On the Move and our first ponies
Another Dartmoor Pony Training Centre blog entry! Unfortunately not long after our first 4 ponies arrived in November 2005 we were advised that we would not be able to keep the ponies on the farm and so would have to move
elsewhere, this was a real blow but we were very fortunate and found some land just down from Haytor, we moved the four boys there, as they were so young and now had no other company we also brought 4 older foals Merry, Trixie, Pippin and Pixie from a farmer in Widecombe so they had some slightly older company. These 4 ponies were our original sponsor ponies.
I only visited once or twice a week to start with so Natalie did most of the training with the first ponies, I was there for some training though and did help out with a few of them. This was my first experience of working with unhandled ponies and was quite an experience! Natalie started work with Socks as he was the bravest, he would be touched but always liked to have his bum to you, he wouldn’t kick out, I guess it just made him feel more secure in that he could run away if he wished. Natalie gradually built up from touching him on the bum to stroking further up along his back, his withers his neck and face.
Doing a little bit a day he gradually learned to trust Natalie and with Socks he didn’t take too long to have a head collar on and have him leading and being groomed, this all took place in our lovely fields near Haytor – which also had a wonderful view of the moor and a stable to train in when it was wet or if we needed a smaller space! We tried a few different methods in trying to train the first ponies, I remember we put a rope around Basil’s neck in the stable having seen and been trained in this method, he was so scared and we decided it really wasn’t a way we wanted to train him or any pony so removed it and re-thought our strategy.
We realised that most ponies really did love food and perhaps this was the way to their trust. We started sitting on their hay piles whilst they were eating, this meant they had to be near us to eat, chewing with their heads down relaxed them and so it was a good way to build up their
trust. We started touching the braver ones on the nose and would only allow them a mouthful of hay if they allowed us to touch them. It worked really well with most of them, sometimes they would go away for a few minutes to think about it and what we were asking them, they were under no pressure and it was for them to work out what we wanted and how they could get some hay, they caught on very quickly, we gradually built up touching their noses to touching their necks and back whilst they ate, they soon became desensitised to us so we started touching them with headcollars and with most of the braver ponies we had headcollars on them without them even noticing! We would try and ensure they knew what we were doing so when it came to leading it wasn’t such a shock to suddenly find some pressure being put on their faces. They could have bad reactions to the feel of pressure if it was totally unexpected. Once a headcollar has been put on a few times I then tend to gently pull it about a bit around their faces so they can get used to the feel of it before actually have the pressure of leading so it doesn’t come as such a shock!
The more wary ponies would generally follow the lead of the braver ones and we realised that it of course made sense in future to ensure we don’t train a pony by itself away from the others as obviously it is going to be much more frightened being isolated from the others and with the
added pressure from us. From then on we ensured when training a nervous unhandled pony we always had a confident handled one in with it which they could watch and learn from, they would soon follow from example, seeing one pony with us having no fear meant they were a lot more relaxed. Socks was soon being led around and having his feet picked up, as was Star, in fact Star turned out to be totally unphased by anything! He was the perfect pony! They were also stars on ITVs This Morning who did a feature on our centre and followed Star and Socks to their first show and to their new home. There is a chapter later on about this interesting experience! Merry and Pixie were also relatively quick to train, using the same process of sitting on hay we got head collars on them and scratched their necks and worked on from there. Merry was always a confident, inquisitive, cheeky pony and though took a little more convincing that Star and Socks once he realised we were not going to harm him in any way we soon saw his true character!
Pixie was totally the opposite, she was very easy to do and very compliant but you could
always see a little look of worry in her eyes, it was as if she wished to trust us but she wasn’t 100% sure if she should, she always gave us the benefit of the doubt though and never put a hoof wrong. Because of this we decided it would be unfair to have her as a sponsor pony so retired her from the scheme, we didn’t want to stress her out too much too soon by taking her around to shows. We found Pixie a lovely home with one of the other ponies in Chudleigh, very sadly she became very ill in March 2008, she dropped her bodyweight overnight and had to be put to sleep, it was a very sad day, it was the first pony we had lost. Her loaners were devastated, the vets looked in to the matter but couldn’t really confirm what the cause of death was and it is still a bit of a mystery to this day. It is such a waste of a wonderful life. Basil, Reggie, Pippin and Trixie were slightly more trickier! Trixie acted like she had been stung by a bee if you touched her! She would screw her nose up, sometimes squeal and turn her back on you, she had real attitude towards the other ponies particularly when food was about. We fed them all hard feed in the winter and so went up every
day to do this, Trixie was very bossy when it came to feed time. We thought perhaps we could use this to our advantage. We insisted she could only eat from the bucket if we were near it, thankfully her belly won and gradually she learnt she could scoff her face if she allowed us to touch her. Once she realised this and realised we wouldn’t harm her she changed completely, it was like a switch clicked in her mind, she went from the most untrusting pony to the most trusting! To this day she is bombproof, we take her to shows and she doesn’t get wound up unlike Merry! She didn’t even twitch her tail the first time we tried to pick up her feet. From Trixie we realised we were on to a good thing with this eating from a bucket trick and we used it on the other three, some with more success than others. Some people believe it is bad to use food as “bribe” to train and catch ponies. I believe if you have a scared pony and food helps it relax and learn to trust us then why not use it! When ponies have their heads down and chew it automatically relaxes them so why not use this to our advantage. Also not one of these ponies became bitey or bargey done correctly its not a problem. There are the odd ponies out there who don’t let their bellies win, Basil was one of them, if you put too much pressure on him, no matter how