note, because they feel our failures.

A cool exercise to use as a backup could be going in like Anna did with Fitz and Atticus, and communicating with the horses, using their language, practicing visualize, energize body language and telepathy — having a conscious two-way conversation with the two horses, and asking Fitz to respect her boundaries and give her space and time with the other horse. That is
significant in working with Fitz and moving forward with him. Another positive tool can be a simple day-to-day exercise like I did with Justice and his other paddock mate. As the sun set, Anna said, “ok — who wants to practice boundaries? Clea, you have none, you go.” I had to go in with a bucket of mash and set a boundary, claiming my personal space with the two horses. I had
to be clear and confident in their space, with food in hand, and not feed them until I felt safe. I did it, with clarity and ease, and the exercise was beneficial for each of us.

In conclusion, all of the exercises we enacted and the interactions we had with the horses at Zuma’s were important and had a positive impact on me as I continue to learn and grow as a horse woman. Personally, Fitz and Justice were great teachers as they each, in their own way, served as a mirror that reflected back to me — lessons that were ready to be brought to my attention for greater examination. They taught me that setting boundaries, committing, and following through are areas in my life where I may waver, yet Anna reminded me that I have what it takes, and Zoey the sweet mare signified that I am not alone. I intend to bring these lessons full circle, at home with my foals, as I explore what I have done thus far and what I have learned. I’m ready to clarify what I want to do by setting realistic goals for myself and with my horses. Trusting that I am enough now, and also honoring my timing. With increased Clarity and Confidence, it is in working with the horses that I learn about myself. With greater awareness I believe I am setting us all up for success.

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