This section is about the socialisation, foal handling, halter training and foal starting of a free-living moor bred Exmoor pony filly foal. Not everyone has the time - or facilities - to easily handle what is basically a 'wild' pony. However, with some well-planned, short sessions, plenty of patience and a basic understanding of positive, trust-based methods of horsemanship, we hope we can demonstrate here that it can be an immensely rewarding experience to take on an Exmoor pony foal. This article is not an instructional lesson - it simply offers you the opportunity to share our experiences of working with a foal 'from the moor', and foal starting an Exmoor pony.
By Dawn Westcott of Holtball Exmoors
YOUTUBE Video - filmed 8 weeks after Penelope left her free-living herd on the moor, with Penelope doing some Horse Agility at liberty. The Photo-Story pages below show the story of her socialisation to human contact:
QUICK LINKS below to the various sections of Penelope's Progress (with Step by Step pictures):
EXMOOR PONY FOALS - First handling after inspection, trust-building and head collar
Exmoor ponies, one of the UK's twelve Native Pony breeds, have remained genetically pure since the Ice Age and are considered to be a truly 'prehistoric' little horse. Unfortunately, their small numbers (only about 3,000 worldwide) mean they are listed as an Endangered Breed, but much conservation work is being done to preserve and protect this remarkable pony - one of the UK's most ancient national treasures! (Read more about Exmoor ponies and Holtball Exmoors below)
Handling and Socialising a 'wild' Moor Bred Exmoor Pony Foal
Each autumn, the free-living Exmoor pony herds are 'gathered' and herded to their home farms on Exmoor (Exmoor National Park, Somerset, United Kingdom). Grazing quotas on the moorland are strictly limited, and youngstock can not necessarily return to the moor - particularly as both colts and fillies have been known to start breeding as just yearlings, which can upset the breeding programme! So they must be kept 'in ground' to find new homes. This can pose a dilemma for the herd owners, as although some of the foals will be used for breeding, and will be purchased by enthusiasts, there is frequently difficulty in finding enough new homes experienced in taking on what are basically completely wild and unhandled foals. Exmoor ponies respond best to positive, trust-based methods of horsemanship and, with time, patience and some understanding of these skills, taking on an Exmoor youngster can be a fantastically rewarding experience - and the start of a lifelong friendship with a very special equine.
Inspection and Hot Branding of Exmoor Pony Foals This year, we purchased a filly foal from the famous Hawkwell Herd (Herd 12). Each October, the Hawkwell ponies are rounded up from the moor and driven to the farm, where the foals are weaned and inspected. The mares and stallion are then returned to the moor after a few days. All pure bred Exmoor foals have to be inspected according to the breed standard and, if they pass, they are registered in Section One of the Exmoor Pony Society Studbook. Traditionally, once a foal passed inspection, it was then hot branded with the EPS star, followed by its herd number (both on the shoulder) and finally, the pony number on the rump. Nowadays, as microchipping is required for all equines, hot branding is optional. We asked for our foal not to be hot branded so her inspection consisted only of checking her teeth formation, her overall conformation, that there were no white hairs or markings, and ensuring her feet were 'black' underneath. She was then microchipped and some tail hairs taken for DNA records. We were able to assist in her handling during the inspection and took her home in the trailer afterwards, to start her socialisation.
First socialisation and First Head Collar
our foal, Penelope, was unloaded into the barn and the images and captions below document her first handling and socialisation sessions. We like to keep the sessions with foals short. Although this foal is currently living in the barn, as soon as she can accept having a head collar on and off, can lead, and is easy to approach, we will start turning her out with the older ponies. The intention is for her to live as naturally as possible, as soon as possible, and for her to be socialised and happy with human contact.
...'and I whispered to the horse,"Trust no man in whose eye you do not see yourself reflected as an equal."' Don Vincenzo Giobbe
DAY ONE - The wild Exmoor foal arrives straight after inspection
The only time this Exmoor filly foal has been touched by humans was at her inspection earlier that afternoon. Here, she has just arrived home with us and is discovering the new barn.
Although having had to be restrained during her inspection, as she had never been touched before, Penelope coped well and the handlers were kind. She travelled home well in the trailer and did not sweat up. These pictures were taken minutes after arriving in a 'strange' barn and she is already tucking into haylage and calmly assessing her surroundings.
