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Zebra - Gilbert


by Cynthia Cooper

Fortunately, many horse breeders now recognise the pay offs for spending time with the foal in the early days. And many like myself have also realised that socialisation and education is the most important part of human interaction, not the imprinting.
Although imprinting helps initially and forms a much stronger bond between foal and humans, it is not an issue if you aren’t there at the birth and miss that small window of opportunity (true imprinting happens during the first 2 hours of a foal's life only).
In fact studies have shown that the mere presence of the human at birth, either passively or gently rubbing and touching the foal, is enough for acceptance of the human in the horse’s world. Frequency of time spent with the foal after the mare/foal bonding seems to be the vital element.

In those first few days and week, spending short periods with the foal many times a day, just being friendly and finding all their ‘itchy’ spots will encourage their natural curiosity. When the foal is confident with having you around and providing something they enjoy, then education to pressure and de-sensitising can begin. It may only take a few hours on the first day of frequent visits to reach the stage where the foal trusts you enough to allow things like a towel, or plastic bag rubbed all over it. De-sensitising to clippers, tarps and more can be part of your foal’s ongoing education and will be readily accepted if the foal trusts you first.

The quickest way to destroy any trust you have built is by reverting to the “I’m stronger than you” mode where you force the foal to accept anything, or any pressure.

They are a horse first and foremost and have the same reactions and responses of a wild horse. We must treat them with respect and not grab, push or pull them around just because we are stronger. This sort of education will teach the foal to push against pressure and will set up resistances both physically and mentally.

Good horsemanship starts by ‘asking’ the foal/horse with a mental picture of what we would like then to do. You can say it out loud if it helps - “Can we see if you can move backwards?” for example, would precede a light touch on the chest that becomes rhythmic pressure until the foal responds.
“Can we walk over there, back to mum?” - “Can I rub this halter all over you before I put it on?” - “Can you take one step this way?”.
Always ask…. only ever ‘tell’ if it’s a life threatening situation.

When you ask the question and are not in a hurry to get a response, the foal is given a chance to understand what you’re wanting. So often we are tempted to just grab that leg and lift it up because we can use our strength, or pull on that rump rope to move them forward, ….because we can.

Remember that you are not only training the foal to respond to pressure, you are training their attitude as well. Watch your foal’s expression – are they flicking their ears back or switching their tail at lot? If so, they are trying to tell you something – possibly to not be so rude or rapid with your requests. Many ‘imprint trained’ foals get a bad name for being pushy, dull or un-interested in their training because they learned to push back (reflecting your ‘pushiness’) or switch off totally.

By the time they are ridden, they can be so zoned out to their rider’s requests their apparent quietness turns into stubbornness, grumpiness or dullness.
Who wants a horse like that? Quietness yes, but I’d rather have respectfulness and responsiveness in my young horses while retaining the interest and enthusiasm for being with me.

A foal is strongly influenced by the mare, who ideally should trust you and be educated to the basics of being caught and handled herself before she has a foal.
Sadly, some people breed from a mare because she’s not good to handle or ride and this then sets up a pattern with the foal, of negative learned behaviour where humans are concerned. If your mare is worried about you, she will transfer that worry to the foal so it’s very important to develop the relationship with her too. She should also trailer load well and tie up, in order to be helpful when teaching the foal these things.
If the mare becomes over-protective (which is natural), then you will need to have a good yard to work in for the first week or two until she is not in the habit of running off with the foal whenever she sees you. Feed her in the yard and she will realise it’s a friendly place to be.

It is well worth spending time with the mare before she foals and then reinforcing things with her after the foal is born. It will make handling her in case of a
problem such as needing to be milked, veterinary attention and so on, that much easier.

Think carefully about the sort of education you are giving your foal. Look upon training a foal as a privilege and an opportunity to refine your horsemanship skills.
A foal is a blank canvas, brand new and ready to absorb everything we do with them, be that positive or negative. Above all, enjoy the wonder of having a new foal and the process of educating them.

For more information on educating foals and weaning, get Cynthia’s Young Horse Education Double DVD set for just $45 through the Natural Horse World Store

Progressive Weaning

I get a lot of people asking, "What is the best age and way to wean a horse"? I think if you can look to nature you have the answers - most mares who are foaling every year in the wild would chase their foal off just prior to having their next one so nature holds the key. Weaning too early or too late can cause behavioural issues that will affect the foal for the rest of its life.

The age I mostly wean my foals is between nine and twelve months, taking into account whether the mare is empty or back in foal, the weather conditions and the availability of time to commit on a daily basis for a period of around two weeks.

Photo: It helps a foal gain confidence if they can explore the world with their mum close by.

