Sistine and Faa

Kill pen photo 1The first time I saw Sistine and Faa, mare #9668 and foal #9669, I had a full three days of students scheduled, lots of chores to finish and a very tight schedule. I was taking a quick coffee break and scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw a photo of a skeletal mustang mare and her foal in the Kaufman Kill Pen in Texas. Unfortunately, there are lots of starving horses these days. Between the drought out west and the economy still struggling to recover, the issue is on the rise. I wish hungry horses were uncommon, but they aren’t. Normally, I look, but scroll past. But something in this mare’s face, huge against her emaciated frame, had spoken to me. Even starving, she was beautiful. She had a foal at her side, still bright and new, and a quiet resignation in her eyes that humbled me. She was stoic. I saw in her face that she would go to her death without complaint. She was young too, only five, so she would go to her death prematurely, a book that had never even been opened. In her I saw beauty, grace and calm acceptance and I wanted to know how those things would look lit from within. If this was how she looked in utter neglect, left to die, how magnificent would she be fully empowered? She felt like one of our herd and I wanted her to come home.
Safe at Shelby'sWithin a whirlwind twenty-four hours I purchased the mare and foal or “bailed” them out, called on our local and phenomenal animal community who generously raised enough money to cover their transport from Texas to Wisconsin, and found a local farm in Texas willing both to pick them up from the pen and to provide them with a thirty day quarantine and weight gain program. Mare #9668 and foal #9669 would be coming home to Idle Moon.

Here’s the truth: I don’t know what happened in their lives to cause them to end up where they did, starving, in a kill pen waiting for a truck to Mexico. I only know they were owned by a man who breeds draft horses, who sold them as a pair to another buyer in August. After that, things obviously went downhill. But what I did know was this: I would assume nothing about their past. We would start over, fresh. They needed names. I named the mare Sistine for the Sistine Chapel. Something ancient, something holy, something neglected that was later restored. Something now considered a beautiful work of art.

The foal we named Faa, after the King of the Gypsies from The Golden Compass. He’s bright and golden and will be big enough to pull a gypsy wagon when he reaches maturity.

Once they arrived here, it was clear their new names fit the shape of their souls. Faa is social and brave and follows any human at all in order to solicit scratches. Sistine is quiet and observant and when I get close to her during feeding time, I can feel her disappear deep inside her body. In these observations are our beginnings. When humans adopt a brand new horse, or dog or child, even, it’s natural and healthy for us to have dreams about what the relationship will be like. Those dreams and stories we tell are part of how we commit to the process and they say much more about who we are, full of hope and able to imagine new beginnings, then they do about the animals we bring home, who do not imagine or dream of distant futures. Of course I dream of Sistine, completely healthy, full of muscle and using her body as elegantly and expressively under saddle as the ceiling of the chapel for which she is named was painted. But today she is just a very skinny mustang mare who doesn’t yet know what to expect of me. Today, in small moments, I will begin to shape her perception of me, her perception of herself toward my dream which I hope will become a common dream.

What is most important for her to learn?

1) I am a source of reinforcement
To be interested in me, to be motivated to learn from me, Sistine must perceive me as a source or reinforcement. I feed her numerous times daily, so this is given. Each time I appear with food, I become associated with the positive emotions the food elicits. This also begins to build our social relationship.

2) Sistine can control “bonus” reinforcers through her behavior
Consequences maintain behavior. In order for Sistine to feel motivated to offer behavior, she must feel like she can gain access to reinforcers as a consequence of her behavior, i.e., a handful of grass pellets for walking next to me.

Sistine's first schoolThat’s it. Those are the only two concepts that I need to present to Sistine in order for us to start forging our working relationship. The easiest way to begin her “training”, then, is to set up a very simple contingency where she is sure to succeed because the behaviors I am going to be looking to reinforce are behaviors I have already observed in her repertoire in relation to me, ie, she already does them while I’m there. It’s too grand for me to consider teaching her something novel. I want these first sessions to be easy for her, very low stress and to predict a very high rate of reinforcement. What have I observed that she can do reliably? She always follows me at a walk just behind my shoulder when I walk into paddock with food. Here’s a video of our first training session together:

In one sense, I’m not teaching her any new behavior at all. She already knows how to walk forward on her own, and it’s something she does four times a day when I walk into her area to give her her food. But I am teaching her a new consequence when it comes to humans. If you move forward when I do, bring your body into motion, I will reach into my treat pouch and offer you some grass pellets. Your behavior affects your environment.