The first communication with Penelope is based on Monty Roberts 'Advance and Retreat' method, where we are looking to build confidence and trust between ourselves and the pony. This involves carefully 'mirroring' the body language of the pony. At all times, I work to keep my movements smooth, with no 'jerking', as though I am 'moving in oil'. I also avoid 'creeping' as very slow approaches can appear predatory to a pony. As soon as Penelope hesitates, I stop my approach. If she looks at me, I move my body slightly away from her. When she looks away, I move slightly towards her. If my timing is right and I'm consistent, she will start to realise that she can stop me approaching, by stopping, and actually cause me to look or move away by looking at me. When she lets me in close to actually touch her, or she reaches out to sniff my hand, I reward her by 'going away', ie, moving away a few steps. This way, when she does what I want - ie, she comes towards me or lets me touch her, I give her what she wants most of all - for me to go away. Over time, this forms the bond of trust between predator and prey. She will always recognise me as a predator, but I can build trust by not behaving like a predator. The goal is for her to see me then, as her 'protector' and be willing to build a positive relationship with humans.
DAY TWO - Start of Socialisation for the Exmoor filly foal
Today, I want to move out of the confines of the stable and allow Penelope the space of the barn. This way, if she really wants to get away from me she can. By giving the pony room to go away, she also has the choice to stay with me. I feel that she will be more relaxed with more space around her. The goal today is to see if she can accept me touching her and allowing me into her 'pressure zone', that is her immediate personal space. The session lasts about ten minutes.
Penelope has been taken from her free-living moorland environment, inspected, weaned from her mother and handled by humans - all in the last few days. So we give her long periods of quiet and relaxation, always with another pony close by, so she can adjust to her new lifestyle. In addition, her diet has changed from rough moorland forage, and her mother's milk, to haylage and foal mix - so her digestive system needs to settle down too.
I quietly approach Penelope's rump, with soft body language and no eye contact.
She cautiously lets me make contact.
Using 'advance and retreat', I draw her to me.
As if we are on a piece of 'elastic', we draw to and from each other, reinforcing for Penelope that I'm not behaving like a predator
She moves towards me, as I make my body language 'passive' and draw slightly away from her.
Soon she is happy for me to stroke her back and I slowly introduce the head collar (halter) and get her used to it touching her.
As Penelope has stood and let me stroke her, I give her the biggest reward by 'walking away' for a few moments.
She accepts me back into her space.
And remains interested and calm.
Harry, Penelope's new companion, remains close by throughout the session. We like to include older, more experienced ponies in the youngster's training sessions as it gives them confidence and reassurance.
Penelope stays with me and leans into me. I have the headcollar over the other side of her body, and she is happy to accept it touching her.
I'm pleased with today's session. Penelope has remained calm and relaxed throughout and is alot happier about being touched. She is now happy to have the head collar stroked over her back and over her neck.
DAY THREE - Introducing the head collar (halter) and lead rope
Penelope is now happy for me to approach her and touch her rump and stroke her along her back and up her neck. From the front, she is happy to come up and sniff my hand. She can accept the headcollar being moved across her back and over her neck. However, she is a 'wild' pony and although behaving with immense calm, Penelope is extremely wary of anyone walking up to her and attempting to put on a headcollar. We find that it helps to gently and safely position the pony in a contained space to put on the headcollar and accept it without panic. It can be more distressing for a foal to 'pursue' it around and around the stable, or 'grab' and restrain it - which can take two or even three people, and is not ideal.
The key goal here is for Penelope to remain calm and for the adrenalin levels of all of us to remain down. We gently encourage Penelope to walk into the area where a gate, cladded with wood, can be gently closed to create a safe handling space. The idea is for her to be in this position for a short time, before she is let back out into the stable. As she remains calm, she will get used to the fact that sometimes, she will be asked to stand in a small, restricted space - but that no harm will come to her - and her confidence and trust in us will grow. As Penelope experiences each new situation, trust is built, as there is no lasting pain or fear involved. Keeping the sessions short does not stress the foal mentally, and she can process what she has learned during her relaxation time. Almost inevitably, she will approach the next session with greater confidence, understanding and progress.