much yummy food you had he would not come near. He was quite highly strung but with time and patience we slowly built up his confidence and could stroke him and lead him. We just had to do a tiny bit each day. Little touches in the field where they feel safe in the herd help build up their trust, they learn you approach, you touch, you go away and they live to tell the tale! More often than not I would approach them with a treat so they got a treat each time therefore giving them a good association with my presence. This method worked well on Reggie too, he was not as highly strung as Basil and we found regularly approaching him in the field with a treat turned him around very quickly! Again a switch seemed to click in his head and suddenly we could lead him around and stroke him all over. It isn’t just treats that encourage the ponies but once they allow you to touch them you can use scratching, ponies love to be scratched and some have specific areas, it’s about making sure you hit the right spot with each pony! Some can be their necks, some their bums and some behind their ears, if you find a spot they love to be scratched it is a great way of bonding without the need for food. Picking up feet is a trickier skill for them to learn, as mentioned above legs are a ponies method of running away from danger, for them to allow you to pick them up as the ultimate trust (if done correctly). The others allowed us to do this pretty quickly after they accepted us stroking them. Basil and Reggie would let us stroke a certain way down such as to the top of their knees then it was too much for them. Reggie eventually decided one day decided it should be ok for us to touch his foot but Basil still wasn’t sure. Once they allow us to touch their legs all the way down I then tap the hoof so they get used to that kind of feeling, once they are comfortable with this I move on to picking up the foot. I always do the front legs first and perfect these
before moving on to the backs. To get them to pick up their foot I initially pull on their feathers slightly, sometimes this works and as soon as they lift the foot up even slightly I release it. Sometimes you have to put more pressure on to have them pick it up, what
you mustn’t do is grip it, at this stage if they feel you grip around their foot it scares them and they will put it right back down again and even try to flee. You have to just rest the foot in your palm. Once the pony picks up slightly you keep going asking him to pick it up for a little longer each time, I have always used clicker training for this so first time I do it as well as letting go as soon as they pick up I also click and treat, when I build up the time I want to hold the foot for I will hold it and when I put it down again click and treat. Many ponies will try and move their leg about when you ask them to hold it up for longer, it is important not to let them decide when to put the foot down, this is when a lot of people will make the mistake of gripping it to try and stop the pony moving it’s leg, the pony is moving it’s leg as it feels in an uncomfortable situation so gripping the leg tight only reinforces why it should feel concerned. If you keep the hoof on the palm of you hand and move with each movement of the leg you won’t frighten him, as soon as he stops moving his leg and putting it down release it and click and treat, they soon learn if they keep the leg still they get a treat! Once the ponies are comfortable having their front legs picked up I move on to the back legs using the same method. Normally there are very few problems as they are already
comfortable with you doing their fronts, the same procedure applies to the backs, do not grip and do not let them put it down (saying that it isn’t always possible to keep the hoof on the palm of your hand and if they do put it down don’t worry just pick it up and start again). If you are concerned about a ponies back legs, which many people are as these are the ones they use to kick, you can use something like a long cane to pick up the hoof, you can hook it around the foot and pull gently and as soon as the pony picks up it’s leg release the pressure, with a pony like this though you should always have 2 people helping, one holding and the other doing the leg work and ensure they are desensitised to touching the leg. A home came up in Exeter for Basil & Reggie and they were willing to continue their training so they are both left and are still happily living there being caught daily, groomed led around and both having their feet picked up! They live with two other older riding horses and are much loved! Pippin was a whole different kettle of fish! He was initially one of our sponsor ponies but we soon realised he wouldn’t really be suited for this job, he was very jumpy and had lots of nervous energy. We generally left him to it and thought it was better for him to learn to watch from afar to start with, we discovered from him that there does come a time though with some ponies need to have a bit of pressure put on them as they will never choose to come forward to you, others if left to it will just one day come over and suddenly be happy for you to do whatever you want with them others like Pippin don’t get to that stage without some gentle persuasion!
For Pippin we used the same method as with Reggie and Socks and we would approach him in the field and give him little treats so he learnt we were no threat, he was very interested in us but always kept a measurable distance. He caught on to treats and loved them and so we started making him have a touch before he got one, it initially started with the smallest, quickest of touches but it was a start. Pippin had had a tag through his ear and so was particularly nervous around that area. We did this work in the field in the herd where he felt safe and it worked well, he started walking up to us when he saw us in the field and we were soon stroking him in return for
a treat. He loved the top of his withers being scratched and under his mane so we used this to our advantage, initially he always wanted to keep us in front of him and if we tried to got to far down his neck he would back up but desensitising him every day like this slowly worked until he would allow us to walk around him and touch him head to bum. We gradually built up to putting the head collar on him. It wasn’t until we moved to our fields in Moretonhampstead when we realised something about Pippin, he was having us on a bit! Because of his nervous energy we had thought he was scared and needed to build up trust, it turned out he already trusted us, you walk up to him with a head collar and he looks like he will run but then he stands still has the head collar on and leads perfectly! Natalie went to teach him to pick his feet up, we thought it would take a long time as he came across as the kind of pony who would not give up his escape easily, however he had picked up all 4 feet perfectly on the first attempt (perhaps the Pixies had been in the field and taught him)! Pippin has taken a while for us to get to know, I think he knew us before we knew him but he has been a very rewarding pony and also taught us an awful lot.