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.