Penelope is doing very well. Nick has his hand on her rump and she stands quietly while I put on the headcollar. We had gently asked Penelope to walk behind the gate and then closed it very slowly, without causing panic to Penelope.
She is happy to have the headcollar (halter) done up.
She turns towards me while I adjust the noseband, which is a good sign. I'm careful to stay aware that she could jump up suddenly, but she is not giving us those signs, and her breathing is even. She is not 'frozen' either, and is coping well.
We open the gate slightly and reassure Penelope, who is still calm.
Opening it a little wider Penelope sniffs my hand.
I move around and inside the gate to reassure her and to draw her back and out into the stable area.
Penelope is calm and my feeling is that she is not going to panic. She starts to turn and walks out into the stable area. Before I clip on the lead rope, I want her to experience the feel of the headcollar at liberty.
We spend some time in the stable and Penelope is happy to let me touch her, using the advance and retreat method, where I periodically take the pressure off and move away from her.
We ask Penelope to return to the gate area and she calmly walks into position. I'm really pleased at how she is already accepting standing in a small space without panicking or feeling 'under attack'.
Taking it slowly, I approach Penelope with the lead rope. She is turned towards me, not burying her face in the wall, or looking for an escape route, which is a good sign.
She allows me to clip on the lead rope.
I show her the lead rope, slowly, and ensure that there is no restraint so she can get used to the feel of it.
Nick starts to open the gate and removes his hand from her rump, so she can turn around and come out.
Once out, Penelope is obviously unsure of the lead rope. Again, I use advance and retreat to encourage Penelope to stay with me. Foals can feel the 'pressure' of the restraint and literally throw themselves over backwards or try to bolt away, but Penelope is very 'rooted'. This is obviously a nervous behaviour as she is wondering what on earth is going on. I work to reassure her but gently moving around and encouraing her to take a step towards me. She starts to learn that, if she stops and takes a step towards me, the line goes slack immediately.
After a few minutes, she is getting the idea. This session lasts for a very short time, just a few minutes, as these are all big steps for a wild pony. She needs lots of rest in between - and the chance to process her experiences.
I offer her a feed with the lead rope still attached and she is happy to approach me and eat. We end the session.
DAY FOUR - Introducing the long lead rope in a bigger space
Penelope is making very good progress, but like most people, we can't always work with a youngster every day. So Penelope has had a day off and we are now going to see what she's remembered.
The goal today is to see if she can accept the longer lunge line, and to stay on the line and start to lead, in the more spacious area of the barn. We are keen for Penelope to accept the headcollar and to understand how to approach us and lead willingly - as this will enable us to give her some turnout, with her new friends.
Today, I manage to clip on the lead rope, without putting Penelope into the small space behind the gate, and instead, clipping her on in the stable area. This is very encouraging.
She is wary though.
Penelope remembers the last session, but is more keen to test the restraints of the lead rope today. This is fine as she is learning 'the ropes'.
When Penelope tests the rope and pulls against it, she feels the resistance.
But the second she hesitates, or looks at me, the rope goes slack and my body language is relaxed. I don't look her in the eye.
She starts to think about how to keep the line slack.
And she watches everything I do. This is much better than pushing her into 'flight mode', where all she would want to do is run. We work to keep the adrenalin down - as Monty Roberts says "Adrenalin Up - Learning Down!"
I continue with advance and retreat as we work to get Penelope used to the line.
She is beginning to allow me to give her a reassuring stroke on the nose. It is a big step for a horse to let you stroke in the blind spot between their eyes.
As Penelope is getting more comfortable with me approaching her, we move to change the short lead rope to the lunge line, so we can take her into the bigger barn area.
Penelope allows me to change the lead rope to the lunge line. This is another big step for a pony who was completely wild only a few days ago.
Once out in the big barn area, Penelope has more room to think about getting away. Although she doesn't 'take off', she does look to test the line and we follow the same principles of holding still when she pulls so she meets the pressure of the line.....
....and the second she hesitates, or looks towards me, I release the pressure immediately and even look away, to take the pressure completely off her.
She learns that she can 'control' the line and keep it slack by looking towards me and not running away.
She is even able to take a couple of steps backwards.
Penelope has done really well again, so after a few minutes, I look to end the session.
She can now stand quietly with me and accept being on the lunge line, and although it is all still very new to Penelope, she is keeping her calm.
