Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Natural Weaning Among "Wild" Horses

Zorita's 2011 foal, Legado, hopes to get Ciente's 2011 foal, Esperanda, to leave off taking a nap and engage in some romping and playing on a sunny early spring day among the family band at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island.

One day begins like any other day, with warm sunshine and the comfort of living among the family band--the only life you know--perhaps the only life you can imagine, for you are only thirteen months old.

The characteristic "driving" gesture is displayed here by the Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, on the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve 

The tyrant stallion (your father) gives you "the look" and you wonder which sector of the landscape he will drive you and the other foals and mares to.  But wait!  Something is dreadfully wrong!  The mean dictator is chasing you AWAY from your family instead of toward them!  You do not understand and circle back into the group in the manner you have always been taught is expected.  He comes at you again, more aggressively, his intentions fortified by bites to your hocks.  Ouch!--you run away, as fast as you can, of course! 

Here, the Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, hazes and bites his 2008 son, Animado (out of Bella, now living in Cheyenne, Wyoming)

Not long, though...your herd instinct draws you back to the family.

Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, displaying an agressive gesture

Fire and smoke erupt from the stallion this time, and the biting and chasing become downright violent.  There is no longer any doubt--you will not be allowed back in the natal unit.  But you cannot run fast enough, though you are running as if your life depends upon it and your mad-with-anger sire slices his incisors one last time along the inside of your left hock.  The pain is so sharp you drop to the ground while the stallion bites your torso and neck, yet you somehow scramble upright and continue to run.  The stallion ceases his attack, shakes his head with a satisfied snort and returns to the mares and foals, brusquely rounding them up and driving them at breakneck speed in the opposite direction.

You have just been weaned and life will never be the same.

Mares, foals and yearlings in 2011 at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada

At Ravenseyrie we do not, ourselves, wean the foals from their dams but allow this rite of passage to happen naturally, as determined by the family band's own dynamics.  Not all of these "natural weanings" happen so violently--but all are quite abrupt--whether the decision is made by the foals themselves or is forced upon them by their sire, Altamiro.  Typically this happens sometime after the age of one, though several have been expelled earlier and Ciente's colt, Silvestre, wasn't ousted until approaching the age of two!  Some of the youngsters get targeted by Altamiro for further attacks and chases even after they have accepted his edict that they no longer can live among the family and have joined in with the alternate group of formerly expelled offspring who run with the domestic equines and generally keep away from the sectors Altamiro has deemed "off limits" to them.

Of course, Kevin and I have tried to understand this continued aggression perpetuated against his own offspring with no sure answers.  What is clear, however, is that these attacks occur only during the breeding season and are triggered by hormonal urges.  It is likely Altamiro first and foremost wants to impress upon any male offspring that he is the dominant sire and will not tolerate any breeches of roaming rights that bring the alternate group near the natal unit.  With the female offspring that he will sometimes harass even after they have joined the alternate group, we sometimes think it is an attempt at trying to disrupt the potential for inbreeding with their male siblings.  These types of chases always aim to single out one of his daughters and drive her away from the alternate group.  Unfortunately,  the ample, but limited landscape of our preserve cannot truly mimic the vast acreages of true open ranges where there is much greater offerings of non-related pairings to form separate bands, and this no doubt adds to the tensions among these horses.  Eventually, Altamiro accepts that his recently expelled offspring will be living nearby and together as a curious blended band and a tentative peace is restored.  At least that is how things have gone in past years--with variations.  There is no firm or set standard as these dynamics seem very fluid and ever-changing.

What follows is a pictorial documenting the expulsion of Ciente's 2011 filly, Esperanda from the family band:

The lovely Kiger Mustang mare, Ciente (sadly deceased) with her 2011 filly, Esperanda on a soft spring day at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

On the 30th of March, a week after Bella gave birth to Gosto, Altamiro expelled Esperanda from the natal unit.  I was not on hand to witness the event as it took place, but had to search for Esperanda after taking note that she wasn't with the family for breakfast as usual.  Though Kevin and I searched for hours, during different times of the day in a variety of regions, we did not find her until the afternoon of the next day.

Often times, whether due to physical injury or mental trauma or both, the newly ousted youngster will hide in the various forested regions here at Ravenseyrie--of which there are many over the 360 acres of wilderness these horses are free to roam.  I always feel it is some miracle to find them as their primitive colouring blends so well with their environment.

