Inside Track: Change Agent

Inside Track: Change Agent
Photo: courtesy of Sue McDonnell
Sue McDonnell

by Terry Conway

For the past year change has been the buzzword in America. That’s nothing new for Dr. Sue McDonnell. 

At her lab at the New Bolton Center, McDonnell has spent more than two decades fostering positive changes in what outsiders might term oddballs and misfits. The behavioral specialist calls them misunderstood.

McDonnell was thrust into the spotlight last spring for her sex therapy treatments on War Emblem, the winner of the 2002 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I). The coal black stallion was termed a “slow starting novice.” In fact, in 2006 and 2007 the $17 million stallion failed to breed at all.

War Emblem’s tally over five seasons at stud was miserable, fewer than 40 offspring. His owners, the Yoshida family, had pretty much written off War Emblem until half of his first small foal crop blossomed into stakes winners. They flew McDonnell to their Shadai Stallion Station in Japan in February to boost the stallion’s libido.

“There are certain stallions who seem to be overly intimidated by being around older ones,” said McDonnell more dominate,” said McDonnell, head of the Equine Behavior Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

“They are very leery and exhibit some juvenile behaviors that annoy stallion handlers. They assume the behavior of a young bachelor stallion in the wild becoming very submissive. They’ve always got their eye out for the big guys who might get them.”

Part of War Emblem’s treatment was to move him away from the older stallions and to give the horse mares all around him. It helped build confidence and maturity. McDonnell also implemented changes in the breeding shed handling techniques, and hormone supplements to boost the libido and making him less finicky.

“I explained to the farm staff what’s going on with the horse, that he’s not weird or whacko,” related McDonnell who earned a PhD in Reproductive Physiology. “Most farms never come across one of these. War Emblem may go through this juvenile stuff and realize no one’s going to attack him and then he’ll go ahead and breed.”

The intensive therapy paid off.  Since May, about 20 mares are in foal to War Emblem and he’s covered more than 30 this season. From previous experience, McDonnell expects War Emblem will continue to breed and do well in the coming years.

McDonnell, who grew up on a dairy farm north of Scranton, Pa., consults worldwide on all types of equine behaviors. There are always surprises that speak to the variation and richness of horse personalities.

She and her staff have studied “startling,” when a horse rears up and flips over in the paddock. Other areas include starting gate phobia, the effect of human contact when breaking a yearling and the connection of a horse's "hair whorl" or cowlick to behavior.

"Where the cowlick is positioned on the head, and whether the rotation is clockwise or counter-clockwise has been suggested to relate to temperament," she noted.  

Known for her down-to-earth explanations of what makes horses tick, McDonnell has authored books on behavior for both the layperson and equine professionals. The project closest to her heart is a study of a semi-feral herd of ponies. 

Launched in 1994 with 13 male and 13 female Shetland ponies from local auctions and farms, today the herd numbers 65 animals. The ponies roam 40 acres of inter-connected pastures. They are not totally wild, but their behavior is consistent with what is known about wild herds, so McDonnell believes the trade-off is okay. The project’s findings provide a first-hand comparison to domestic horses’ behavior and breeding.

Having known the ponies from birth there is a greater appreciation in the variation of behavior over time and season. The direct observation measures are done in a manner that minimizes human contact and stress.

One surprise is the amount of activity in the herd. The ponies are monitored by GPS in real time or data can be downloaded so they can be continuously tracked. McDonnell and her staff learned that having a mixed age group (stallion, yearling, 2-year olds) fosters at least ten times the exercise of a mare and foal in a pasture.

“Some of the foals travel 100 miles a day,” McDonnell related. “They’re playing non-stop and the yearlings are instigating a lot of the action along with stallions. In the wild the stallion is constantly moving the herd around to avoid threats from other stallions.

“If I was developing racehorses or any competitive horse I would raise them in a mixed age group. By moving around so much they should develop stronger bones and be much more fit as an adult.”

One four-month study looked at equine hoof growth where “self-trimming” was a measurable feral pony phenomenon.

“They grow long in the spring and are trimmed when the ground gets hard,” she said. “ It looks like a farrier has been there. They crack, trim and tear very nicely.”

She has also learned the remarkable role a stallion pony plays in parenting. 

“The foal needs to go to the mare for milk, but after a couple of weeks the stallion is the baby-sitter,” McDonnell explained. “He’s very active, while the mare never plays. The stallions play with the juveniles and retrieve the foals when they wander off. They vocalize to the foals at birth. There have been some really touching moments that we’ll always remember.”

Most Popular Stories