Have you hugged your horse today?

The other day, Kate wrote an interesting post about inter-species relationships, in particular the cases of inter-species adoption and parenting. In her post, she mentioned a paper that immediately drew my attention – Influence of various early human-foal interferences on subsequent human-foal relationship. by Henry S, Richard-Yris MA and Hausberger M. (Dev Psychobiol. 2006 Dec;48(8):712-8.).
In the paper, the newborn foals were either handled by humans (e.g., brought to the teat), or left completely alone with their mother, or just had humans standing by. Then, a few weeks later, they tested the foals as to their response to human handling. Those that were handled immediately after birth responded less positively than the controls and those that had just a presence of humans had a better response than the controls (in a nutshell – the study is more complicated than that, but this will suffice for now).
As someone who has spent my life around horses, I grokked this intuitively. The idea of “imprinting”, as I understood it at the time it was popular a couple of decades ago, did not mean, in my mind, force-handling newborn foals. It just meant ‘being there’. Letting the mare and foal do their stuff for the first few hours. Then, instead of letting the mares and foals out in the pasture for two years before trying to handle the semi-wild youngsters, making sure that the foals get used to the daily presence of humans, and gradually more and more interaction with humans, including touching and handling.
The paper is described as a test of “imprinting” but I am not sure – has anyone actually tried to imprint by force-handling foals at birth? Was that what imprinting ended up meaning? Or is the paper misinterpreting the idea?
I have raised a foal. My good friend and colleague, a veterinarian, was there when my horse was born. He let the nature take its course. For the first month, the dam was handled daily and they both spent time outside in the presence of humans, but nobody touched the foal. When I got him at six months of age, I spent the first night sitting in his food-trough, talking softly. He calmed down after a couple of hours, finally fell asleep, and later came over to me, sniffed me and nuzzled me. It never occurred to me to pat him as I never expected that to be a naturally soothing experience – “Yeesh, yuck, he…touched me!”.
But I spent hours every day with him afterwards. By the time he turned 1, I could catch him in the paddock (OK, the trick was to offer some tangerines), groom him, pick up his legs and trim his hooves, put a blanket on him, trim his whiskers with an electrical trimmer, lead him on the halter, lunge him, long-rein him, load him on the single-horse trailer and drive him around. At the age of 2, I had no problem putting the saddle on and getting on top myself. For the rest of his life he was a perfect gentleman in and out of the barn, easily handled by kids. He was not as easy to ride later on, I hear, which is surprising as I had no trouble riding him the first few months of his riding career. Last time I went home, back in 1995, I watched him do great at the Young Horse division of the showjumping championship of Serbia. I heard he started refusing to jump later and broke someone’s arm in the process. He subsequently won the dressage championship of Serbia with another rider. You can see a picture of him from his later years here.
I always thought that people patted horses because it feels good to the human, not the horse. The proper reward for work well done is rest – letting the reins long, walking the horse, taking him away from the noise of the show-ring to a quiet corner, giving him a bath, a stall full of fresh straw and some nice food, e.g., a warm bran-mash with apples and carrots (and garlic cloves – they LOVE it and their hair gets so shiny). The pat on the neck that a horse gets after running a good race or jumping a nice course is not in itself a reward. It is just a learned signal that the work is over and that the horse can now relax.

9 responses to “Have you hugged your horse today?

  1. Compare a cat bearing a litter out in the woods to one doing the same in the living room.
    With humans around most of the time, eventually a kitten will approach a human, inviting it to play. One born out on the woods won’t know what to make of humans.
    Same with puppies.

  2. The only foal I’ve raised was handled from about a month on – nothing exciting, just handled. Haltered, brushed, had light stuff on his back, had his feet handled. When he was four months we ponied him beside his mother – never away from her. When he was a six months old he’d let the farrier pick up his feet and tap at them – no actual work, of course. We ‘drove’ him at a year, lunged him… When we finally rode him at three he was so ready for it. He was a total joy to work with, never once fought over anything.

  3. yeah, i wasn’t exactly sold on this as an example of “imprinting” either 🙂

  4. sorry, my comment sent faster than i meant for it to. yes, i think you’re spot-on, it definitely seems like it’s an issue of associative learning and not of intrinsic reward. good of you to point that out.