Imagine walking through the forest, trying to spot a grulla coloured yearling filly.  It is almost as tricky as hunting for mushrooms, but even more rewarding when met with success!  On the morning we found Esperanda, we were aided by a light dusting of snow, providing easier to spot hoof prints and a brightening of the otherwise dim forest.

The yearling Sorraia Mustang filly, Esperanda, recently expelled and hiding out at the edge of the forest along the top of the less steep portion of the bluff at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve.

A close up view of Esperanda's hiding spot

It was obvious that like her older half-sister, Pinoteia, she must have needed a lot of "convincing" to get to the point where she fully understood that she was no longer allowed to be among the family band.  The scenario I opened this journal entry with is one I have witnessed on several occasions, and judging from the looks of Esperanda is a "rite of passage" she, too, endured.  She had sustained many surface bites that, for these rough and tumble "wild" horses is an everyday affair and of no concern, but unfortunately she also had a nasty deep bite to the hock that was oozing and inflamed and causing her to be very lame.

The wound Esperanda sustained from a bite to the hock by her sire, Altamiro.  The incisors had sliced across the inside of the hock diagonally, creating a wound approximately four inches long and a half an inch deep.

This same injury Altamiro has bestowed upon Encantara, Silvestre and Pinoteia--each taking about a month to heal, but doing so with minimal doctoring on my part and with no residual scarring or lameness.  I was feeling badly that Esperanda was in such a sorry state, but confident she would overcome beautifully.

Here is a series of photos showing the progression of the healing process:

Day Five

Day Seven

Day Ten

Day Fifteen

Day 23

Esperanda is tamed, but not "trained" and has never worn a halter so all must happen at liberty with her consent.  The only treatment she would allow me to administer was the application of an aloe ointment and light massage to the outside of the hock.  Later, after the wound quit draining, Esperanda liked to have me massage and itch around the wound site.

Esperanda would move to a new location about every three to four days, and sometimes we would not find her for a day or even several days.  The days we found her were sublime!  The days when we could not find her were shadowed with worry...  This unsettled situation, with Esperanda on her own lasted for over a month!  Each visit, however, showed improvement in her condition physically and mentally.

Esperanda, set up for the night at her top of the bluff hiding spot early on during her self-regulated isolation from the other horses.

Journal of Ravenseyrie author, Lynne Gerard, heads out on a hike with provisions for the Sorraia Mustang filly, Esperanda, recently expelled from the family unit and hiding in different sectors of a 360 acre preserve.  These hikes to bring food to the filly were undertaken twice daily, sometimes by Lynne, other times by her husband, Kevin Droski.  

Sometimes the lone filly would travel in areas where tracking was easy!

I remember the joy I felt the first time Esperanda came running in high spirits when she saw me coming.  After eating the grain, alfalfa cubes and munching some hay, Esperanda would ask to be curried and itched, which I was very happy to provide, especially because after exhausting myself giving the very last vigourous butt itches, this lone filly would reward me by putting on a show of high spirits--running, leaping and bucking around me:

On April the 22nd, I had an especially long and pleasurable visit with Esperanda.  It was on that day when I took the above photos of her putting on her athletic show, after which, instead of going back to her hay, or taking up grazing as usual, Esperanda decided to follow me over to where I had wandered to get a look at the lake from the "Top of the World" spot at the bluff's edge.  I then found a nearby log to sit down upon and Esperanda came along and laid down for a nap.

The Sorraia Mustang filly, Esperanda takes a nap near the bluff's edge with the great Lake Huron showing beautifully blue through the trees.

Esperanda went into an almost immediate deep slumber, complete with body twitching and dreamtime nickering.  How long had it been that she had been able to sleep with such abandon and sense of safety?  How long would it be before she would feel ready to join the alternate herd?  While I am always heartened at how well these "wild" horses cope with the times they are "going solo", I never feel completely at ease until they are once again part of a herd.

As it happened, that very same day, after awaking from her nap and putting on another show of high spirits, I asked this filly if she wanted to follow me to where I knew the alternate group (whom we refer to as "The Tribe") was grazing.  To my amazement, Esperanda, without hesitation, agreed and followed me approximately half a mile through the woodland trails from the far northwest, across the creek and all the way to the far northeast where The Tribe members were spread out picking at the newly emerging spring edibles.

There were initial pleasant greetings with the domestic horse, Zeus and the draft mules and then some scuffling among the "primitives" as they relayed the various hierarchical arrangements.


I left when everyone went back to grazing, with a glad heart that Esperanda had so easily integrated with The Tribe.  They were all still together in the morning and Esperanda came in to the holding pasture area where we feed The Tribe their breakfast oats, a bit hesitant, but then ran to claim a pan for herself.  Later, she was enjoying mutual grooming and dozing sessions with her new "family".