Sistine learning food deliveryRight now, there is a lot Sistine needs to learn for her own well-being. She is afraid of being haltered so she can’t be led on a rope out of her paddock, yet. She has a bit of a clubbed foot on her left front leg and will need a few years of remedial hoof care plus shoulder stretches to help balance her out. She could use a good brushing. But those skills will come.  Without taking the time to introduce her to the idea that she can control reinforcers through her behavior, without letting her confirm that expectation day after day, she won’t be as persistent of a learner. She might shut down, or panic. So, first, I draw her out and allow her to feel successful through easy contingencies that she can fulfill. This is the fun, easy part, watching her begin to light up again. We are building the subtle underpainting that will allow everything later to glow.

Hocus Pocus: shape-shifting into healthy movement.

This spring I was lucky enough to purchase a horse who I loved many years ago but thought I would never own. Hocus Pocus is a tall, black and white, Saddlebred/Friesian cross who was mine to train from the ages of two to three. Even as a Hocus Pocustwo-year-old, he was the sort of horse who was thoughtful and kind. He was such a good learner, and so easy to train, that I called him my “yes” horse. I wanted very badly to buy him for myself but he had been purchased to prepare for sale, and I knew I could never afford him. This year, seven years from the last time I saw him, his owner now with both a young child and a business to run, decided she just couldn’t offer him the time she felt he deserved. When she contacted me to say he was for sale, I arranged to go see him with a check and a trailer. I wanted to welcome him here at Idle Moon Farm to join the rest of my family.

The horse I saw when I went to pick up Hocus was obedient but rather checked-out. Instead of looking like a mature ten-year-old in his prime, he looked more like an aged horse. His back was dropped and his topline was completely wasted away. I hesitated when I saw him, but was set on bringing him home. We would address whatever physical issues were going on; I had decided there were no deal breakers when it came to him, though I wondered if my “yes” horse was still in there.  Here’s a picture of his back the first week I brought him home:
Eastwick Day One- 5-29-15You can see that the top of the individual vertebrae are visible, as well as the top of his sacro-iliac joint and a very prominent point of hip. He was going to need some serious conditioning to put muscle back in the right places and make sure he became stronger instead of stiffening into this muscular imbalance. People often believe, as I used to, that turning a horse out to pasture for six months or a year helps them to loosen up and  heal. But the truth is horses turned out to pasture tend to reinforce the same muscular patterns they had going into the time off. Six months or a year out to pasture often yields a horse who has the same crookedness or weakness, sometimes more pronounced, in addition to them then being out of shape. I wanted to start changing the muscles Hocus Pocus used in movement, preferably with a good head start before winter. I wanted him to have some mass to take him through the cold and over the slippery spots.

The first order of business was to get Hocus moving throughout the day, so he could do lots of walking and start to build up some muscle through easy, low-impact exercise. Once he was worked onto grass, we let him out onto our track system so he could walk and graze alongside the other horses. Having his head down kept him released over his back and allowed his tight, weak muscles to move through their range of motion and build up some strength. Having a paddock set up that allowed him to move as continuously as possible all day long provided much more movement than one human trying to exercise him ever could.

The second order of business was to teach Hocus Pocus a new way to carry himself posturally. He tends to be nervous in the arena, his head flies up, his back inverts and he braces his big brachiocephalic muscle on the underside of his neck. This tension limits his range of motion, stresses his joints and continues to atrophy the back muscles he needs for healthy Spellbound Hocus head downlocomotion. To begin to change his habits, I taught him to lower his head in the halt from the ground. The head-down behavior serves a dual purpose: it allows Hocus to self-calm by giving him a measurable behavior to concentrate on in the arena and it is the new gross motor pattern I want him to generalize and offer. There are other bells and whistles to add on, but the main pieces are there: lengthen your neck and release over your back. Before adding bend or asking for any other nuances in the way he moves, I want him to know one thing for sure: a lengthened topline is the right answer. When in doubt, start there. Click. Treat.

