An Experiment in Touching Foals

Willowtrail Mountain RangerHave you ever seen two ponies mutually grooming each other?  It doesn’t happen often in my herd, but there are a few ponies who have shown me this practice.  I find it particularly touching to watch.  While I can’t definitively know what emotions are involved, it certainly appears that the ponies are expressing an appreciation for their grooming partner.

I still remember the day when I learned that ponies like to be scratched and that in fact many of them have favorite places that they like to be scratched.  This was a revelation to me in part because in our dry climate petting can produce static electricity, and the last thing I want is for my pony to associate my petting to electrical shock!  Scratching is much less likely to have an unintended consequence.  Finding a pony’s favorite places and scratching them to reward good behavior is something I now do regularly.

Early in my pony breeding career I was told by a colleague about a pony they had purchased from someone else.  They found the pony to be overly friendly and somewhat hard to manage, and they attributed the undesirable behaviors to how the pony had been handled when a foal.  Ever since then I’ve been mindful about how I handle my foals, recognizing that behaviors that I may be able to handle might not be acceptable to others.

As is usually the case, my foals this year want to explore things with their mouths.  When I am around them and if I allow it, they mouth my clothing or nibble it or nip it.  I know this isn’t uncommon behavior, and they certainly aren’t doing it aggressively; it’s a form of interaction they use with each other.  Of course I want to discourage that sort of interaction with people, and I’ve written in the past about how using blocking maneuvers in early foal training is effective (click here for more information.)  But as I’ve pondered the behavior in this year’s foal crop, I’ve wondered if there’s something I’m doing that’s encouraging mouth-expressiveness towards me.

In my herd, mutual grooming is most often between a particular mare and her offspring, which is what got me thinking about how I interact with my foals.  That mutual grooming involves them using their teeth to scratch favorite places.  Is it possible that by me scratching my foals’ favorite places when I’m working with them that I’m encouraging them to reciprocate as in the mutual grooming behavior?  I decided to conduct an experiment.

The humidity is higher here in the summer and has been higher recently, so static electricity while petting is less likely.  So, when I’m working with my foals right now, I’ve begun petting them rather than scratching them to see if they are less inclined to want to nibble.  I don’t have enough data yet to draw definitive conclusions, but so far it appears that this change has indeed reduced the nibbling behavior.  They’re more inclined to stand quietly instead.

It took many years before I witnessed the mutual grooming behavior in my pony herd.  I’m so thankful I’ve seen it now because it may be explaining that my foals are trying to mutually groom me when I scratch them in their favorite places.  Redirecting their behavior by blocking it is effective, but using psychology to redirect it by not encouraging it in the first place may be an even better approach!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2014

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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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