She moves to the gate and allows Nick to stroke her too.
Although this session was short, there is a great deal for Penelope to think about, so it's the only time I work with her like this today. She is kept entertained in the barn by the visit of the farrier, who shoes horses for half the day by her gate. She spends her time either lying down in the bed near the gate, or standing and watching the farrier. She shows no fear of the shoeing process and was even to be found flat out and fast asleep at times...
END OF WEEK ONE
At the end of week one, Penelope is getting more comfortable about having her forehead rubbed, her neck stroked, and she is happy to be on the line with me while she meets new friends. She is still extremely sensitive and ready to take flight at the slightest thing, but all the time, her confidence and willingness to engage with us is increasing.
WEEK TWO - Leading and socialising
Today, Penelope had her first walk in the corral. Our gelding, Harry, was involved in the session and led the way from the barn to the corrall, which made it easier for Penelope to understand where I wanted her to go. Once inside, she tested the line, but is now becoming quick to release herself from the 'pressure' and focus on me to make the line go slack again. A horse's natural instinct is to move 'into pressure' (for example, when they tread on your foot, if you try to push them away, they will actually push into you) so at the start of leading, Penelope's instinct initially told her to pull away from me and keep pulling. Now, she is learning to stop and reconsider. I am as passive as possible, and she is teaching herself how the line works. If she pulls away, she 'meets the pressure' of the line herself, and it's her choice how quickly she adjusts her movement to make it go slack again. As soon as she hesitates, I'm quick to ensure my body language is passive and the line is slackened. Penelope learns quicker if my timing is consistent. Harry's calm and interested presence greatly accelerates Penelope's learning as I'm sure he helps to keep her adrenalin down.
Harry leads us into the corrall. This makes it easier for Penelope to understand what we want her to do, and more relaxed with another pony involved.
Penelope 'tests' the line. Her natural instinct is to pull away.
But she is learning to quickly reconsider her flight instinct and 'release the pressure' of the line, and stay with me.
Harry takes a keen interest as Penelope learns to walk outside on the line.
Penelope sticks here.
But Harry comes over....
And helps her to move around and continue leading.
When we pause for a moment, Harry is keen to give his reassurance too.
And he helps to encourage Penelope to move forwards
Penelope is focussed and, although still apprehensive about all she's learning, Harry's presence helps to keep her adrenalin down.
Amazingly, when I ask Harry to give us a lead, he does, and Penelope follows, making it much easier to teach her to walk with me. Harry leads us back into the barn..
I take Penelope's headcollar off, hang out with her for a minute and then end the session. She's done really well today.
Day 12 - Penelope gets her first turn out
Penelope is making good progress and building the first stages of a trust-based relationship with us. She is by no means 'tame'. However, she is making important steps across 'the bridge' towards us and is willing to negotiate. She is able to remain calm and composed in the barn and we have been varying the degrees of space she has access to as much as possible. We can clip on the lead rope and she's approach us willingly when she's at liberty. On the lunge line, she has learned to 'come off the pressure', so if it tightens as she moves away, she knows to turn towards me to 'release' herself and make the line slack. We appreciate that Penelope has come from a free-living moorland environment and just two weeks ago, she was living wild with her herd. So it's time for a reward and, if she can lead across the farm yard safely, we are hoping to let her out to a paddock to graze with her companion. The big test, of course, is whether she'll come back into the yard for the night...
We start off in the corrall, with Harry giving Penelope a lead. Today, she is much easier to lead and focuses on what Harry is doing. She is happier to walk next to me.
So we open the gate and start leading them across the farm yard. There are masses of 'spooks' that Penelope will never have seen before - like tractors, machinery, vehicles and buildings, etc.
I'm hoping that all of the trust-based work we have been doing will give her the confidence to stay with us as she faces all these new things.
I give Penelope plenty of rope, so she doesn't feel 'restrained' and keep her in my peripheral vision as much as possible, without staring her in the eye.
So far so good, she's walked past a lot of objects and has stayed calm.
Penelope walks past the tractor and trailer like she sees them all the time... and she doesn't need to rush to catch up with Harry. She appears to be comfortable walking with me.
We make our way up to the new yard area and paddock, and Penelope hasn't panicked once and walks calmly into her new area.