Esperanda dozes next to her full brother, Interessado

Unfortunately, that dastardly mischief-making stallion, Altamiro, came over to the east and chased Esperanda out of The Tribe and back into the woods!

The Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, the tyrant herd sire of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve

There followed almost six(!) days of neither Kevin nor myself being able to locate where Esperanda was, or if she had been re-injured.  Dark days for us!  But then on April 28th Kevin checked the Ravenseyrie beach again and there she was!!!  The next day she was still there and I was able to get some nice photos:

Yearling Sorraia Mustang filly, Esperanda, down on the beach at Ravenseyrie with the great Lake Huron's famous North Channel as a splendid backdrop.

I also recorded some video clips of some of Esperanda's post-grooming frolics:

This was on the 29th of April.  On May the first, Esperanda came back up the bluff and joined in again with The Tribe and, at the time of this writing, has held her ground when her sire comes around and is still with her new herd!  Esperanda had been living alone for 33 days.  I think she taught herself a lot and is an amazing filly, but I sure would have preferred she had left the family band on her own, or left easy, rather than provoking her sire to use such roughness to force her out.

Our commitment to allowing these horses to live according to their own "rules" provides us with some terrific observations of the manner if which they conduct their affairs.  Most times these observations are joyful for us to witness--other times, well...not so pleasant to see.  Kevin and I continue to craft the skill of taking the good with the bad--or, better still, learning to not see things in terms of "good" or "bad", but rather going with "what is" and supporting all that these horses do with as much love and understanding as we can find in ourselves.

"You want something like a round-the-clock ecstasy.  Ecstasies come and go, necessarily, for the human brain cannot stand the tension for a long time.  A prolonged ecstasy will burn out your brain, unless it is extremely pure and subtle.  In nature nothing is at a stand-still, everything pulsates, appears and disappears.  Heart, breath, digestion, sleep and waking -- birth and death everything comes and goes in waves.  Rhythm, periodicity, harmonious alternation of extremes is the rule.  No use rebelling against the very pattern of life.  If you seek the immutable, go beyond experience."    --Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj from the book, I AM THAT.



eva said...

There is a sadness and a sense of inevitability in this rite of passage, and whether the wound inflicted by the uncompromising ruler is visible and bloody or “only” the emotional trauma of being expelled from the only home she ever knew, the scar will remain.

And yet what a wonderful opportunity for you, the human, to create a deep bond with this filly, of trust and nurture, that may last a lifetime.

The transformation from the wounded, scrubby outcast to the exuberant and joyful experience of her own power and presence is magical. Thank you for sharing this story, Lynne.

Máire said...

A beautiful post with a wise conclusion. We humans make value judgements. Maybe that is why we are drawn to horses? One of many reasons but they provide us with some freedom perhaps from our mode of value judgements into accepting the now.

But they are open to our interventions and I love how you were able to assist Esperanda through her time alone.

And another great quote - I should open a bookmark for favourites among the quotes you provide!

Sandra said...

It is interesting that in a natural situation horses are not weaned until they are yearlings. Unfortunately, most horses do not live in a natural situation, nor do their needs get taken into account, and a lot of horses are weaned by humans when they are only a few months old.

I have recently taken in a small 2.5 year old gelding. This little pony was weaned at 4 months old and he had never seen another horse since, until I put him in with my two mares. How traumatizing such an early enforced weaning is was demonstrated to me when this little gelding, encouraged by the kind interest of one of my mares, immediately reverted to foal behaviour, including attempts to suckle the (dry) mare.

Natural weaning may be very rough to us humans, but it doesn't inflict the damage we inflict upon horses when we wean them at unnaturally young ages.

As usual, a beautiful post with beautiful photo's. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Did you know this page exists on Wikipedia? (Don't know who author is. . . can't tell).

Meanwhile, I note from page caption that Ciente is deceased. While I might have read your story about this, I can't recollect where or when. Do you have a link? Thanks! Hope the weanling is doing better every day. She wanted you to run and play with her I think!

Janet Ferguson

Lynne Gerard said...

Eva wrote: "There is a sadness and a sense of inevitability in this rite of passage, and whether the wound inflicted by the uncompromising ruler is visible and bloody or “only” the emotional trauma of being expelled from the only home she ever knew, the scar will remain."

