I watched a very entertaining documentary last week (Nature- on PBS) about Joe Hutto hatching, imprinting and raising a clutch of wild turkeys. SPOILER ALERT! At the end, one of his "tame" toms seriously attacked him before being driven off and never seen again. And Hutto saw it coming. I've had the same experience with a variety of animals; including wolves, cougars and even horses I imprinted and hand raised in the past. So I was not terribly surprised when I saw it happen to him.
The expression 'familiarity breeds contempt' definitely applies here. It's not just a long range problem that eventually comes from imprinting at birth but also what often happens from becoming too "familiar" with any animal that has its natural behavior rooted in any kind of a social structure. Once they reach adolescence they will find or even create opportunities to challenge your leadership, regardless of how previously submissive they were or how "fairly" they were treated or raised. Those challenges can be very subtle or dangerously overt. But they WILL happen. Most assuredly with imprinted animals since the natural fear and suspicion of humans gets removed at birth. And it's those natural fearful instincts that make most human training and control of large or predator animals possible. That's why I no longer do or recommend imprinting horses. In all my training experience I can tell within minutes if a horse was human imprinted at birth. They are not untrainable. But definitely more difficult to work with as they mature. But challenges to human leadership occur across all manner of domesticated beasts regardless of rearing techniques. And seeing one coming is a lot easier to address when you are always alert to expect it.
My very special mare Jewel is a good example. Not imprinted and acquired when she was 6 (now 14), she has always had an amazingly compliant, friendly and respectful demeanor after I properly "introduced myself" to her in the first weeks she was here. Like any other horse she has the occasional hissy fit when she's up against a bad hair day and gets over it with just a hard glaring look from me or the wave of a hand that makes her give up some space. But for the past 11 months she's been on total pasture rest, recovering from a severe shoulder injury. So she's been "babied" and sympathetically coddled for quite a while. And the entire time she's also been reveling in her freedom to antagonize and push around my two geldings to her heart's content. I also saw some increasing disdain for my occasional intervention in her obstreperous behavior in the past few weeks. So, I saw last night coming.
Midnight at the round bale... and I walked over to stand with Jewel and Jack while drawing in the clear starry night and cool dry evening air for a change here in Florida. Jewel did NOT move away as I walked in between her and the metal feeder as she always did. And silhouetted against the sky I saw her ears pin as I caught a tail swish across my back. I poked her right shoulder to move her off and she tilted her head at me with a false nip. Game on!
I threw my arms up, fingers extended, but her only response was an irritated head toss. I followed up by physically pushing her away at the shoulder, to which she answered with swinging her butt toward me with ears still pinned. That's when I ripped off my belt and swung it forcefully through the air, sending her off in a tight bucking and kicking circle around the round bale in an attempt to come up behind me. I met her head on and sent her back the other way. But her circles were right against the feeder and she was hellbent upon getting ME to give up MY space. Not tonight or any other night Susie Q!
Poor Jack got in Jewel's way and got kicked for just being there before he retreated into the darkness a respectable distance to watch. Jewel was still circling the round bale with her neck bowed and nose tucked beyond the vertical, twisting and thrashing the ground in a growing fit. It was time to do what I seldom do with any horse, make physical contact with a forceful crack across her butt with the belt. That sent her off in a wider circle but still challenging my possession of the hay. When she gave up the space to move off I quickly stepped into it and pressed for more, still swinging the belt wildly through the air. One more wide circle around the bale and she bolted off across the paddock, drawing up under the big Live Oak tree about 50 feet away, where she stood looking back at me.
It was pitch dark but I stood my ground squarely, glaring at her with direct eye contact I knew she could sense if not actually see. I could hear her licking and chewing. I continued standing there, motionless for about 5 minutes. And so did she. Then I went completely passive, turned my back and walked to the round bale. Jack came in and stood next to me, munching away contentedly. Jewel stayed under the tree, still motionless. I walked away from the bale toward the paddock gate at a 90 degree angle from Jewel and stood there, my back still turned, giving her the opportunity to reclaim the bale if she dared. Still no movement from Jewel.
I turned and walked back to the bale, stood there a minute and returned to the paddock gate, still passive with my body language and watching her from the corner of my left eye. Jewel was still standing like a statue, just watching. I was inviting her to try me again. Waiting to see if she would amble back to the bale or come to me in apology. Another few minutes passed and Jewel took some tentative steps forward. I wasn't sure if she was headed my way or to the bale. So I turned toward her and then rolled my right shoulder away and once again turned my back to her. After a minute or two, not hearing any footfalls I slowly turned my head to the left just in time to see her step forward and come in to my left elbow with her head lowered, licking and chewing. She chose a path 45 degrees and 30 feet off of the hay bale to come be at my side. I accepted her apology with a rub on the forehead and a pat on the neck. I walked away and she calmly went back to the bale to feed. All was forgiven. All adrenaline had expired. The challenge was successfully met. Mutual respect and trust restored.
Many here on the ES forums know me and my storied relationship with Jewel. I share this experience to drive home a single point. No matter how trusting horse/human relationships become, there will always be challenges for leadership. Most are subtle. Others not so much. My episode with Jewel was primarily the result of not working with her on a regular basis. Not doing daily exercises that cause her to relinquish even just a few feet of space to maintain my herd position. It was my fault it happened. Her injury recovery lulled me into treating her with submissive familiarity she interpreted as a lack of leadership. And she was just doing what horses do to fill that void, encouraged by her continual unchallenged dominance over the other geldings.
Even Joe Hutto knew he would eventually be challenged by the trusted gobbler he imprinted and raised. But when that time came it caught him by surprise. His reaction was slow and he was injured. Turkey spurs can do a lot of damage.
We all know how much damage a hoofed half ton horse can do. Regardless of how secure you may feel in the presence of your horse, keep up daily reminders of your leadership and insistence upon respect. And ALWAYS expect challenges to your position. Anticipate, recognize and answer before they become too serious to safely handle at inconvenient times or dangerous places. Don't fall into believing you're "bullying" your horse by making him move for no particular reason. There IS a reason. And your horse instinctively knows what it is. It's a display of leadership that tells him you're the one he must rely upon for his safety. ~FH