I let her get used to her surroundings while Harry's head collar is taken off.
I gently unclip the lead rope.
She stays with me for a moment and then goes to explore.
Harry is hoping I'm going to open the gate and comes with me. Penelope is looking out into the field.
While I'm standing with Harry, she starts looking at us in her peripheral vision and what she does next is encouraging....
... She turns around and comes up to us, of her own accord.
And is happy to stand close to me.
This is a very encouraging sign that she is starting to trust me and is happy to come up to me while loose, even in a strange environment.
So I open the gate. Notice how calmly Penelope is and not rushing to get through the gate.
Once she realises she's going out to the pasture, she's keen.
And has a fantastic gallop around the field.
It must be great to properly stretch her legs after being kept in for 12 days.
Once she's explored her boundaries, Penelope calms down and takes a look around.
She's got plenty to look at and is soon happily grazing with Harry.
Late in the afternoon, I went out into the field to see if Harry and Penelope would come into the yard area, where they will stay for the night with access to a barn. Once Harry sees the feed bowls, he canters straight in to the yard. I hold my breath to see what Penelope does, and she canters right in after him and is soon eating her supper too.
This is good progress and Penelope is starting to make the transition to domestic life.
Penelope's Progress is continued, below. Click on the links to go to Page Two
Some background on Exmoor Ponies and Holtball Exmoor Pony Stud
Exmoor ponies, one of the UK's twelve Native Pony breeds, have remained genetically pure since the Ice Age and are considered to be a truly 'prehistoric' little horse. Unfortunately, their small numbers (only about 3,000 worldwide) mean they are listed as an Endangered Breed, but much conservation work is being done to preserve and protect this remarkable pony - one of the UK's most ancient national treasures!
Exmoor ponies live in both semi-feral, free-living herds and also 'in ground' in domestic pastures. The free living herds can be found within Exmoor National Park in Somerset, and in small pockets around the UK and overseas. Once they have been socialised to human contact and their trust has been won, Exmoor ponies can make fantastic riding and performance ponies. They are extremely robust, strong, well conformed and intelligent. Their evolution has involved them thinking for themselves and making decisions for their own survival - so the Exmoor pony has a bright, sharp, questioning character and a strong sense of right and wrong (as they see it...).
Positive, Trust-Based Training Methods
The training methods that work best with Exmoor ponies are positive and trust-based. The growing trend for working 'at liberty' with horses and ponies, understanding horse psychology and behaviour, and considering their well being and happiness in any activity they are involved in, is the key to unlocking the best from an Exmoor pony. Once trust is established on the ground, Exmoor ponies will accept you on their backs and, with their strength, speed, intelligence and sure footedness, they ride like 'little horses' and are extremely comfortable. They have natural rhythm, endurance - and can jump like stags!
Managing Exmoor Ponies At Holtball Exmoors (web page), our ponies live in small herds, with our foundation stallion, Hawkwell Versuvius, running with mares and youngstock all year round. Once youngstock is weaned, they are introduced into another herd with youngstock and older ponies to guide them. A natural management system means the ponies roam freely from the pasture into their corralls and shelter and they have company at all times. Allowing the young ponies company continues in their training. When we are introducing a foal to wearing a headcollar, leading, handling and loose schooling, we will always ensure there is an older, more experienced pony (or ponies) involved. The foal gains great confidence from the calmness of his companions, and learns more easily what is expected of him, when others can demonstrate by example.
FURTHER FEATURES: CLICK HERE to see an Article with pictures on our Exmoor colt loose schooling with his stallion sire
For More Information
For more information on Positive, Trust-Based methods of Horsemanship see the Natural Horsemanship section for a list of trainers.
Copyright and worldwide rights: Dawn Westcott 2010. No part of this feature text or pictures may be reproduced in any way whatsoever without the express written permission of Dawn Westcott.
Please note that this is not a lesson and we do not advise you try anything featured here without the appropriate training. Dawn Westcott holds the Monty Roberts Introductory Certificate in Horsemanship, is fully insured as a natural horsemanship practitioner and undertakes ongoing training with horsemen including Rodrigo da Costa Matos and Vanessa Bee. This feature is a descriptive article and should not be construed as a lesson. We always recommend the use of a hard hat when working with youngstock.