At first we spent most of our time in the arena in the halt in the head-down behavior. Every time I asked him to walk off his head would fly up and he would take short tense steps. After three or four steps, I would click him just for staying with me regardless of the quality of the movement and we would go back into our deep meditation within the head-down behavior. I would ask him to do three to five repetitions of the behavior, clicking and treating each one, until he felt calm and centered and ready to walk off again. Hocus Pocus had been caught in a vicious cycle. He was naturally a bit “startle-y”, which caused him to tense and tighten. The tightening and tensing up made his body uncomfortable, which caused him to spook and startle even more. Left to his own natural inclinations with no support or new learned response, he was only going to reinforce his old, habitual patterns of fear and unhealthy movement. Head-down offered him room to begin to change shape emotionally and physically. In this deceptively simple behavior there was space for a new horse to emerge. Since the behavior was taught and maintained with clicker training, there was the added relaxation of food and fun woven into the training sessions. Lightbulbs went off. Soon, Hocus Pocus was able to start lowering his head in the walk from a gentle slide on the lead. Soon after that, he was able to offer more and more steps in walk with a lowered head and his back Hocus Pocus- ST, week one, FD 2muscles working in relaxation. Soon after that, he began to breathe normally again in the arena space and he stopped spooking at noises and counter-bending to swivel his head around to look in every corner for danger. Very soon, I had a true partner who was motivated, relaxed and an absolute pro at stretching over his topline and keeping step with me. The entire process took roughly four weeks.
Some people fear repetition, but to really build a reinforcement history on a behavior, to make it a place where you and your horse can check-in, discuss how tight or relaxed they are, to use it as an anchor in a storm, takes repetition. Thoughtful repetition is necessary for robust learning and really cementing new neural pathways. Improved Hocus in arenaPractice makes permanent. The reinforcement history we have built around head-down has made it an absolute favorite of Hocus Pocus and he even offers it when walking at liberty from his side paddock back to where he sleeps at night. It’s not just a motor pattern, it’s a request to be paid some grain, a way to self-soothe, physical therapy and a easy conversation we have with tiny nuances being added all the time. Head-down is familiar now. It’s valuable to Hocus. It’s useful to me. It feels good to both of us. It has changed the shape, nuance and energy of all of our work together. And most importantly, it’s already begun to change the shape of his back. Here’s a comparison photo from our first week together, (left) and almost four months later, (right.) Hocus Back Comparison Photo

Hocus and I have only just begun this new leg of our journey together. It’s so rare to get anything back that you have lost; he is the first second-chance I have  had in my life. I want to honor him by keeping him healthy, helping him to be strong and teaching him how to relax and truly love his work.

Allow your horse to be a masterpiece

When I adopted Aesop, I was looking for a horse who could be a good teacher. He appeared open, calm and, just as  important, he had rather flat movement. I didn’t want a horse who was terribly athletic if I was considering teaching more novice riders on his back. He was safe, kind and limited in his scope.  Dragon, my big, flashy Friesian cross, embodied athleticism, sparkle and presence in my mind. Without knowing it, I had assigned Aesop to an “understudy’ position.
Late this fall, Dragon injured his sacroiliac joint in the pasture. It’s a deep injury, and a re-injury from an incident that happened to him when he was only three. Suddenly, I was faced with a year long rehabilitation program and Aesop being my principal riding horse. But I didn’t want to ride an understudy. I wanted to ride a star.

Unintentionally, I had set Aesop up for less than spectacular performance because I had different expectations of him than Dragon. Once those expectations became conscious, they were easy to alter. Every day when I got him out of the pasture, I would say, “This might be the most talented horse I will ever work with in my life.” It set the stage and it gave my subconscious a goal: to look for excellence. It’s a fun thing to say, too. There’s some good research on how powerfully expectations influence our learners. It is commonly known as the “Pygmalion effect”, or, the greater the expectation placed upon a learner, the better they tend to perform. I had always assumed Dragon would be nothing less than larger than life, but I didn’t know that that expectation sucked space to grow from all my other horses. Robert Rosenthal, a professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, says,“Expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students, they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes, they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect a certain response from their research subjects, they tend to get it.”  My high school art teacher told me once that I should treat every new drawing I start with the care I would afford a masterpiece. It was good advice then, and it’s the expectation I take to Aesop now. This horse might be the most talented, brilliant horse I ever teach. I approach him like a masterpiece. Not a lesson horse, but a schoolmaster-to-be.

