Wednesday, December 30, 2015

WYL #19 - Time to Brag A Bit

You'll have to excuse the glut of posts today - I just realized that I hadn't posted a few writing projects and want to get them into my 2015 book. I get my blog printed out into a hard-copy book every year as it is fun to refer back - yesterday I looked at the December 29 entry for 2010 - the day we retired! A fun recollection.


I don't have trophies or certificates to brag about. There was nothing particularly noteworthy in what I did in my job. I don't have hours of volunteer work to feel good about. I live an average life, so when asked to brag about something I could only think of some of my work with animals.

My first mare, Dora. had it all: temperament, looks, conformation. Taking advice from my mentor, Pat Wolfe, I sent her off to be bred. It was a long 11 months of gestation, but it gave me time to study foal training techniques. It also gave me time to to worry about doing it right. When Uvaer finally arrived I was as ready as I could be (and maybe a bit of a basket case!).

The golden mare with a black stripe down her back lay flat (as flat as a beached whale can be) on the bed of straw, her great body shuddering with each contraction. I knelt behind her, ready for the big event. Push, push, push. A foot, still encased in the amniotic sac, emerged from the birth canal. Another contraction and the next hoof was visible. My heart pounded. Would its nose be presented properly or would I have to call the vet? I breathed a sigh of relief when two nostrils, followed by a forehead with eyes emerged onto my trembling lap. I ripped open the thick sac covering its nose, and rejoiced at the first shuddery breath. Dora took a moment to gather her strength and then with a giant push the shoulders were past the narrowest point of the birth canal. Hips and back feet arrived with less of a rush. I slipped my hand down his wet belly to find out his sex. A colt.

After peeling back the birth sac, I rubbed him with a thick towel, then got to work imprinting him. This is a technique where the foal is handled extensively as soon as it is born. My hands, shaking from cold, excitement, and nervousness, started gently rubbing his whole face until he was relaxed. Relaxation is the key for a calm horse. If you stop too soon, you'll sensitize instead of de-sensitize. My fingers slipped into his mouth where a bit would sit, then I rubbed up to his ears and cupped each one, gently rubbing up and down and inside, being careful not to tickle.

Stroking from his head down to his neck was easy, I'd already rubbed there with the towel. I put my hand on one side of his head and gently bent his neck each direction until there was no resistance. Next my hands traversed his body and down each leg, rubbing and flexing as I went. A little tap, tap on each foot readied him for the farrier. I pulled his tail through my hands.  Every inch of him had been stroked, from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail.

After he was comfortable with me touching his body I moved on to the trickier stuff. I rubbed crinkly plastic bags over him, and ran clippers (blade side up of course) over his body. The noise and vibration caused an initial tensing of his muscles, but he relaxed with repetition.

I slipped out from underneath him and stood back. It was time for him to learn how to stand and walk. He floundered and careened about the stall for minutes before he could wobble on unsteady legs to search for Dora's udder, the source of life giving colostrum. Standing close beside his mother, almost underneath her, he pulled on her teat, greedy for the warm nourishment. Dora nuzzled his still damp fur, her eyes half closed and her own body still damp with the exertion of birthing a strong colt.

I gave Uvaer a chance to rest, then started up with the rest of the imprinting. When he was on his feet again I stood by his side and pressed one finger against his side. After a moment he stepped away from the pressure. What a smart boy! We practiced on both sides until stepping sideways (as well as his wobbly legs would allow!) was an automatic response. Leading was next. I slipped a tiny halter over his head and attached a lead rope. His first reaction was to pull back but gentle cohesion showed him that stepping forward would release the pressure. We had to be careful that he didn't pull back too hard or he could injure his spine. A press on his chest sent him backwards. Like a teeter-totter we went - back and forth, ingraining lessons that would last a lifetime.  

There was one more important lesson for this fluffy foal: lifting his feet. I supported his body against mine as I lifted and handled each foot. By this time he was used to handling.

With lessons over he fell into an exhausted sleep. At less than 2 hours old he already knew the basics of leading, giving to pressure (when I press on his side he moves over), backing up, and lifting his feet. This sweet, fluffy foal was well on his way to becoming a trusted partner.

Every day we practiced the initial lessons and added to his skills. He could walk over tarps, drag a bag of cans, have things flapping all around him, have a rope tied around his middle, and stand still to be brushed. I loved the time I spent with him, and he seemed to like spending time with me. At an age when normal foals would be clinging to their mothers, he would leave Dora in the field to visit me at the barn. He was friendly with strangers. He was biddable.

He was also confident, but not pushy, and a bit of a spaz. He would gallop around his mother at breakneck speeds, then screech to a halt for cuddles.

Pat Wolfe came to see him in those early days and was impressed. Not just for his confirmation, which was excellent, but for his desire to please and work with me. Getting a compliment from Pat is high praise as he is a well-respected trainer who has won National titles in driving. By the time Uvaer was ready to wean Pat had purchased him as a stallion prospect.

High praise indeed!

I applied these techniques to six more foals, every time fine-tuning the training as I learned more. Our foals were lovely horses to be around and their new owners appreciated all the work that had gone into them. Towards the end of my time with horses Pat Wolfe again complimented me on my skills with training foals saying that I was the best foal trainer that he knew.

I loved working with baby horses!

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