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August 11, 2011

Bold Assateague Stallion Retrained in Texas for Potential Adoption

Food-aggressive stallion Fabio moves from Assateague Island to Texas sanctuary and adoption center

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

  • Fabio at Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center in Texas. The HSUS

  • Fabio on his way from Assateague to Texas. Gretchen Knapp/NPS

  • Fabio settles in. The HSUS

  • Fabio gets to know trainer, Jacque Favre. The HSUS

  • Fabio works in the ring with Anne Favre. The HSUS

by Pepper Ballard 

A wild stallion on Assateague Island National Seashore was taken to the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center to be retrained for adoption after his bold attempts to steal food from visitors’ campsites deemed him too dangerous to roam among tourists to the Maryland park. 

Fabio, an 18-year-old harem stallion who called the state park’s I Loop home, was fed by visitors, causing him to seek out snacks from trash cans and from tourists’ campsites and picnic tables.

The National Park Service strictly forbids visitors from feeding animals in its national parks and seashores for this reason. Park law enforcement rangers can fine visitors $175 for feeding, petting or getting within 10 feet of horses. (Find out more about how to help keep the peace between horses and humans.)

Most horses can be shooed away from food, but not dominant horses like Fabio, who make others wait for them to finish eating. In his band, he was top horse, and when people (or horses) tried to shoo him away, he began to kick, bite and charge at them. 

 “It’s the typical reaction of a dominant horse telling others to wait for him, but we couldn’t risk the chance of someone being seriously injured and that’s why he had to be removed. It’s not his fault at all,” said Allison Turner, the biological technician at Assateague who arranged for Fabio’s transfer to the Texas sanctuary.

“We figured we couldn’t go wrong with The Humane Society of the United States as long as they could take him. We knew he would get the care and respect he needs,” Turner said.
She said that before Fabio, the park has had to remove 39 horses from the island, all prior to 1995, and all due to food-related issues, including roadside begging. All of those horses were absorbed into the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s herd in neighboring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. 

The Humane Society of the United States, which was instrumental in helping Assateague Island National Seashore implement a PZP contraceptive program for its horses more than 20 years ago, was called upon to help with Fabio. In partnership with The Fund for Animals, The HSUS operates a premiere sanctuary, Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, in Murchison, Texas, which is home to 1,136 animals, including 228 horses. On its 1,250-acre grounds is the groups’ Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center, a newly established center focused on taking formerly abused or neglected horses and retraining them to become highly adoptable equines.

“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Assateague through the PZP program. When presented with the opportunity to help them with a challenging situation, we were more than happy to help,” said Holly Hazard, chief innovations officer for The Humane Society of the United States.

Evaluating a wild horse

Though Fabio was not abused, he clearly needed to be evaluated on his people skills. In order to determine whether he would thrive in sanctuary or do well with people, he was taken first to the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center, where trainers using natural horsemanship methods gave the wild horse the attention he required. Fabio was vaccinated before his arrival at the ranch and gelded, an operation caretakers hoped would help curb some of his aggression.

Jacques Favre, center foreman and equine trainer, built trust with Fabio by taking his time with the animal.

“He didn’t want to do too much too quickly with Fabio. Our human-predator tendency is to want to move quickly, but Fabio, as a semi-wild horse, needed time to learn to trust these new humans and this new environment,” said Anne Rathbun-Favre, director of the center.

“Alone for probably the first time in his life—and stallions are very social—he has been quite needy of human contact which makes training very easy,” she added. “He’s highly food-motivated, so cookies are used to socialize him initially, as was scratching.”

In the past few weeks in the care of Doris Day center staff, Fabio now accepts a halter and lead and picks his feet up for farrier care. Anne described Fabio as a mild-mannered, left-brained extrovert who’s very inquisitive and is willing to test people’s horsemanship just because it’s fun to test.

“One of the hardest things so far was to get him to eat hay, alfalfa and commercial feed. He had to eat all of the grass in his pen before he’d touch the hay, but knowing that he likes cookies, we poured molasses, and carrot and applesauce baby food on it to get him interested,” she said. “Now he eats it all.”

His next test to see if he will be suitable for adoption is to turn him out with the herd at the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center.

“We are anxious to see how he adjusts to new herds given his age, previous ranking and newly gelded state,” Rathbun-Favre said. “We think he would be wonderful with an adoptive family assuming he continues to be a good boy and does not get stallion-like when turned out into a bigger herd."


Keeping the peace between humans and horses at Assateague

Horse removals from Assateague Island National Seashore have largely occurred over food-related issues that developed after the wild creatures were fed food by tourists to the Maryland park.

Allison Turner, biological technician at Assateague Island National Seashore, said that the concern among rangers is that someone will get seriously injured if horses become aggressive in going after food, or in getting protective if visitors get too close to them. Horses habituated to people can begin to lose their natural wariness with continued human contact, potentially leading to aggression. Serious injuries from kicking, biting and trampling can occur if a visitor gets too close to horses who feel threatened: Stallions will protect their mares, and mares will protect their foals.

“If a stallion decided to herd his mares away, you wouldn’t  want to be in the middle of that,” she said. “It’s true that they might spend a lot of time looking sleepy or boring, but if you give them enough time, they can do some pretty interesting things if given the space.”

A volunteer group called Pony Patrol was established in 1991 to intervene when they see visitors attempting to feed, pet or get too close to horses and to help educate visitors about how to safely observe wild horses.  Park law enforcement rangers can fine visitors $175 for feeding, petting or getting within 10 feet of horses.

Turner gives the following tips for respecting horses at Assateague Island National Seashore:

  • Don’t feed, touch or approach the horses; back off to maintain your safe distance if they come toward you.
  • Maintain a “bus-length” distance from the horses for safety. (You can be ticketed for approaching within 10 feet of the horses.)
  • Use common sense. Respect that they are wild and unpredictable.
  • Drivers should stay alert and drive slowly; horses and other wildlife may cross the road at any time.
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