Weaning can be traumatic for the foal especially when approached traditionally with instant separation and often isolation!
Done naturally, the mare would begin to stop feeding her foal about a month prior to birth when her hormones are changing to signal the development of colostrum. At this stage her foal will be about ten months old.
Her reluctance to feed the foal and actually stop them from drinking may only take a few days, but the weanling is still allowed to share the close bond they have with their dam.

Once the mare has her new foal, the weanling (probably close to a year old) will develop bonds with other herd members, most likely other youngsters. The dam of this yearling will still be a comfort zone if needed when the youngster is unsure or frightened. Perhaps this is one reason mares don’t appear to discipline their foals very much – they need to be seen as the safest place to run to – always trusting that they will be accepted and protected.

In order to replicate natural weaning as closely as possible, I start the process with the foal (now 8-9 mths) and mare being joined by a gentle old companion if they aren’t already part of a herd, which hopefully they can be. Any quiet, gentle horse will be suitable so long as they tolerate or enjoy youngsters.
They should be pastured together for a few weeks before starting to separate the mare from her foal and the companion for short periods (30 minutes) that then progress to longer periods of a few hours.
It is always best to confine the mare so the foal can see her and has the choice to move further away. If the foal is confined, it can panic when the mare moves away from its comfort zone, possibly causing itself injury and at the least, emotional panic.
For those familiar with ‘Paddock Paradise’ or a track system of restricting grazing, this works beautifully with the mare on the track and the foal on the inside with other herd members or companion. This way the foal and mare can ‘travel’ together but not suckle.

Photo: This 8 month old filly learns about natural herd behaviours such as mating and birthing by being able to remain with her mum in the herd until she is weaned naturally prior to the birth of her next foal.

The separation is best done over a double or triple tape electric fence, or if you’re not using a track, solid wooden or pipe rails on the yard holding the mare. Never separate a mare and foal with wire initially as in panic, the foal could try to run through it or jump it – at least electric tape will stretch or break.

By gradually increasing the separation time daily, it only takes a week before they can go for the full day without a drink. At this stage I would put them back together during the nights.
For the next week, allow the foal to suckle once a day as this helps to ease the tightness of the mare's bag, making life more comfortable for her too. Her diet should be reduced to very little pasture and mostly hay (no grain) to assist in slowing the milk production.
The daily suckling can be decreased to every 2nd day for a week. By then foal will be enjoying the company of the others and seem to be independent enough to cope without mum.
Finally, extend the suckling to once every 3 days before not allowing it any more.
In order to teach the weanling that it can leave sight of it’s mum, take it for walks in the company of the steady companion, gradually increasing the distance and time out of sight, using approach and retreat, always aiming to return to the comfort zone (the mare in sight) before the youngster gets concerned.
When it comes time to take the mare away, which may be necessary to re-breed her or move pastures, ensure the weanling is kept in a small safe yard with their companion until they are settled. If you don’t need to keep the mare and weanling separated, then wait until the foal has not suckled for 6 weeks to ensure the mare’s milk has properly dried up. They can then live together again to replicate a natural herd situation where the progreny of a mare will stay with the herd until it is at least two years old.

Weaning need not be a traumatic experience if done gradually. This also decreases the risk of injury to mare and foal, and allows the youngster to suffer less anxiety in the future when they need to be 'weaned' from their pair bond or companion. Of course you could approach their next separation in much the same way.

Really, it's just a matter of looking at it from the horse's point of view.
How would you feel if you were a child, suddenly locked in a cell away from your mum, and in the case of some young horses, away from everyone else too?
I’ve found that foals weaned this way are bolder, much more confident and don’t seem to suffer anxiety when they are asked to leave their herd or companion. This method may take a little longer but you will reinforce catching and leading in the process. It greatly reduces the risk of injury, development of stress related behaviours such as wood chewing, weaving, fence running etc. and that in turn reduces the stress on us as caretakers of those precious young horses that are our future.

Weaning Foals
Click here to read an excellent article by Linda Kohanov (author of The Tao of Equus and Riding Between the Worlds) detailing the detrimental effects of early weaning and the long term benefits of later and more gradual weaning.

Traditional Weaning practices can result in behavioural and social problems.

Hearing from horse owners who have horses with social issues – usually aggression towards other horses, has widened my search for proof of this article’s title. For years now, I have seen the difference in my own horses by weaning them close to their natural [...]

Read the rest of this article here...

Foal Training – The Positive Way

Since my interest in training using positive reinforcement has been so successful with my older horses, I decided to start with that type of training with my most recent foal.
So first let me explain the difference between positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is simply reinforcing a behaviour that the horse has offered with something they like such as food or scratching their favourite itchy spot.

