Retraining a Rebellious Colt

We recently had a foal who is now one month old. His mother has always been easy to handle in the cross ties or harness (she is a 20-year-old retired Standardbred), but is not a horse which can be caught easily in the pasture, and she isn't very "people oriented." The problem we are having is with her foal; when asked to do things he doesn't want to do, he attempts to bite us. I could tolerate curious nibbling, but this is laid-back-ears biting. Recently he had his first farrier experience. We had been handling his feet with no problem and the farrier spent lots of time petting him and talking to him before he even touched his feet, yet our foal lashed out with his hind feet when our farrier attempted trimming and rasping.

My question is: What kind of training method should we try with him? He is obviously going to test us. I have trained dogs for 20 years and am used to a species that wants to learn. Do I need to send our foal to a pro?

via e-mail

Sounds like this little Standardbred would like to be in charge of himself. So I would peacefully let him be in charge of the training. The general training method I would start out with this fellow would be positive reinforcement based on systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning, with a list of specific and general goals. Systematically go over him, gently and calmly, inch-by-inch, starting with somewhere he likes to be touched (or groomed, or whatever). Try to relax throughout the session, with no reaction or punishment for non-acceptance, and a prompt primary reward (treat in a bucket) for every increment of progress. I also give a simple steady verbal command of "good" just before the reward. This secondary reinforcer will carry you through times when you can't get to the treat quickly.

When you get to the legs, start at the hip or wherever he will relax and tolerate touch, and go from there. At critical points where you suspect non-compliance, use counter-conditioning responses to distract and preclude the aggressive behavior (this is tough for the feet compliance). I would work in five to 10 minute sessions once or twice a day at first and gradually work up to longer sessions.

Session and daily progress can be just a few inches closer to the objective (i.e., picking up the foot). That's a good thing.

Work in "smart safe mode," thinking through ahead of time what he might do, and what preventive steps can be taken to protect the handler and the foal from injury or commotion that only confirms his idea that this is all bad. Depending on his current willingness to bite, kick, or rear, I would suit up with protective gear (vest, helmet, sturdy shoes) that will enable me to stay as calm and relaxed as possible and get through the little resistance without flinching or hesitating.

A simple leather basket muzzle for him and gloves for the handler that protect the forearm or whatever he tends to bite can allow the handler to have calm confidence. Of course, you can still get whacked, but probably not bloodied. It's effective to avoid any negative confirmation of his current conclusions about people invading his space. So, use minimum restraint, with no growling or shouting at him. Use a "sweet churchlady" voice and steady tone, no matter what.

Since his Mom has moderately good behavior, I would try doing this near her, where he can get reassurance from her calm behavior. But I would have some physical barrier so he can't run to her, and so she can't complicate the scene too much--maybe in adjacent stalls or opposite sides of a good fence. You'll want to be flexible on that depending on how things go. Maybe you will have to conduct your sessions completely away from Mom if that works better.

The training can take awhile, but in studies we have done here at New Bolton Center with some young student handlers, it typically took foals that were one month old less than one hour of total contact time over a period of a week or so to reach a fairly reliable level of willing compliance. Those animals entered the study with "mixed" issues and had almost no previous handling. Our list of specific compliance objectives for those foals included willingness to accept manipulation of the nose, mouth, ears, eyes, belly, genitals, legs, feet, tail, and the anus, as well as tolerance of repeated jugular stick and weight taping, all at pasture with minimal restraint. We also wanted this compliance with one handler working alone at pasture with the foal. Our broader goal was to reach a point of generalized trust and compliance with any non-painful procedure, new or old. We used the simple positive reinforcement-based systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning when necessary.

You asked about a professional trainer. As a dog trainer, you can appreciate the value of a professional--the art and wisdom that comes with experience. A professional can be very helpful in a case such as yours, for an initial assessment and advice for you to proceed, or for getting the colt started, or to train him to a level to which you feel comfortable that you can maintain his good behavior. Very, very rarely, but sometimes, a horse has a savage streak that goes beyond the ordinary. A hands-on opinion about that possibility in your foal from a highly experienced trainer can be reassuring. A good example would be a foal or yearling supervisor on a large breeding farm who handles hundreds of foals yearly and can readily appreciate the range of ordinary Standardbred foal behavior. He probably has seen one or more truly savage horses which need special handling or euthanasia. That person's opinion and tips can be very valuable.

It is efficient and satisfying to find a trainer who enjoys working with these little feisty critters and can maintain a peaceful positive approach, knowing that most of the little guys improve very rapidly. How can you tell such a trainer? Ask them about their experience, both successes and failures, and listen to their choice of words. Especially listen to how they describe their failures. I avoid trainers whose language appears to reflect disdain or misunderstanding. It would be something like, "This son of a %#$@*&# moron just had to have the %#$@&# beat out of him. I showed him who's boss!" It's always more reassuring to hear something like, "A clever little rascal that somehow got off to a bad start. He challenged my skills and patience, but he just needed to learn how to behave around people, to gain some respect and manners. He taught me some quick moves." Listen for signs of satisfaction.

You certainly need someone who appreciates the danger, understands that it takes patience and organization, knows their limits, has succeeded, and can begin calmly and confidently rather than with fear or overkill.

As I write, I am chuckling about your comment about dogs wanting to learn. As confident as I feel with these tasks with horses, I personally have not yet acquired any hands-on dog skills. I have just never figured out how to get them to do what I want them to do or, more importantly, not to do what I don't want them to do. I understand that the theory and practice are the same, I just don't have the experience or effectiveness getting the same results with dogs. I don't ever plan to keep a dog, but should that change, can we barter?

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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