By Kellie Sharpe
We are frequently asked how long to wait after birth before trying the Marv Walker Bonder with foals. We advise waiting until the foal is completely dry.
Just kidding. It is unnecessary to try and "bonder" babies under three to six months of age. The baby's mother will do all the bondering the young foal needs until that foal reaches adolescence. Once the foal has some solid and consistent independence from its mother, whether or not it is completely weaned, you may establish a connection with that foal anytime under one year of age.
In a herd situation, babies fall into the "anything goes" category. They have all experienced herd dynamics in terms of the "group mothering" that a baby gets when it is turned out with more than one mare and/or foal. Kind of like when you and your sister and your best friend and all your kids go to lunch together... ALL the mothers "mother" the kids - it doesn't matter whose kid is whose. They all get yelled at when one of them squirts ketchup across the restaurant! Likewise, other herd members will tolerate almost any behaviour from any foal, correcting only when the baby becomes truly obnoxious, annoying, or hurts an adult with teeth or hooves. At that point, a sharp and definitive correction is delivered and the offender runs back to his mama with a bruise, and some seriously hurt feelings.
Bob Sharpe states: "The single biggest point to remember is you are working with a foal. In fact, think of it as a very young child."
If we choose to do a simple, modified "Bonder" on this baby, we must allow him to act and react any way he chooses. We must remember that the basis of the Bonder is to give the horse a series of commands he can obey easily, quickly and with no problems. We must take the guesswork out of the process for the young horse. And we must not expect the same reaction from the young foal that we do from the adolescent or older horse.
Acceptable reaction from a three- to six-month-old foal in a "Bonder" situation would be: obeying a simple command to change direction. If that is all you get, that is more than enough. You, the human, have established yourself as a leader to that infant by simply getting him to obey a command you gave him. And this command can be given and obeyed in a pasture, in a round pen, in a paddock, in a stall, in a barn aisle.
Yes. It is that simple.
Additional reactions that would be nice but are not necessary would be: looking at you and not through you; turning to face you, walking up to you and following you. I repeat - these would be nice reactions but they are not necessary. This young three-to-six-month-old foal does not have the life experience nor the interest in you at this point, to obey many of your commands. Do not set this foal up to fail at this - it is unfair to the foal.
As our foal is weaned, and begins to assume more and more independence, his herd's expectations of him change. The youngster is approaching young adulthood, and is expected to act thus. In a perfect world, this stage of our youngster's life would take place in a large pasture in a large community of horses; and would include showing respect to adult herd members, avoiding the "alpha" members and forming friendships and bonds with other younger members, or members not as far up in the hierarchy as the youngster himself. If our youngster dares to offend or insult an older herd member with status, once again he will be subjected to a stinging rebuke but this time, his mama doesn't want to hear about it. He's on his own.
However, all too frequently in this day and age of disappearing land for stables, babies do not hae the opportunity to run in such a situation and are stalled alone, or enclosed in a paddock with one or two other horses at weaning time, and this does not allow the youngster to experience true herd dynamics firsthand. In a case such as this, you are working with instinct, not experience. So we have to remember that the foal is not going to react the same way, or as quickly, as the adult horse does in the enclosed area. In effect; we are "teaching" that foal what its mother did not teach it, or the herd did not teach it, or that it has not had time to learn yet. So, we apply the "Bonder" as we would to an inexperienced foal, only now that we are working with an older weanling or a yearling, we can ask for a little more. We only have to be careful and judicious in what we ask for, and in how we ask.
Bob Sharpe says, "In working with our ten-month-old yearling, Rio, we found that it took about 3 or 4 short sessions to accomplish what an adult horse would give you in one. Rio was weaned late, and we did not spend as much time as we should have handling her, so when we started out with Rio, it took a good five minutes just to catch her and put her halter on in a 12 X 12 stall. Lots of struggle just to get started. Getting her to the round pen was another big step taking one person in front to open gates, one person holding on to the lead line and one following behind, encouraging both horse and people to keep going, not to mention having a cell phone ready to call 911."
"The round pen experience that first day was nowhere close to what I was expecting. Having done the bonder before, and knowing what success Kellie and Marv have had, I expected to accomplish much more that first day. It never entered my mind that working a baby would be so vastly different than an adult horse."
