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.