This is Aesop when he first started to trot in hand, about two years ago:

To say he was an energy conserver would be an understatement. I still remember trying to get him to move from a walk to a trot in hand. I would open my hips, lengthen my own stride, march, dance. Nope, nothing. But why would you want to add energy? I work in a positive paradigm, so I don’t use whips or any traditional sort of ways to goose or startle my horse forward. Finally, I figured out that if we walked toward the green grass I could get two or three flat but willing trot strides. I would click and reinforce by allowing a short graze time. Any time at all he decided to trot, I clicked and reinforced him. His self-containment was safe and made for easy handling, but definitely was not the material from which masterpieces are made. Look at him:  he had school horse written all over him. Quiet, calm, on the forehand. It was hard to imagine a future Aesop as elegant, strong and athletic. Subconsciously, I let that shape me.

Nuno Oliveira said, “Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” People write a lot about being content with little and rewarding greatly, but all three describe one contingency. Know what you want and ask for it frequently, be content with a reasonable approximation for where your horse is in the work, and click and reinforce! As I moved into this new territory, I became more thoughtful about what I wanted from Aesop. I began to ask for more energy very consistently. I began to ask for one or two strides of better and better balance, using his whole body more correctly. I paid deep attention to whether or not he leaned on my hand even a few ounces and made sure to re-set him so he could know my criteria exactly. I released him completely into his own balance and clicked him for maintaining engagement. Guess what? He could do all of it. It wasn’t that my expectations had been horribly low, I had been teaching him fairly intensively all along. I just hadn’t asked for the pieces that really help a horse sparkle. A real lift from the base of the neck, coming promptly onto a point of contact and balancing above it with real precision. Our conversations had not been detailed enough. Here is what Aesop looks like now that I treat him like he is made of moons and stars and the shining rings of Saturn:

To be clear, he had a very solid foundation and most of the component pieces for this in place. But it wasn’t until I started to envision him as a star instead of an understudy that he really began to change. When a horse lifts up next to you, voluntarily, and trots beside you in balance while you walk, a horse who used to fall heavily from step to step and lean on the rein, you feel gravity disappear. They seem less clear, the laws that bind us. Because really, it’s all in our imagination.


When you see magic portrayed in books and movies, it is often used as a short-cut around reality. You can clean up a room with a wave of a wand or turn a man into a goat to pull your cart. This sort of magic is superficial: a trick, a deceit. Over time or under certain conditions, it usually degrades to reveal the true nature of reality underneath. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. An illusion. There’s lots of training like this, too. My friend Shirley is neighbors with a man who competed in the last “mustang makeover”. He used lots of short-cuts to get his horse ready to compete in ninety days and even placed well in the competition. Superficially, the horse looked “trained”. The only trouble now is that the man can’t even catch the horse from the pasture. The reality underneath was the horse was never comfortable, just trapped between hard choices. In my world, I think of these techniques as dark magic, illusions. Spells that seek to control without any regard for the horse.

Real magic, or transformation, requires quiet, incremental work in deep agreement with reality. It allows no short-cuts and if you work skillfully, the changes made are quite real. With Tarot, I wanted to help him transform his emotional landscape from fearful and trapped to trusting, engaged and joyful. I wanted to offer him healing and the vast space that healing can bring. Lastly, I wanted to stretch my own soul. I knew that real magic always works both ways; I couldn’t transform Tarot without transforming myself. I needed a clean, white magic, clear and fluid as water. Clicker training.

If you had a magic wand what spell would you cast?

