Weaning: When following traditional advice can be dangerous - Kelly Taylor

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Imagine this. You are 5 months old. You have spent all of your short life so far with your mum. Her breastmilk is super charged with nutrients and goodness that can not be substituted by any man made product. The smell of her, her touch, the way she keeps you close, all help you stay safe. She offers you shade from the sun, she is your play mate, she watches over you while you sleep. She is your secure base from which you can explore this world. Life without her would be unimaginable.

[Horses wean at an older age when left to do so naturally.]

Then one day, someone decides that it is time for this relationship to end. You are shut away on your own. You strain your eyes as they adjust to the darkness. You can not see your mum, but you can hear her calling for you. You call back. Your heart is racing, you rush at the door and graze your knees. You can not get out. You are trapped. You feel abandoned. Who is going to keep you safe now?

This is what happened to a foal that I was called to visit earlier this year. By her owner's own admission, she was inexperienced and relied heavily on the advice of someone else. This person had very traditional views about breeding and weaning and had said that Polly MUST be weaned at such a young age and that the best way to do it was to isolate her in a stable and shut the top door.

Because the weather was very wet and cold at that time, her owner thought it best to leave her in the stable. It was 6 weeks before she tried to lead Polly out. Her owner tried for days, but Polly could not step out of the stable. Her owner was told to withhold Polly's food and hay and advised that Polly would come out when she was hungry. And yet, Polly could not step out of the stable.

I was called late one evening by Polly's owner. I explained how important it was to make sure she had some hay and arranged to visit early the very next day. That evening I also rang the veterinary practice that her dam was registered with to ask permission to see the Polly. They of course agreed and were keen to hear if I would be able to get her out of the stable.

Upon arriving at the yard, I could see that her dam, Minnie, was tied up outside the stable, as per my request. Unfortunately the stable was too small for Minnie to go into, so putting her in with Polly was not an option. And in any case, we needed to get Polly out of there!

I asked for the stable doors to be opened. Polly hesitantly approached the door way. I know that it can take up to 30 minutes for horses' eyes to adjust to changes in light, but I really needed her to be able to see her dam. Her eyes were wide, showing the sclera (white parts). This indicated that adrenaline was coursing through her little body. Her eye brows peaked in triangles. I could hear her rapid breathing and see how dilated her nostrils were. Her head was held high, her muscles were tense, she was trembling. Intensely fearful, she repeatedly ran to the back of the stable, even though I remained perfectly still some distance from the doorway.

I spoke with her owner to find out important details such as when she was born, did Minnie birth her without human intervention, how did Minnie respond to her. I was also told that Minnie had herself been weaned in exactly the same way and that Polly was Minnie's 3rd foal. Minnie's first foal was found dead in the stable. It was believed that Minnie had kicked her foal. This did not ring any alarm bells for her previous owner and Minnie was put in foal again straight away. Minnie's second foal was weaned at 5 months old.

I asked her owner to get me a bucket of pony nuts and chaff and using the target that I had taken with me, I carefully introduced Polly to positive reinforcement training. Anything can be used as a target, this is something that you teach the horse to touch with their nose. This was the behaviour that would earn Polly a treat.

To start with, Polly was too fearful to approach the target. I expected this, so I reinforced her for standing as still as she could manage. Gradually she felt safer and reached forward to touch the target with her nose. This kind of learning is known as Instrumental Learning. By trial and error, Polly was learning that if she touched the target, she would be given a treat. Food is a powerful primary reinforcer (its value is intrinsically known) and because I made it as easy as possible for Polly to get it right, she learned that she could "operate" on her environment, bringing about a positive outcome i.e. the arrival of a food treat. Using positive reinforcement in this way follows the principles of Operant Conditioning.

Once the yard was quiet of other distractions, it took 25 minutes to get Polly out of the stable by shaping her targeting behaviour. 25 minutes, considering how terrified she was. 25 minutes, considering I did not even touch her, no force, coercion or restraints were used. Amazing hey!

Using shaping, you gradually increase your expectation, always moving towards your end goal, in this case, getting Polly out of the stable. Doing this it is possible to train even the most complex of behaviours, because you are able to break things down into sequential steps. Once you move onto the next step in the programme, this becomes your new benchmark for the behaviour and as such, it is behaviour at this step, which is now reinforced.

Finally, I was able to hold the target just over the threshold of the doorway and eventually Polly was able to step over the threshold into daylight and be reunited with Minnie.

Both Polly and Minnie were turned out into a paddock where Polly galloped around bucking, using muscles that she had not been able to whilst in confinement. Winter is a hard time for horses to share resources as their body systems are under pressure and resources can be scarce. This is why I suggested that numerous hay piles should be distributed around the paddock. I needed to make sure that if Polly wanted to eat hay, she would be able to.

I also needed to make sure that Minnie would not hurt or reject Polly. I was acutely aware that due to her attachment history, Minnie had not experienced a long attachment with her own dam, nor had she been given the opportunity to mother her foals for longer than a few months, before they were abruptly weaned.

Sadly this was evident during my training with Polly. Minnie did not appear anxious that she had been separated from her foal, even with Polly in such close proximity. This is not to say that Minnie had not experienced significant distress at the separation, but it is likely that she would have found parenting more difficult than a horse who had been weaned gradually by her dam. She may even have learned to expect the special relationships with her foals to be short lived and therefore chosen not to invest in them.

It is also important to remember that prey animals become emotionally and physiologically flooded when they are in a fearful situation that they can not escape from. Their body is unable to function at such a high level of arousal, so they quickly become exhausted and appear calm, even though they are in an acute stress state. This is what happened to Polly and Minnie, who after 3 days of calling and box walking, seemed "ok" with being separated.

During my observations that morning, I did not see Polly attempt to nurse following being reunited with her dam, but if she had this would not have been unusual. Many foals that have been abruptly weaned have such a strong physical and emotional need to suckle that they will attempt to nurse any other horse in the absence of their dam. Under different circumstances and with a more secure attachment history, it might have been possible to support Minnie to re-lactate so that she could have continued her very important nursing relationship with Polly.

We can all find ourselves in situations where we are left feeling inexperienced and we should never be afraid to ask for help. Polly's owner had asked for help, but she did not know enough about the methods that were suggested to her. What is so important is to make sure you have the right kind of support around you. Sadly, many "experienced" horse owners and trainers follow traditional/conventional practices, which are outdated and unsafe. It is staggering that even in the face of new evidence, people continue to use them.

We must approach animal ownership with an enquiring mind. Just because something has been done for years, does not mean it is ethical and appropriate for that species. We must move away from believing that separation has to happen and that it should be abrupt and traumatic. A breeder once told me that "foals often behave in a suicidal manner when you wean them". Really....? Does that not say something? Does that not set off LOUD alarm bells? It does in my head.

Abrupt weaning and an insecure attachment history can affect horses across their life span and will impact generations to come. Is it any wonder that so many horses find aspects of every day life scary, that they have very little emotional resilience and suffer separation distress. Not to mention the physical consequences of living in a permanent state of fear and anxiety.

My own foal has just turned 4 and still suckles for short periods of time throughout the day. He is one of the most grounded youngsters I know, a view, which is agreed with by some of the other people that he comes into contact with e.g. my vet, my farrier, my peers. Of course positive reinforcement training has created safe learning opportunities where he can be successful, but all of this would have been so much harder if he did not have the security of his mum and wider protection and social support from the other horses in my herd. They have also helped to raise him. I believe it takes a village to raise a child and I also believe it takes a herd to raise a foal.

Reprinted with permission from Kelly Taylor.