Positive reinforcement is what clicker trainers use, marking the behaviour with a ‘click’ so the horse knows exactly which behaviour it was being rewarded for once it associates the ‘click’ with a treat being delivered. This is called ‘conditioned reinforcement’ and enables us to reward a very specific action then deliver the treat some time after the action occurred.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus that caused a behaviour. The removal of the cue or stimulus is what reinforces the desired behaviour.
Negative reinforcement has nothing to do with punishment, in fact most people mistakenly refer to the removal of a stimulus (pressure) as a reward, when really, a reward is something a horse finds pleasurable.
It’s actually better to think of negative reinforcement as taking something away (removing pressure).

Many top horse and dog trainers use positive reinforcement paired with negative reinforcement knowingly or not. Each time they ‘reward’ their horse or dog with a ‘good boy’ (the marker) and a pat or a treat (the reinforcer) they are using conditioned reinforcement.

But most horse trainers use negative reinforcement to get what they want and sometimes this involves a lot of pressure in order to teach the horse to ‘give or move’ to pressure. This can cause resistance and reluctance in the horse, unless they get the occasional positive reinforcer (a treat or a pat/scratch or even a rest).

Photo: Aria enjoys an itch being scratched in return for holding up her leg.

There’s nothing wrong with this form of training – it’s just that now I can see the horse is much happier ‘being paid for his job’ than being a slave to our needs and desires.

So, when my Arabian filly, Aria was born, I decided to experiment with her education to see if I could teach her all the necessary things a foal needs to learn in their first year using mostly positive reinforcement. And if I had to use some negative (pressure) to get the message to her, that it would be as light as possible and also rhythmic.

I started by tuning her in to the reward that for her as a foal, was being scratched.
Every time I went to scratch her, I gave a tongue click then delivered the scratch.
Pretty soon, I could ‘click’ her for a specific behaviour, like nuzzling me back rather than nipping.

Then I introduced the tiniest amount of rhythmic pressure to indicate a direction I wanted, followed by a click and a scratch for each thought or step in the right direction.
Pretty soon I had her moving forwards to a press forward at the base of the wither, backwards to a light touch on the chest, moving hindquarter and forequarter to a light touch on the respective parts and stopping when I stopped my feet.

So we achieved ‘leading’ with me walking beside her with just my hand resting on her neck near the wither – no halter or ropes needed at all. Now she evens runs beside me at a trot when my energy lifts, just connected to her with my hand.
I was very proud of her and me – for not having to ‘force’ her to accept too much pressure or get into a ‘fight’ when scared or confused by the pull of a rope.

I realise this type of leading is not practical for outside the paddock so I then started to introduce the rope – just a light string around her neck that replaced the feel of my hand. She did get a bit worried at first, but I just went back to using my hand and resting the string there, gradually incorporating it as she grew more confident.

This took the same amount of time as I’d normally spend on teaching a foal to lead, and was far more pleasant for her – she had choices – if she got scared she could run away without getting a pull on the rope that could then set off more negative reaction.

I taught her to have her hooves trimmed and be wormed in the same way and at liberty, so by the age of 3 months she was ready to teach float loading (this can be done at an earlier age but I just hadn’t gotten around to it).

By this time, I had also taught her about food treats when she started taking an interest in them while I trained her big sister and brother.
So that she didn’t ‘butt in’ looking for treats, she learned to step back and hold her head straight (not nudge the treat bag) to receive her reward. Photo: Fiera and Aria hold their 'no-mugging' position to receive a food reward.

I put a halter on her and pretty soon she was used to the feel of it going on and off. I had previously used the string to get her nose to come round for a treat so she accepted the halter without fuss. With the string around her neck, I ran the ends of it through the halter loops/ring so it gave some direction to her head without pulling on her poll or dragging on the ground if she ran away.

Once she realised she could get paid for the job, she showed up every day for some ‘work’ – quickly offering me the required position to receive her treat!
So I then parked the float in the paddock, with hay stored in it. I fed them from this every day and Aria watched her big brother and sister march straight on at liberty to get at the hay – even when there were piles in the paddock for them.

When she was trying to squeeze in from the side to eat her share of the hay, I removed her brother and asked Aria to step up on the ramp next to her two year old sister.
When she did, she also got a treat – I use sunflower seeds and the horses love them!
The first time, I had to lift her hoof onto the ramp as she had no concept of stepping up, but after that, she worked it out herself.

When she had two feet on, I asked her to back up and rewarded her for that so we got backing off calm and straight. In the second session, we got four feet on and backing off nicely.
By the third session she marched all the way up confidently, standing quietly, munching away at the hay with her big sister alongside who was doing her best ‘look’ to get her share of the treats too.