I wasn’t naive enough to think I could go directly at a spell for riding with Tarot. I knew that underneath everything good, everything healthy between humans and horses lived relaxation and engagement. Without that as a foundation, everything else would be compromised. This summer, Tarot started to be outgoing, silly. He started to canter up from the bottom of his pasture, shaking his head and demanding attention. He put on new pieces of equipment like he had always worn them, without worry. The smell of leather used to send him snorting into the distance, now he arched his neck and stood quietly to put on a saddle. He began to feel, well, like all my other horses. Relaxed. Happy. Engaged. A few weeks ago, I woke up and thought, “Today I will sit on Tarot.” I’m used to following my intuition, so after I finished my horse chores, I took the mounting block out to Tarot to see what he thought of it. I used something I call an “asking loop” to assess his comfort and make sure I didn’t skip any important steps in the process. An asking loop splits a larger process into all it’s component pieces and checks in with the learner at each step to assess their comfort. Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day two:

At twenty-one seconds, you can hear Tarot blow through his nostrils as he lowers his head while my leg is over his back. This is a low level sign of fear and something he used to do all the time when I was even near him. He’s saying this is hard for him! This is a stop sign for me and means I shouldn’t progress further until Tarot shows he is relaxed. The other detail to notice to compare with my day four video (below) is that Tarot’s head stays relatively high during this session and he really has to work hard to offer a bit of head lowering until the end.This is tension and also registers as tension in his back. These are small details, but they are crucial. People and horses lose confidence in one another when these small behaviors are ignored and the horse is forced to show discomfort through larger behaviors like spinning away, bolting or bucking. I want him to know I can hear him when he is mildly uncomfortable and he never needs to escalate to get my attention.
The most charming detail, however, is that Tarot doesn’t leave the mounting block even when I do. He’s obviously decided by the end of this session that the mounting block predicts a fun game. Why leave when that lady keeps coming back to feed him just for standing still?

Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day four, the day Tarot invited me onto his back:

In this video you can see that Tarot starts out very relaxed, with a low head and no blowing. His eyes are soft and blinking throughout and his ears are floppy, listening for my click. He looks so relaxed it’s hard to imagine him fearful or afraid. You can also see that he keeps on chewing the grain from his last reward while I sit on him the next time. If he was tense there would be a momentary freeze response which would stop his chewing. He is calm and present. What is fascinating to me is that there was no point in the process where I consciously decided to get on. I just proceeded through my asking loop and as I felt his body relax and felt his solid connection to the ground through his back, my body made the decision for me. And then, there we were, me sitting on my horse, he with a person on his back, completely relaxed and on the edge of a brand new world, together.

Scratching: a primer

Itchy RuneMy last post about Rune outlined the details of our relationship and training in our first six weeks together. I assumed most people know foals are  born “itchy” and love to be scratched more than anything in the world. It’s a natural reinforcer and relationship builder that is pre-wired in all young horses. But how to scratch? Not everything is equal, and details matter.

Find the right spot: Every foal has a unique favored itchy spot. Some like the underside of their neck scratched, some prefer the top of their tail and some really prefer the top of their neck along their mane. Sara’s foal, Isolde, loved mane scratches when she was small but Rune found them totally overstimulating. Even a scratch in a favorite place can become uncomfortable if it goes on for too long (think of a back rub that goes over the same location endlessy, eventually it becomes annoying. ) When you have scratched in one place too long, or your foal is no longer enjoying the scratch, their tail will start to flip up and down rapidly.                       To add to the complexity, favored itchy spots change. When Rune was three weeks old, she would do anything for a top of the tail and a butt scratch, but now she really loves to be scratched in her armpits where she can’t reach with her nose.

Why does this matter? It matters because when horses are young, under six weeks old, food doesn’t function as a reinforcer. Their only real nutrition is mare’s milk at this time, though they will nibble on hay and grass in imitation. If you want to train in a positive reinforcement paradigm, you need to be able to offer something your foal values. In this case, a good scratch! So, now we have something our foal wants, but how to use it constructively within a training session?

Make It Contingent: One of the  first things you can and should do with a foal is to link scratching with a simple, likely- to-be-offered behavior. In Rune’s case, I just made sure that as she approached me, my outstretched, flat palm was available and near her nose. Once she would touch it, I would click and then immediately begin scratching her. This way, through repetition, she understood she could “control the situation” with a polite nose touch, rather than crowding into my space or shoving me with her face. Many people start out scratching and massaging their foals while they are little and cute, but quickly get frustrated or start to use physical punishment, because they have inadvertently taught their foals to nip, push into them with their shoulders or cut in front of them to demand a scratch. What is cute at five days old is already starting to be intimidating at four weeks. You have to be aware when you hand out your scratches! Making scratching contingent on a polite behavior not only sets rules around your interaction with your foal, it also begins the game of learning, “If you do this, then I will do that.” Easy, safe and fun.

