I recently visited my friends Tom and Cathy Simmons at their Lincoln Hills Farm, and was lucky enough to arrive the day Tom weaned this year's foal crop of three Morgan fillies. Tom is a nationally known horse trainer and breeder.
Besides Tom, there was wife Cathy and young daughter Tori, myself and Willy, the stable help. The two mares and three foals were in their large grassy pasture. One of the foals had recently lost her mother and had been taken up by her grandmother along with her baby. The first order of business was to halter the mares, and Cathy led the one mare followed by her foal out of the pasture. The rest of us had a job to just get behind....not too close, and provide movement with the mare to continue forward towards the barn. The baby followed her mother easily, keeping an eye on us following like "point riders" do with cattle. The barn has a wide aisle and going into it from the bright sunlight was a new experience for the foal, but mama was going so she did also.
We all moved around slowly with arms down and with no excitement to position ourselves in case the baby didn't want to go into the box stall that mama was being led into. Tom was directing us all to ensure there would be no one "out of position" or excitement exuded. No biggee, so Cathy walked the mare back out of the stall and the door was slid closed to keep the baby inside. Back to pasture to catch up the remaining mare to repeat the process. This time went almost as well as the first with the exception of the foal who was taken over by her grandmother. She followed the other two but nearing the barn, she decided to go back if she could. Tom directed us to our positions to keep behind her and block the way back to pasture. After an attempt or two and bringing the mare back to show her the way, the filly decided to follow her grandmama. But first, she had to take a few bites of greener grass and pick her way over carriage shafts in the barnyard. No fear here....just a bit of independence. Tom had a soft length of rope ready to give us "point people" more of a barrier to herd the independent little filly into the stall with the others. Tom put his arms around her neck and went with her movement guiding her into the stall opening to join the others. He told us never to apply force or resistance as she does not know what that is yet. Just go with her motion and guide her. That is what he did.
Once the foals were in the stall and the mares taken out and back to the pasture, there was calling back and forth until the feed arrived and settled the babies. The mares would occasionally call, but soon wandered to the far end of the pasture and relaxed with their heads down eating. You could almost hear the relief from their motherly duties. These babies were 4 and almost 5 months old and had not had any handling except at feed time when Tom would enter the pasture to give the mares their mixed feed.
Tom moves among horses with slow, non threatening gesture. It is purposeful, normal and the same throughout any stage of horse handling. He exhibits no emotion to stir similar emotion in horses. No sneaking, no anger, no fear. If one could master that alone, they could have greater success with horses.
The next thing on Tom's list was to put halters on these foals. He took his soft rope into the stall and using his body positioning, moved them so they would file past him, touching them as they went. He would walk into their "nose into the corner" arrangement and they would stand or peel off while he gently rubbed their necks, backs and sides. He used his rope to show them that there was nothing to fear and it was just another thing to be rubbed with and guided with. Tom would work the rope around their neck and pull gently with the two open ends, never tightening the rope, just pulling gently and guiding at the same time. Soon, each was content that the rope was nothing to be concerned about and Tom was teaching them the first rudimentary steps in being led and contained.
The work with the rope made it easy to just go ahead and put the halter on the baby. They already got the idea they were being contained so they did not fight the halter being buckled on their head. Tom always went with the movement of the baby and never gave the baby the feeling of being trapped or having to resist. One by one, they received their halters.
In the photo, a two year old colt is watching the process from his adjoining stall on the backside.
Since all went well with no fuss or muss, Tom decided to worm the babies. One by one, they stood like they had done this many times while he deftly, smoothly, and with slow deliberance, gave each their dose of paste wormer. In these photos, I'd like you to notice the body language of Tom. If one could keep a soft body, horses are not alarmed. Sometimes we are quick and jerky and this can cause a quick reaction from the horse.
Worming done....weaning done....in less than 2 hours. The mares finished with their mothering and nothing left but to dry up their milk production and join the rest of the herd. The babies are together for security and companionship ready to begin the process in learning to live with humans. These babies will have the best start in that process by learning from what Tom has gained in a lifetime of working with horses. It is so easy for these babies.
Tom, ever the patient teacher, asked if we would like to go inside the stall and be with the babies. YES! What an invitation. I was first on deck and walked into the stall listening to Tom's direction and comments on how to improve. My first mistake was to reach out with my hand. "No....just walk up close and place your hand on them without sneaking." Ok. I found myself in like a mini round pen and used my body positioning to move them as I chose. I was given the rope but did not use it. I just held it and occasionally, rubbed with it as if it were part of my hand. I took hold of the halter every now and then and just turned the head towards me then let go. I didn't want to leave as they were so curious and wonderful to touch with my whole hand. Each of us had a turn in with the babies.
The next day, between watching Tom work his client's horses, Tom decided to take a foal out for it's first leading lesson in the round pen. I didn't get to photograph this but I'll describe the first lesson. The first baby to present itself was the baby to work with. Tom snapped a long lead on the halter and when the stall door was slid open, I walked in behind the baby and out it walked with Tom in the front with just enough presence on it's head to start it in the right direction. The walk to the round pen was no more than 20 yards. All I did was just get behind and provide forward movement towards the round pen. All Tom did was guide the baby into the pen. Once the gate was closed, Tom continued to guide and release allowing the baby to move as it would feel necessary. This session lasted no more than 15 minutes or so and then we repeated the process of returning the baby to the others who were calling to it and she to them. That was it for the day but it showed me the steps that go into something as simple as leading a horse and how the foundation is laid down. Tom's plan was to leave them in this stall for a few days before taking them into their own pasture to romp and play together.
Here are the truths I learned from this weaning process:
- It does not have to be a "rodeo" with horses.
- Your body language determines how you will be perceived by the horse.
- Your inside emotions determine how you will be received by your horse.
- Calm and quiet is best.
- I am a lucky person to have such a great mentor to learn from.