After 4 sessions of loading, Aria was ready to have the tailgate closed, so I enlisted the help of her mum and a friend.
She handled this without fuss so she was taken for a short drive to a new paddock. As she had not been taught to tie up yet, Aria was loose in the completely enclosed float and had turned around to face the back during the journey.

Now it will be time to repeat the loading without going anywhere to reinforce the float as a comfort zone. Eventually I will do this at liberty to check that she is really happy to be there.
You can read more about teaching trailer loading here.

Read Follow this Foal - a journey from birth to yearling here.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD – A Non-Invasive and Loving Approach to Imprinting by Liz Mitten Ryan

De-sensitization and imprinting are found in every trainer’s tool box. Their importance to our efficient handling of horses is invaluable. From a human perspective our interaction with horses from handling to riding is safer and less stressful. Its value to a trusting partnership though is dependent on how sensitive and considerate we are to the horse. Is our horse enjoying the relationship more as a result or are they simply dead to the stimulus?
My journey with horses has been an adventure of discovery. I am always looking to refine and enhance the connection and communication. As a warmblood breeder I have birthed and raised dozens of foals. I remember reading all I could get my hands on, and specifically when Dr. Robert Miller published his findings on imprinting to the snickers of the ‘old boys’ club. His practices are now embraced by natural Horsemanship greats like Pat Parelli and adhered to religiously by most breeders.

I have been a breeder now for fourteen years and have developed through the process a more holistic and rewarding approach similar to how we welcome humans to the world. There are several important ideas involved:
Become A Trusted and Considerate Friend to Your Mare
In order for my mare to welcome me at the birth she must first consider me a friend to be trusted with her well-being. This is a life long process but a simple lead in is to genuinely consider her; to be kind and generous as we would be to a human friend. One of the best ways to a mares’ heart is through her stomach and making a fuss over her condition by preparing wholesome healthy meals and snacks will have her nickering the minute she sees you. Grooming, scratching and forays to find choice patches of succulent grass are also great bonding exercises. All of this will be time well spent as she will transfer her feelings about you to the new foal. Animals learn by example and the foal will watch his mother closely to see how she responds to her human caregiver.

Learn All You Can About Foaling So You Can Make Wise Safey Decisions

There are many good books available on the care of the mare and foal throughout the birthing period. Study them and get up to speed on when all is normal and when to call a vet. Many breeders tell the sad story of finding their mare and foal dead in the morning –not a very pretty situation. Others, not knowing what to watch for, leave a mare laboring for hours in agony and possibly lose her and the foal. Horses birth quickly and efficiently unless there is a misalignment and it is important to know what to watch for.

Help Make Your Mares Birthing Experience Wonderful
In keeping with the relationship you have fostered with your mare, be there when she is birthing and help make it easier for her. Because my mare knows her well-being is everything to me she welcomes me at the birth. When the water breaks and the sack appears, I immediately check the position of the foal. In a normal birth one foot is presented slightly ahead of the other, soles down. If it is any other way make an emergency call to your vet! Holding the foals front pasterns and pulling with the mares contractions will help her labor proceed more easily, and when the nose appears, break the sack so the baby can breathe. If all goes smoothly birth usually occurs about twenty to thirty minutes after the water breaks.

Be Sensitive and Gentle

Imprinting can be loving and helpful rather than disruptive and invasive. Harsh imprinting methods advise taking the baby away from it’s mother at birth and performing a series of extreme de-sensitising exercises which are designed to deaden the foals reaction to simple procedures like trimming and shoeing by tapping the soles of it’s feet hundreds of times, veterinary treatment by sticking fingers in all of it’s orifices, electric clippers, plastic bags; the list goes on and on. All of this forms the babies first impression of the world while its’ mother is restrained and not allowed to welcome her own baby. In my barn the foal is towel dried and loved between my kissing and congratulating the mare until it breaks the umbilical cord. I then help it to get close to the still recovering mom so she can lick all the places I have just dried and the two of us alternate in one big welcome fest. The mare then rises and I clip her placenta back up to itself so she won’t step on the trailing end and tear it. It is the weight of the placenta that helps it separate cleanly from the uterine wall without leaving bits that can cause serious infection. All the while the baby is attempting to stand and when he succeeds will then begin his search for the mares udder. It is better to give him time (up to two hours) to find it on his own and most mares will try to help by getting in position and pushing the foal in the right direction. My lead mare L.E. is a master at this, curving her body around the foal and pushing his hind end with her nose.