It seems obvious to me that forcibly expelled youngsters come to terms with their experience and move on without appearing to hold the trauma. All the Ravenseyrie youngsters who were forced out by Altamiro carry on as well-adjusted socially adept herdmates once they are joined in with the alternate group. It must help that they have an awareness of the other group and occasionally may have even been allowed to mingle and visit with them when still part of the natal unit.

To my human sensibilities, while I am made uncomfortable by it, it does seem that Altamiro is harsh with some expulsions and not with others because of certain individual behavioural responses his colts and fillies emit. This is also likely why he will sometimes violently chase those he has already expelled. Esperanda provided a stellar example of this a few days ago: During the morning feed we had put out a bit of hay, even though the grazing is coming on nicely now. Altamiro left the family band and came over to eat off some of the Tribe's hay. Esperanda walked straight over to him, shook her head at him and proceeded to eat off the pile herself. Altamiro loked completely surprised by this impertinance, though he did nothing at that time, and allowed her to continue to eat with him. After fifteen minutes or so, he lept upon her, using mounted dominance, followed by a long angry chase across the landscape until she was as far to the distant sector as could be.

What a pugnacious child, eh? She sure learned self-confidence during her 33 days of forced solo living! Now she just needs to know when to use her inner power and when to avoid, rather than provoke conflict, especially around dear old dad!

Never a dull moment here!

Lynne Gerard said...

Maire wrote, "We humans make value judgements. Maybe that is why we are drawn to horses? One of many reasons but they provide us with some freedom perhaps from our mode of value judgements into accepting the now."

It becomes a challenging game for me to accept that the culture the horses have among themselves is, by appearances, quite brutal at times--both by the males and the females ( having seen mares kick at or bite foals who aren't thier own even in the first few days). Herd life (at least here) is more often rough rather than tender (by human judgment), and I guess this is why so much "training" is based on degrees of domination, coercion, punishment, etc. because it is the social norm for horses. Yet there are between horses definite instances of friendship and incredible softness among them as well-- this is what I choose to base my relationship on when I am with them, even as I accept the "necessary roughness" within certain situations when it is authentic to respond accordingly. For one on one horse/human relationships, I believe an entirely unique social construct can emerge...if we cease believing in tradition, prey/predator concepts and rigid hierarchy.

Lynne Gerard said...

Sandra wrote: "Natural weaning may be very rough to us humans, but it doesn't inflict the damage we inflict upon horses when we wean them at unnaturally young ages."

I agree here Sandra. What I realize, though is that for much of the timeline of horse domestication it seems to have been with great purpose that humans disrupt, even break the inherant connections horses have with horses, making them all the more dependent on their human "master" and more easy to manipulate, dominate and enslave. Early weaning of foals facilitates this and for breeders whose main interests are more efficient ways to make money from horses, the earlier such manipulation occurs the more it suits the "business" of the horse "industry".

It is heartening to know there is an emerging awareness that such crude/cruel treatment of horses is as damanging mentally as it is physically and desire to turn to new (or perhaps very ancient?) partnership relationships with horses instead.

Thank you for reading and taking time to comment, Sandra. All the best with your socially deprived youngster. I'm betting he will acquire more normal interactive skills from your mares, who will no doubt assist in educating him to horse ways.

Lynne Gerard said...

Janet wrote: "Did you know this page exists on Wikipedia? (Don't know who author is. . . can't tell).:

Wikipedia articles are written by a consensus of editors well versed in Wikipedia protocol, though anyone is allowed to share information whichis vetted by the senior editors. Several years ago I provided some photos and information to contribute to the current version of the article on the Sorraia. It isn't (in my opinion) comepletely accurate the way they have it now, but its better than it had been.

Janet also inquired: "Meanwhile, I note from page caption that Ciente is deceased. While I might have read your story about this, I can't recollect where or when. Do you have a link?"

Ciente's death was unexpected and for me emotionally difficult--I haven't written about what happened...don't feel ready to share that yet with such a broad audience, if ever.

As always, Janet, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

June said...

Gosh, she would have been very vulnerable if she'd been out somewhere with large predators. Scary thought.

I'm one who believes that nature is in a fallen condition and that the kind of perils and aggression to which Esperanda was subject are not native to creation. Now, when Moshiach comes ...... !!!

But that young lady Esperanda sure is plucky and strong.

Anonymous said...

It does seem like a brutal isolating experience and I guess there is a law ruling this "rite of passage" somewhere in the horses' DNA, maybe it has to do with inbreeding? Or was there something the herd perceived in this horse that was odd or maybe it is in some way sub-par in the herd's eyes?

Janet Ferguson