November 23, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Horse Part 3


Reproduction: Birth: Training

By Dr Clive Dalton

  • Puberty in horses varies a lot with breed and it can occur from 8-24 months.
  • Well-fed horses usually reach puberty at around 12 months, but feral horses would be much later.
  • The mare's oestrous cycle is stimulated by increasing daylight so she is sexually active in spring and early summer.
  • She comes into heat 4-18 days after foaling so the foal can be in a dangerous situation from the stallion wanting to mate her during this period in the wild.
  • A mare is pregnant for 11 months and if not mated she will cycle every 3 weeks and she is on heat for 5-15 days.
  • Sometimes you can get prolonged oestrus for several weeks (nymphomania) and it can be a real nuisance to the handlers.
Heat signs
  • Plenty of vocalisation - especially if she sees other horses.
  • Frequent stopping to urinate.
  • Standing with hind legs parted and in a crouch with tail held up.
  • Swollen vulva.
  • Viscous vaginal fluid running from the vulva.
  • Everting the vulva to expose the clitoris - called "clitoral flashing" or "winking"
  • Restless - always looking for the company of other horses.
  • Tail twitching.
  • Stud mares are tested for standing oestrus using a "teaser" or small pony stallion that is too small to mate the mare. But don't believe that as some get very cunning!
  • Mares not quite right on heat are happy to meet the stallion, but will squeal, kick and bite him when he tries to mount. They are best tested over a gate to prevent injury to both parties.
  • A mare right on heat will stand firm when the stallion mounts and lean back to take his weight.
  • After mating the stallion will stand around resting and the mare may come and try to stimulate him again.
  • Hand mating can be a dangerous time for the handlers as there is always the risk of being kicked, stood on or bitten. Full protective clothing including head protection body armour and safety boots should be worn and strangers should be kept away.
  • Mating is best done outside but if it is done indoors, make sure the roof is high enough so the mounted stallion does not injure his head on the roof beams. This has happened.

Birth behaviour
  • Mares generally foal rapidly. First comes the initial stage when she prepares a birth site and gets ready to lie down. Then comes the delivery stage with the foal's head and front legs first like a diver, which is usually over in about 15 minutes.
  • The foal is usually delivered with the mare resting and the membranes are burst when the foal hits the ground.
  • So if there are delays in this procedure, which usually means problems, get veterinary attention urgently.
  • There are more difficult births in thoroughbreds than other horse breeds/types.
  • The mare should get up immediately and lick and chew the membranes, lessening the chances of the foal smothering. But an exhausted mare may not do this and the foal can be smothered.
  • The mare should void the afterbirth in an hour and it's important to check this to avoid uterine infections.
  • Bonding is done by the mare licking the foal, and it can spend several hours doing this. Licking helps blood circulation and warming the foal.
  • Young mares (first time mothers) may strike the foal with their front feet. This may be a reaction to get it to stand and be ready to move off, to avoid predators being attracted by the birth site and afterbirth.
  • About 80% of mares foal at night, peaking around midnight.
  • A foal is usually on its feet in about 15 minutes.
  • The foal's approach to the udder is important. It uses its long neck to avoid kicks and seeks out a warm area of bare skin where there should be a teat.
  • Good mares will stand and encourage teat seeking by nuzzling the foal's rear end and genital area.
  • Poor mares will keep moving and looking at the foal, preventing it getting round to her udder for a suck. It's vital that the foal has colostrum in the first 6-8 hours.
  • A foal should suck within 30 mins of birth. It then sucks at frequent intervals of 50-75 times in 24 hours in the early weeks of life.
  • Suckling lasts from 15 seconds to 2 minutes as the foal stands with legs apart and tail raised. It keeps well tucked in touching the mare's side.
  • After the mare and foal move away from the birth site, the foal keeps in physical contact bumping the mare as they go along.
  • Bonding is rapid at birth (within 2 hours) but foals can be fostered on to mares for up to 3-4 days. But the success of this depends on the nature of the mare and some mares will not have any other foal but her own. The skin of a dead foal is often tied on to a foster foal to fool the mare.
Early handling