  5. My horse was actually social enough that he liked to be petted, probably because it was a little bit like the reciprocal grooming a lot of horses do. My mother in particular used to make him bliss out by brushing his face in a certain way. I have no idea how he was raised, and neither, really, does anyone else that I know of.
    Coturnix, that is a beautiful horse.

  6. spam spam bacon spam

    I have two 3 yr olds, both raised as orphan foals.
    They were to be slaughtered at birth but were rescued, given colustrum and immediately trailered about 6 hours to stay a few days in a barn with other orphans. We got one at about 3 days old, one at about 3 weeks.
    We placed them with a docile gelding who taught them horse manners.
    We fed them entirely on milk replacer (“fly soup” 🙂 and both are large (over 16.3hh, 1200 lbs+) and are very people focused. They live with the gelding still, they are a family.
    They were backed when they were about 18 mo old… they were so ahead of their peers at the farm where they went for training… they have never bucked nor reared. One we rode yesterday in the 28 degree weather after having 6 weeks off… we had to use the crop on him, he’s sluggish 🙂
    They live at liberty in our backyard with a large run-in and we go into “their” space to clean, feed, rake, do maintenance, etc. They never knew to be afraid and so we had to teach them to be respectful, rather than desensitize them as is the usual thing…
    We’ve used chainsaws with them standing next to us licking our arms, sat on tractors running full bore and they stand underneath so that we can’t dump the dirt, etc…
    They’re almost a pain in the a@@, sometimes…
    We will never have another foal raised by a mare….orphans are so different and we appreciate that we can save them and enjoy the “trip”…

  7. Our foal is now almost 1.5 years old. My wife and I were there just after he was born. The newborn was having a difficult time locating the teats. So, after several hours, we moved the mare into a stall thinking the foal would have a better chance to find what it was looking for in a smaller enclosure. The only “forced” handling was when I had to pick up the foal and carry him into the stall.
    However, for the past 1.5 years, we have been around him most everyday. He thinks he is a person now and loves being near people. We just tried to spend some time with him everyday and brush and make contact as much as possible. He leads well and no problems with trimming. The next step is riding, and we’ll see how that goes next year.

  8. They live at liberty in our backyard with a large run-in and we go into “their” space to clean, feed, rake, do maintenance, etc. They never knew to be afraid and so we had to teach them to be respectful, rather than desensitize them as is the usual thing…

  9. Most horse-breeders that I know use the intermediate method, i.e. humans present to assist with delivery if necessary, and then very low-key interactions during the perinatal period. Some of the warmblood foals are almost too friendly, once they’re turned out in a paddock with their dams. I suspect they don’t realize how weak and precariously balanced most humans are, and I’ve been knocked over several times, when I enter the paddock with the scratchy brush, a feed bucket, or some other interesting object that I’m meant to share with the herd. I did not grow up around horses, and didn’t learn to ride until I was in my late 20s, so when I first got my own horses (in my 30s), I did something stupid around/with them at least once a week. I think I’ve progressed to doing stupid things with horses only a few times each year now….
    I have the impression (arguably incorrect) that horses understand the gestures and body language for “play”, with a human as a playmate, and I find this very intriguing. I can’t buck or rear when I run past a paddock of horses, but I can toss my head, and this almost always gets the horses to run after me and play. I’ve also trapped loose horses, which can’t be approached with a halter and lead rope, by trotting up to the barn, and then disappearing inside very suddenly; most horses are very curious about hide-and-seek games, and will come flying around the corner looking for me. At which point I can use my opposable thumbs, and slide the outer doors shut.
    Another interesting aspect of horse behavior is the facility of some to work with disabled individuals, in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy programs. I’ve worked with over a dozen therapy horses, all different breeds, and each has an ability to recognize and behave differently with disabled children and adults. Not just physical disabilities, either…all types, including autism, epilepsy, and Down syndrome. I used to ride a massive tobiano Paint horse, to school and exercise him, and he would try every trick imaginable in the space of about 10 minutes (until he realized that I wasn’t dislodged so easily)-yet he was a perfect steady gentleman for all his unsteady riders with cerebral palsy and head injuries, and for the young man with Down syndrome who took him on leisurely trail rides. How do they know?