Scratch so their head turns away from you: When you scratch a foal, it’s natural for them to want to wiggle their lips, turn their head and nibble or bite you. Horses are social groomers, and in foals this response is strong and immediate. I didn’t want to start out offering Rune a reinforcer and then end up punishing her or scaring her physically because she had bit or nipped me. I found that if you scratch the side of their body that is opposite to the side you are on, your foal will turn their head that way, toward the pleasurable sensation and end up nibbling and lipping themselves. That way you don’t have to suppress their natural social response and you can avoid teaching your foal to use their mouth or teeth on you. Here’s a very short video of Rune at about sixteen days old learning how to turn on the “scratch machine” and me learning how to direct her nose just with the location I choose to scratch on her body. This is more important in the first four weeks when foals are more free with their mouth and less discerning about how they use them.

Even though foals are tiny and absolutely enchanting, it’s important to remain aware of the habits we are building when we interact. Safe and sophisticated handling comes from a thoughtful set up and attention to detail. With young foals, knowing where they like to be scratched, paying attention to their enjoyment or overstimulation, making the scratch contingent on a simple, polite behavior, and scratching so that you don’t encourage your foal to bite you are details that will set you up for success! Happy scratching.


How to Train Your Foal: birth to six weeks

Rune and JenRune is my first foal. She’s far from my first horse and I’ve been a professional animal trainer for almost fifteen years now, but a first is a first, no matter your other experience. So, after she was born and we had her settled into the world, comfortable, happy and healthy, I went looking for good books and good videos to see how other more foal-experienced humans handled their foals and what they chose to teach them. I was hoping to see some skilled, quiet handling, a discussion of developmental stages and age-appropriate skills to teach. These are things that are readily available if you are raising children or puppies, so I assumed there would be resources for foals too. I found one or two basic resources, a solid general set of guidelines from the ASPCA and some nice videos on youtube from a trainer named Ellen Ofstad, but aside from those it has been slim pickings and a plethora of misinformation and some very forceful handling. Rather depressing, actually.

There is a DreamWorks movie released in 2010 called:  How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a story about a Viking culture that kills dragons in order to protect their village and their food sources. Killing a dragon earns you status in the culture and young Vikings go to “dragon school” to learn how to fight them. But when one young Viking, Hiccup, injures a dragon so he can’t fly, he ends up building a relationship with him and learning from the dragon directly. By day he goes to “dragon school” taught by people and by evening he goes to his real dragon and learns what the dragon has to teach. What he learns from his dragon is very different from what humans are teaching him in “dragon school.” Eventually, he concludes, “Everything we know about them is wrong.” It reminds me exactly of a mantra of Alexandra Kurland’s, “Go to people for opinions and horses(dragons!) for answers.” I decided I would go directly to Rune for answers.

In their first two weeks on earth, a foal goes through an intensive sensory development period. What this means is when they are born, their perceptions are only rough versions of the more refined faculties they will have just a few weeks later.
New foals are very reflexive creatures. Most of their responses feel fairly automatic and are linked to their early survival. Stand up. If you fall, get up again. Suckle on anything near your mouth. If something touches the top of your butt, kick. Stay close to the large, warm animal you first saw when you were born. Follow her if she moves.
When you think about how much a foal has to make sense of when they are first born, it is truly staggering. With Rune, I really only worried about making sure she was comfortable with humans nearby and knew we offered her a clean stall, food for her mother, scratches and comfort. She had enough to make sense of without worrying about “training.”

But right at two weeks old she felt different. More aware of her surroundings. More flexible in her responses. So we began very short, more focused sessions. She was already very comfortable with me because I was there at her birth and in her stall daily, feeding, cleaning and just hanging out. I was part of the wallpaper and nothing to worry about. And I gave great scratches. So really, our early handling sessions were  just sharing space, responding when Rune approached by offering companionship and scratches and stopping before she became too overstimulated and leapt around like a wild energetic deer. I wanted to condition relaxation and seeking touch. Daily time together to build a pressure free relationship is key.

