“Gentling the boys”

Our first feral colt was Finn. It was my first auction and I was unprepared for it. Finn and I met in the back, where he was alone in a small pen, head down, depressed and scared. He wasn’t wearing a halter, but had rough marks on his face from recent failed attempts. I brought the skinny colt a bit of hay, which perked him up, and I took note of his number, figuring that a young horse had value and would find a home. He was run through the auction nearly last, and before he came onto the floor, they set up 8′ high fence panels. I didn’t understand why, until they opened the door and he ran in, angry and scared and unmanageable. I understand now, that untrained young horses, much less stud colts, aren’t wanted by anyone, even kill. They are too much trouble.
I watched sort of in shock, as his opening bid amount, dropped and dropped, to $5, and as many readers here know, we took him home.
That was nearly three years ago, and Finn has blossomed into a gentle young horse and herd leader here. What I wanted to share was one of the techniques that we devised to help all of us become friends.
Finn, like many that we have now known, had some previous handling, and it was ugly and frightening. This makes our task even harder. Finn was being kept in isolation, partly for health reasons and partly because he was a stud. And being a stud was adding a level of testosterone to our interactions that made it even more difficult! I called our vet to geld him immediately and they arrived, and laughed. “We can’t geld him” they said, “we can’t even touch him!”…”Ohh…” my voice trailed off, “I thought you could dart him or something….”. The vet team kindly explained that they would need to be able to calmly halter him, stand beside him, and stick a needle in his neck. They showed me how to use a tooth pick to get him used to the sensation of a needle. Then they packed up, “call us when he’s ready”.
I was left alone with a wild young stallion.
I have tried ‘join ups’ with some success, but felt I needed something else, I needed to have the young horse get used to me, and get used to being handled, and consider it a pleasant experience. And I had to do something that would keep us mutually safe. This is just what worked for me. I decided to use food.
Food isn’t the most unique way into a horse, and some would say that it’s not a good one. BUT, Finn does not need food now to feel safe and comfortable with us, and we do not use treats or anything else at all when at liberty with our herd. So maybe as a way ‘in’ to a scared and starved horse, it’s not so bad.
I began by using a grain in a rubber pan. At first, even this was too scary, and needed to be left in his enclosure. He would circle suspiciously, and sniff cautiously, and creep in for a bite. Then leave. Finn probably hadn’t had grain before, he certainly hadn’t had a lot of food! Finn liked food! And Finn liked carrots. I started putting out tiny amounts at various moments in the day, in various parts of his enclosure, so he began to look for it, and then look for me. Finn learned quickly. After a few days, I started setting the bowl down and standing near it. This was a big step, and the ‘trick’, from the human’s point of view, is to never chase the horse, even by putting a hand out, and following a retreating horse with a hand. Let the horse come to you. Finn finally saw that he could step near me and eat, and I would not try and touch him.
Food on the ground evolved to bowl in my hand. Even closer, Finn got used to coming into my space to eat. This borders on hand feeding and that can have bad consequences, but in this case, Finn was already so frightened, and so ready to bolt, that he needed to feel safe being near a human. And this needed to grow into touch. One touch and Finn was gone. He really didn’t like people. (in another blog we re-count getting him home!). So now that he enjoyed his grain, he was going to have to work harder to get it. As I held the bowl with one hand, I held my other hand up over it. In order to eat, Finn had to willingly put his head under my hand. Many times he bolted. I had to ease into this, holding my hand without any tension, by my face, and slowly lower it when he was NOT under it. If he retreated, my hand did not follow. As he became used to brushing his mane against my hand without awful consequence, he willingly stepped up. The space got smaller that he would duck into, until his nose would touch. I began to switch my hand location, so that sometimes his cheek or underjaw would get brushed. If the contact was too much, he could pull away and I would not follow. It became HIS CHOICE to initiate contact, and it was rewarded with yummy food and soft scratches.
These times extended, as Finn became used to being touched. As Finn jumped less, my hand would become gently more insistent, petting longer and staying with contact for a second longer, then releasing. I began to stand at his side, and began reaching under, teaching the beginnings of ‘release on pressure’, bringing his face in, and into food. I do believe it’s easier to help a young horse learn and adapt, and it wasn’t long until Finn looked forward to visits. We began adding Finn’s ‘good night carrot’ to the daily routine, and finding him flat out snoring in the morning.
Introducing the halter happened in the same small stages; first by having a rope halter present, then by touching him with it, then by insisting that if he wanted to eat, he needed to get scratched with the halter. Rubbing his face with the halter morphed into putting the noseband up onto his nose, and then removing it before he did. Step by step, Finn lost his fear and began to enjoy being touched and scratched, and soon enough Finn was gelded, and able to join the herd. And by then, we were trusted friends; without any food.
I know that there are many systems for gentling horses, this is just something that we developed that worked for us. We have used this ‘bribery’ technique for a pile of colts, who have come to us and just need a chance to learn that people can be safe and caring. I am using this technique right now with Cooper, a yearling colt who arrived unhandled and in need of motivation to bother to deal with us. Cooper can now be scratched and touched all over his head and I am starting to bring his head around, to re-introduce the halter to him. If it gets too much, he can back off and we try again later. So far so good.