Taking Cues from Mama

What is it about dominant mares not disciplining their foals for unruly behavior?! Lunesdale Silver Belle (Ellie) is the undisputed head of the herd, yet she lets her son Willowtrail Winter Dare (Darry) jump up on her, chew on her tail root and (occasionally) take over her feed bucket. Fortunately Ellie does engage in disciplinary actions, and it’s apparent I have something to learn from her.

When Ellie and Darry were still spending time in the foaling stall, Darry would inevitably try to nurse while his mother was working on her bucket of feed. Ellie had other priorities, though, and would tell him no. It was fascinating to watch how she did it. First she wouldn’t shift her weight and move her legs to make her udder accessible. If that wasn’t sufficient to discourage him (it usually wasn’t) and he persisted, then she would lift the hind leg nearest him slightly, suggesting she would kick. When that didn’t deter him (it often didn’t), she’d lift her leg a little higher. If he was still annoying, she would lift it still higher, and if that wasn’t enough she’d slowly lift and kick at him, intending to miss, which was nearly always effective in making him move away for awhile.

Darry was born at the start of a four day run of temperatures well below zero. It was when Darry was just a few days old and I was still terribly stressed about keeping him alive that I saw Ellie exhibit her most extreme disciplinary behavior. Ellie and Darry spent all their time in the foaling stall during that period. On the day I’m remembering, they went through the afore-mentioned routine for what seemed like a couple of hours because Darry had been nursing too aggressively, butting Ellie’s udder hard and frequently when he wanted to nurse. My already high stress level went even higher because I was afraid that Ellie was rejecting him when she wouldn’t let him nurse. In hindsight I recognize that she very effectively produced better behavior in Darry when it came to nursing.

So often with foals, we are focused on wanting them to come to us, and we forget to ask for a respectful approach. Ellie’s teaching Darry to nurse respectfully is a good example of a ‘go away and try again differently’ technique of teaching. I have found with Darry that there have not been detrimental effects from asking him to leave and approach again, though sometimes I have to be pretty patient for him to want to try again. Ultimately, though, he does because he sees his mom and other members of the herd wanting to interact with me, and his curiosity gets the better of him.

About a month after Darry was born, we brought an eight-week-old puppy into our lives. It was my husband who first started following the cues of my older dog Sadie. When William started annoying her, Sadie would slowly increase the intensity of her growls until William was convinced to cease his unwanted behavior. Sadie was once a mama, before I owned her, so like Ellie she has things to teach me, too, about discipline.

Now that I know Darry is going to survive being born in the deep of winter, it’s easier for me to watch how Ellie disciplines him because my mind isn’t clouded by fears for his survival.  In addition, Sadie has changed how she deals with William. In both cases I know there’s been a change but I haven’t discerned how and why these seasoned mothers accomplished it. Taking cues from these veteran moms requires continued observation!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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