The first  behavior I taught Rune was targeting her nose to my hand. Here’s a short video of her at just under three weeks old following my hand target. It’s a very easy behavior to introduce when your foal already has a relationship with you. Rune tended to follow me out of curiosity and loved to touch anything near her nose. So I simply formalized the process.

She’s practicing lovely informal leading here, a skill she’ll need later when I introduce the halter and lead rope. She’s practicing enjoying touch from her human friend, which will come in handy when she needs to be groomed and handled later. These are age appropriate skills for a three week old foal, skills she can easily learn and feel successful with. Notice that I am working with her completely at liberty and she is free to leave at any time. At this age, training is mostly about setting up the environment so that you are interesting to the foal and working around their shorter attention spans and sensitive nervous systems.

Here’s another short video of Rune practicing the same skill set outside. Initially this was harder for her because her increased freedom made me and my game less interesting. But very shortly her curiosity and desire to interact won out.

Targeting is also a very safe way to start introducing space management to a foal. You can suggest to them, “Why don’t you walk along here, beside me?” and keep them calm and focused on you. Foals can become overstimulated easily and they truly have no concept of personal space, so targeting is very handly. They also have an intense opposition reflex and lean heavily into pressure, sometimes leaping into pressure. They can hurt you or themselves if you don’t explain personal space to them gradually and thoughtfully. For me, targeting was the perfect introduction to organizing your energy and motor patterns around the fragile human!
Here’s a short video of how very dynamic foals are at this age, to compare with her calm during her targeting session.

More structured body handling is appropriate and important for young foals as well. In this next video, Sara appears with her new foal, Isolde, demonstrating how to introduce body handling. Isolde is four days older than Rune and lives at Idle Moon Farm now. As you can see, Isolde is also at liberty and able to leave at any time.

Sara is helping Isolde become comfortable with being touched anywhere on her body, even a bit of a “hug” around her ribs that simulates a girthed up saddle later. If she wants to leave or the touch becomes uncomfortable, Isolde is free to express herself. We want horses that choose to interact with us because the lessons are enjoyable and interesting. Working at liberty ensures these foals can vote on their daily lesson. It’s information. If one of our foals votes no, it’s up to us as trainers to present the lesson in a new way. The learner is always right. At the end you notice Sara leaves while the lesson has been a great success and before Isolde becomes overstimulated by a too long work session.

New foals are open and curious. They expect the world to be interesting, safe and worth exploring. There are many natural tendencies they have, like touching with their noses, following human friends, and really valuing a good scratch that allow us to teach them so that lessons are easy and enjoyable. Training Rune so far has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. She is beautiful, curious, brave, intelligent and innocent. These are qualities to  protect and develop, things that should be enhanced through training, not dulled away. Approaching everything in small, split steps, teaching systematically and according to the individual foal’s comfort level allows these babies to prepare for their life ahead while enjoying every moment. It’s an approach that’s ethical, effective and gives you moments of feeling like Alec in The Black Stallion or Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon. The animal chooses you. There’s no greater honor.

Rune, a new foal at Idle Moon, imprinting and the future….

Glasswing and RuneFive weeks ago,  Glasswing’s foal, Rune, was born. Sara and I were there at her birth to towel and dry her off, dip her umbilical stump in iodine and make sure she found Glasswing’s udder for her crucial first colostrum. It was a brutally cold evening, -18 by midnight,  and we wanted to give her every chance to thrive. She was long-awaited and much wanted.

Before Rune, I always imagined that  my mustangs were as pure of a slate as you could find in a learner. They grow up free and only have limited experiences with humans when gathered and then adopted out. Otherwise, their opinions of humanity and learning are ours to shape.

But seeing Rune, meeting her hoof by hoof as she entered this world, I realized she is even more of a blank slate than my mustangs. She will grow up immersed in relationship to humans. Every day, every interaction, she will be learning.