  • There are great benefits from handling and fondling foals soon after birth so they associate humans with positive experiences. They need to see you as part of their environment and not as a threat.
  • But some horse experts say you can overdo this so care is needed. The danger is that the foal may end up being so friendly (and cocky) that it will be more difficult to dominate later. The behaviour developed early you’ll see later as foals are quick learners and remember.
  • In the first few days just get the foal familiar with people.
  • Experts suggest 3 weeks of age is early enough to start handling the foal and get this well established before 6 weeks of age.
  • Start training by removing the foal from the mare for a few hours, speaking quietly and gently while encircling its neck with your arms. Release it only when it has relaxed and is comfortable with your actions.
  • Fit a soft leather halter and lead the foal when the mare is led. The foal should never be driven. It must learn to come forward “off pressure” and this is taught with a rope around it’s rear end.
  • Brush the foal, handle it often and introduce it to a variety of noises.
  • From 3 months old, halter it regularly and lead it around vehicles, along farm tracks, etc, and get it used to different situations and especially noises.
  • Later training is done on the long rein, i.e. "lunging" to build up fitness and to learn voice commands.
  • Thoroughbred trainers reckon a total of 20 days training between 3 weeks and a 12 months old is enough. Training need not be repetitive and more than 3 days in a row is too much.
  • Some suggest Lesson 1 at 3 weeks, Handled again at 10 weeks and then 3 training sessions before weaning which covers yearlings coming up to sale time. They need to accept being led, bridled, covered, loading on and off floats, standing on their own in a box and walking in and out of doorways.
  • Weight bearing should be delayed till the horse is mature, usually after 2 years old.
  • Take plenty of opportunity to introduce the young horse to different experiences.
  • Correct mouthing is critical - use the correct bit to prevent soreness."Breaking" horses is out - "gentling" is in. There are many sources of information on this subject now.
Training principles

  • Remember horses are a panic species - they respond to stress or fear by flight.
  • They use speed, bucking and kicking and biting to escape threats. The principle of modern schooling or gentling is to prevent the horse escaping from handler so it learns to accept human contact as providing safety and security.
  • Horses are very teachable and have a considerable capacity to learn.
  • But work within the animal's repertoire of ability. A horse will cannot learn anything if it's incapable of doing it.
  • Horses have a good memory but do hot have the ability to reason. They lack initiative but are not dumb. They rely heavily on innate behaviour.
  • They cannot cope well in new and novel situations. They cannot solve problems that go beyond simple associations or limited choices.
  • Recognise the temperament of the horse and this will dictate your approach. Your first lessons will indicate how the temperament is going to affect progress, and you may have to rethink certain actions.
  • Horses are right or left handed showing side preferences and brain lateralisation.
  • In training do not scare the horse as this will set up flight responses.
  • Remember punishment only suppresses behaviour: it does not eliminate it.
  • Punishment incorrectly given, or given to excess makes behaviour worse as the horse's sensitivity is reduced.
  • "Reward training" is the simplest and best method, but reward must follow the correct and required action immediately. After a very short delay the association is lost.
  • Rewards may include a pat on the neck, rest, food, or being able to see new and interesting things.
  • In "gentling" a wild horse, handlers often start with a "carrot stick" which is a long stick with a leather thong on the end, which they use to rub the horse starting at the rear end. This imitates the feeling of mutual grooming, and the horse will enjoy this.
  • Then the trainer moves up along the back to the shoulder, and finally to the head and nose. If you touch the head too early, all will be lost and you'll have to start again.
  • Use "rewards" intermittently and do not reward for every correct response.
  • Too much handling may lead to boredom and too little can produce a scared or reluctant horse.
  • The trainer needs to be smarter than the horse. Problems mostly arise from what the trainer did wrong and not the animal.
  • Break up the tasks to be learned into simple, basic steps and work from the known to the unknown.
  • Always be consistent.
  • The Monty Robert's principle (also attributed to many other trainers) is to drive the horse around a circular pen which is an alien territory for the horse, and then letting it come to you for security - when you are ready and want to let it come into your human space.

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