Gentling Abused Colts

I run a rescue ranch in Tucson for abused horses and dogs. I recently got in two young horses about six to eight months old, weighing in at about 500 pounds each. They have been badly branded, and they appear to be beaten up pretty badly. Their cuts are healing, and they seem to have that "baby resilience." One of them has a bad limp in the right front leg; I suspect from being hobbled or tied for the branding. They are very distrustful of humans (of course), and I have yet to be able to touch or halter them. They are warming up to me slowly as I hand-feed them both.

I am just wondering what advice you can give in general. My veterinarian said their wounds should be okay for a few days. My main concern is being able to catch them and gently let them know I am no threat, then administer medical attention. How does one go about this? My rescues so far have all been adults; these are my first babies.     Yvette, Unconditional Love Foundation

TRAINING TO ACCEPT HANDLING

Start with something like a gate with padding to make a small triangle; the aim is to have the animal safely confined and have safety for you while introducing kind, gentle human contact and lots of rewards and praise. Hand feeding is a great way to start--begin introducing yourself as the treat bearer. The horse should be inquisitive enough to come over to you after a few moments of standing quietly inside or outside the pen or gate. When he approaches, offer the treat. After several approaches, you can keep everything the same, except this time your hand is held slightly in front of the treat. To get his reward, his head should touch your hand. Increase the time and area you touch as you offer the food reward and verbal praise. We usually start with the head, then move gradually to the neck, body, rump, and legs.

PHOTOS COURTESY ELKANA GROGAN

 A procedure generally known as gentling can be easy and effective for starting any horse to human contact and normal ground procedures, especially for those wary from previous experiences. We have had animals reach our long list of goals for compliance in an hour or less of total contact time, even for previously unhandled animals up to three years old. Age does not seem to affect the time required to complete all the goals of the gentling experience. There are several ways to go about this procedure depending on the horse's temperament and size and on your facilities and comfort with the procedure.

Facilities should be arranged first. These will depend upon what you have available and how reactive your subjects are likely to be. The goal is to have an area of safe confinement where the horse cannot escape or hurt you or himself. We usually use a small square enclosure (eight feet by eight feet for foals and ponies or 10 feet by 10 feet for horses) with two padded sides. A box stall can work in a similar fashion, as can panels of a round pen. But this will depend upon the horse you are working with. For example, is he so wary of people that he might be explosively dangerous, or is he just shy and cautious of the unfamiliar human?

In the case of your foals whose first human contact was most likely painful, they could be fearful in a small confined space, so you might want to start with something like a gate with padding to make a small triangle. The aim is to have the animal safely confined and have safety for you while introducing kind and gentle human contact and lots of rewards and praise. Padding (even a stack of straw or hay bales) on the off side allows them to squirm around a little and move away from you without injury or noise. Once you have established a positive relationship, you can move to the small pen. Part of the set-up procedure is to visualize or even test your work space with a steady horse. Make sure now that no accidents are waiting to happen, such as a pile of buckets that might get knocked over or a way the animal could slip out of your pen and get loose.

Hand feeding is a great way to start. The horses will approach you on their own to receive their meals, so you are already half way there. Hand watering is also useful if it is practical for you. Using mealtime to distribute rewards works well for animals that do not need extra calories. Giving treats is also a great way to give a reward--apple or carrot slices, or corn syrup in a dose syringe works well.

It's good to acclimate your horses to the gentling enclosure before you start (work with one at a time). Dinner one night can be in the pen, allowing them to sniff around and relax in the new space. If possible, keep any companions nearby throughout the gentling, but not where they can interfere. Then you can begin introducing yourself as the treat bearer. The horse should be inquisitive enough to come over to you after a few moments of standing quietly inside or outside the pen or gate. When he approaches, offer the treat. After several approaches, you can keep everything the same, except this time your hand is held slightly in front of the treat. To get his reward, his head should touch your hand. Increase the time and area you touch as you offer the food reward and verbal praise. This is also a good time to pair the word you use for praise with the reward they get, so that eventually the word will be as powerful as the food.

We usually start with the head, then move gradually to the neck, body, rump, and legs. This process should not take very long, but some areas are always more sensitive than others. So if the horse reacts to an area, slow down, go back to an area of tolerance and work your way back to the sensitive area. All the little steps should be rewarded. Try to end each session on a good note. Our sessions usually last 10-15 minutes. And remember when you start again, it might seem like the animal has forgotten everything. Don't worry. Animals usually jump ahead again. Just start at the beginning every time, and reward every step.

The next step you take can vary, depending on your goals and on your horse. The head will be manipulated for many future activities, so now is a good time to acclimate him to touching all areas of the head. Using the same system as before, touch different areas starting with areas you have already touched. Reward each step. Stay with it if he wiggles and squirms. It's best not to get into what is called an "avoidance cycle," where the horse succeeds in making you stop by tossing his head or pulling away. Hang on, within safe limits, without increasing the stimulation. When the horse relaxes, offer the reward. The ears, eyes, nose, and mouth should all be touched and he should be rewarded for compliance. Try to work from both sides and even introduce new people, male and female.

Once the horse is complying with manipulation of the head, it's a good time to introduce the halter. This is a step you do not want to rush through because you will want to put a halter on often in the future. Let the horse smell the halter, then rub him with it just like you did before with your hand. Then offer the treat through the noseband. Do this repeatedly, moving the noseband up the nose a little higher each time. Hold the halter in position repeatedly until the horse is comfortable and steady enough with it to allow you to buckle the strap over his head. The halter can be left on for a while, but be sure to take it off and put it back on several times. Repeat the treats so that the horse is looking forward to the haltering procedure. This can be done at every session.

Now you can move on to other goals such as handling and lifting legs, touching the genitals, using a weight tape, getting used to novel objects like a hat or tarp, and simulating veterinary procedures, such as oral exams or taking the temperature. The same method can be used for all of these--start at the beginning and work slowly toward the goal, using positive reinforcement at every positive step and avoiding anything aversive.

About the Author

Elkana Grogan

Elkana Grogan is a senior animal science major at the University of Delaware. Since 2001, she has been a horse behavior research trainee with Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in the Equine Behavior Lab at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center.

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