Rune face

As my favorite writer, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “This was the edge of time, between chaos and shape. This was the little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cars or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written. The moment between chaos and shape and I say her name and she hears me.” Everything is yet to be decided. Everything is possibility. A foal is a chance to begin again, tabula rasa.

What should we teach? What is important in the beginning?

Often, a foal’s relationship with humans begin moments after birth through a process called “imprinting” developed and promoted by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM.

“Miller begins the imprinting process by kneeling in the straw, or on the ground, with the foal’s back against his knees and the head flexed so that the foal is unable to get to its feet. He controls the head by grasping the youngster’s muzzle, careful not to obstruct breathing in either nostril, and tipping the nose back toward the withers. It is important to keep the foal’s back to you, says Miller, in order to prevent being kicked if the youngster should lash out with front or rear feet.

With the foal in that position, Miller towels it dry, all the while allowing the mare to sniff and lick her offspring. Once that is done, he begins the desensitization process.

However, even before desensitizing begins, the foal is learning something that it will carry with it all through life–submission to a human handler. By not allowing the foal to get to its feet, Miller explains, the handler is establishing himself or herself as the dominant force in the foal’s life.” (The Horse, January 1, 1998)

From there, Miller begins a process of flooding the foal with tactile sensations (fingers in the ears, mouth, nostrils, mouth, etc) systematically all over it’s body until it shows no reaction/stops struggling and then moves to rubbing down with plastic bags, a blow dryer, a vibrating clippers and other novel stimuli. All of this happens before the foal is allowed to stand, suckle or spend time alone bonding with it’s mother. Over the next few days, the process is repeated once or twice.

The theory is that foals are in a limited critical learning period in the first few hours after birth. The premise maintains whatever stimuli is presented to them within that window will be accepted as routine and non-threatning throughout the duration of their life. The technique is essentially presented as a shortcut to a relaxed, easy to handle adult horse.
Here is a video of a foal being “imprinted”:


We did not imprint Rune. The entire process interrupts bonding time between mare and foal, and puts undue stress on both. Every animal deserves social, private time with it’s own baby at birth. It is a human conceit, I think, to consider another species’ baby our own and to begin training it before it has even gained it’s feet in this world. New born foals have powerful survival instincts that cause them to struggle against restraint and to pull away from novel stimuli.

Eliciting these survival instincts in the name of training and then overpowering these foals with brute strength teaches them powerlessness as their first lesson in relation to a human and powerlessness in relation to their own new body. We need to ask ourselves why this lesson seems attractive or necessary. To me, it is troubling and reflects a lack of imagination.

As for Rune, we made sure she was born safely and was dry and warm. When she had trouble standing, we supported her a bit at her shoulder, so she could lean and get some traction to stand. When she had trouble finding the udder, we guided her gently so she didn’t waste too much energy on that very cold night looking for food. We acted as friends and guides, the same role we will play for her in the future. Once she was dry, able to stand, able to eat, and had pooped (important with foals to know digestion is working), we left her alone to bond with Glasswing. To be a young filly learning about being a horse from her mother, another horse.

Yes, there are a million things to learn about being a horse in a human world, but those things can wait. As many great horse people have said, “Things take the time they take.” There are years before Rune can be ridden, years to be filled with learning about brushing, clipping, coordinating motor responses with a human request, leading, and learning to be still. But right now she needs to how to buck, how to canter, how to rear and express joy and power through her own body. Nothing is more enchanting than a young animal learning to move, learning to balance, learning the limits and outer edge of gravity. I want her to feel infinitely powerful, so later, she can share that power with me through riding. I want her to know she has choices, because control over your environment is crucial for security. I want her to be free to be a baby animal with all the emotionally impulsive wild disorganized movement that goes along with being young. And I want her to learn, over time and through daily interactions with me, that humans are safe, enjoyable, consistent and wonderful teachers.

I am reaching toward a world where instead of holding foals down and teaching them not to struggle, we help them stand for the first time and celebrate their arrival, because we know there are kinder and more ethical ways to build cooperation. A world where we both respect the species specific relationships animals are born into and take the responsibility of truly creating our own individual relationships and behavioral agreements with them based on systematic positive reinforcement. I am embarking on this amazing journey with Rune and I can’t wait to share it with you.

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