"The first day was mostly taken up with not running over the human in the middle. To be more technical about it the first day was about getting her to change directions when I stepped in front of her and her learning to change speed in relation to where I was positioned. And finally, getting her to stop without turning and running away. That was it. And we had some difficulty catching her that day, as well."
"The second time we kept the lead rope attached so catching her would be easier. This time the results were a little better. There wasn't as much panic and running as there was in the first session and we were able to get right into changing her direction and keeping her speed down. No stopping and walking to the human in the middle but just turning, changing speeds, and stopping. Small step, but a good improvement. I was hoping for licking, turned ear, and facing me, but I settled for the simplest of reactions and obedience to my commands."
"This time with the lead line still attached it didn't take as long to get close enough to be able to step on the lead line and catch her. We then took a walk back to the barn. Once again no "breakthrough" in getting something exciting accomplished, but again, I was expecting too much."
"The third time working her we changed direction, changed speed and I was able to get her to stop and look at me. Just standing there looking at me. BIG SUCCESS!!!"
"Again I expected something more as with the adult horses, but Marv and Kellie kept reminding me that Rio was a baby and not to expect to get as far as quickly as I would with an adult. Then I tried a suggestion Kellie made in that I would walk up to her as if I were crossing a T - Rio was the long part and I was making the cross mark. So I of got to the side and walked in a line right past her nose. I was able to "unlock" her feet and get her to move with me, maybe only for a few steps, but walking with me. I guess with babies they don't approach the alpha horse, but if the alpha horse moves in a direction the baby will move with them."
"By the 4th or 5th time working with this baby she finally got the message. She did at times come up behind me and other times I had to unlock her by "crossing the T." But by this time she would change directions, change speeds, and stop; all without a lot of work on my part. When she started doing that I realized she was now listening to me and doing what I requested."
When Bob was finally able to approach Rio, he walked up to her, touched her briefly, and walked away. Bonding babies is so very mental that you must be thinking clear, positive thoughts as you do this. It is guaranteed: - if you sidle up uncertainly to the baby, thinking "He's going to split - I just know it ... " he's history. Walk up to the baby confidently, easily and assuredly, reach out gently and touch the baby with a firm yet gentle touch, and walk away. Maybe not even touch - just walk up, turn and walk away. Whatever you do - DON'T PAT! The "slap" sometimes scares a baby and they bolt.
Bob adds, "At that point, we could add new things: picking up the feet and grooming and such. Pretty soon, we were clipping her bridlepath and teaching her to walk with us on a leadline, and back and stop and stand. Simple things, but important to her. So when working babies, just take more and smaller steps, and remember to keep baby sessions very short. Neither their mind or their body can take near as much as an adult horse."
In our perfect "herd" world, babies "get" the bonder the first time, and it sticks. However, remember - these are children. Regression is a way of life for them. You may have some three-steps-forward, six-steps-back days, and it will be frustrating but can be overcome with patience. What we have noticed with very young horses is a tendency to go through all the right motions - turned ear, licking, facing the handler, but they bolt when approached.
The way we have handled that is to let them leave, but only to a point. You have to watch and not let them decide that it's a game. "Claim a wedge of the enclosure," Marv says, "and just keep them turning back and forth in the wedge, keeping the youngster calm and quiet, and making the wedge smaller and smaller until the horse gives up and lets the handler approach."
In this situation, if the baby is facing the rail when it is turning, it makes things a little easier. Pay attention - be aware - of the direction the youngster is going to move next, watch for the move, and move from side to side as needed so the youngster decides you are about 40 feet wide and gives up. This requires some finesse, and that your attention is focused one hundred percent on the young horse. By staying one step ahead, you can direct the youngster with a series of commands and turns that will encourage him to stop, face you and think about what is going on.
When you have reached this point with him, stop. As much as possible, you want to stay on the "submission" side and avoid the "domination" factor; although in a pasture and a herd situation, domination would be the way a young offender would be handled by adult horses. Working with such young horses will require some lesser degree of "domination" but if it becomes necessary to use it, use it judiciously and with awareness of your young horse's reactions.
If takes a month to get the youngster to face you in the enclosure, that's okay. You are on no time schedule here. Take it as slowly as you need to but watch carefully to make sure you are always the one making the decisions and in control.
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