Don’t Dominate the Foal, Forcing Him to Comply if He’s a Bit Reserved
Take the time it takes (as Pat Parelli says) to gently and considerately get to know the foal and convince him that your concern is for his comfort and safety. Talk gently, praise him and don’t be in a hurry to restrain him. The proof is in the pudding.
Paschar, the foal in these pictures was born 3 weeks early after Epona, his mom had a serious bout of pneumonia. The vets suggested we abort the ten month old fetus as she was having trouble breathing. That was one thing Epona and I agreed upon –our baby would live! When Paschar was born three weeks early he was literally fighting for his life and even after my gentle welcome, a day later he tried to rear and run at me. I understood his concern. Humans had tried to end his life and he had to fight for it.
Patiently I talked to him and told him he was my angel (Paschar is the Angel of Vision) and as I talked and stroked him, his eye would soften and he would relax. Days became weeks and I would remind him who he was and how loved he was and each time his eye grew softer. By the time he was two months old he was the most gregarious, loving and affectionate foal who particularly loved being buried under hugging children. At three months old he followed at liberty, backed, moved his hind end and shoulder, picked up his feet, trailer loaded (all at liberty) and ran happily behind in a game I call stick (to me). He was fully imprinted and de-sensitized while fully alive and filled with Joy. He now as a two year old understands my every word and is so self assured that he follows me down to our playground, several hundred yards from the paddock where his family is grazing, gets up on tires, runs across bridges, walks ,trots, and whoas all by voice and body language, all without halters, ropes or sticks. Paschar is a super horse.
Why? He was born gently, loved, treated with patience and consideration and knows that his well –being is my first concern.
To see Paschar in the video One With The Herd visit


It’s a warm summer evening and the sun has just dropped behind the hill, allowing the coolness of shade to bring relief to a hot day.

The new colt, only 2 days old, is released into the round yard with his mum, Rosie.
He immediately tries out his wobbly legs, stretching those tight tendons as he canters and bucks and skips around.

His doting first time mum follows his every move, constantly touching him to say “I’m here to look after you” and casting a severe warning to the rest of the herd who are hanging over the fence, to not even think about touching her baby.

Her nuzzle on his neck with a look of such serene love in her eyes is the most beautiful thing to behold.

The colt’s running, bucking and leaping is interspersed with the inquisitive investigation of his surroundings. He chews the plastic covered fence wire and curls his nostrils at the strange taste.
Everything is sampled by mouth – the feed bucket, the grass growing around the edge that he can barely reach with such a short neck and those long lanky legs.

He runs and skips to a stop, spins and is off again with his glowing palomino mum trotting to keep up with every move.
Then its’ drink time – she lifts her leg off the ground to his determined nudges to get the milk to let down, too gentle to try a kick or a nip just yet.
She stands in perfect stillness with her belly sucked up to allow him to drink his fill.

His little tail flaps with contentment and a bright pink tongue licks his lips when he’s finished. Then he finds the water bucket and has his first attempt at drinking.
Swishing and slurping, then snorting at this strange new substance.

He tries to scratch an impossible to reach itch – with a neck not long enough and a leg that isn’t coordinated yet. But he persists, bending his body, splaying those legs and finally reaching his target briefly.

Then after another burst of play, another drink and a wee, he’s looking sleepy and finds a spot to crumple up those awkward legs to lie down for a nap.
Rosie relaxes and munches on hay, glad that her first baby is quiet now. Happy and content to be surrounded by her herd who are still resting by the fence.

It’s been a wonderful way to enjoy dinner, out on the deck, watching the most beautiful bond between mare and new foal – who would want to be anywhere else?

The Mare's Farewell

Come here, my son, come to my side,
There's something I must say -
The words I've said to all my sons
Before they've gone away.

Tomorrow at the saleyards, son,
Your future life will start,
You've seen not yet the world of men
In which you'll play a part.

Though I am but a carthorse, son,
And worn out now, and old,
I once was strong and proud, like you,
With head held high, step bold.

'Twas men that made me like I am
Through thoughtless ways, and cruel,
To some you're just a horse, my son,
A four-legged mute - a fool.

But son, remember when you're tired
And heavy seems your load,
Among the cruel there are the kind
Who'll help you walk the road.

This is your mother's wish for you,
That life may bring no sorrow;
I hope, my son, you'll find a friend
In your owner - come tomorrow.

All articles are authored by Cynthia Cooper (unless otherwise stated) and may be reprinted with written permission, aknowledgement and a link to my web site please.



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Cynthia Cooper - 
Natural Horse World Pty Ltd.

80 Dam Rd, Saltwater River. 
Tasmania, 7186, Australia.

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