Gentle petting, ears relaxed, neck outstretchedIt seems every few months, a new discussion about mean rams surfaces on Facebook. This seems to sum up the general rule repeated there by everyone, everywhere: “all rams are inherently mean, watch your back, or they will always try to kill you. Don’t ever pet them, hand feed them, or otherwise fraternize with them. It’s good to whack them hard with a pitchfork right at the outset, to show them who’s boss!” I would like to propose a modified version of this folklore, only for those who are interested in considering a different perspective.

More gentle petting, soft expressionAlways be mindful…

First off, livestock, regardless of gender or species, can be dangerous. They are usually big, they are animals, sometimes they are dumb, they are reactive, and they can hurt us. A friend of mine had her leg broken by absent-mindedly standing in the opening of a gate with her back to her her sweet, tiny Sheltie, who “helpfully’’ brought a group of sweet, tame sheep through the opening at a dead run. So, it goes without saying we should always work around all livestock with the awareness that they can injure, or kill us, for any number of reasons or causes. Heck, even an angry chicken or terrified rabbit can do some serious damage!

Certainly, large, intact male animals can have a lot of power, and sometimes a lot of hormones. Rams, bucks, bulls and stallions all have a reputation for being potentially aggressive and unpredictably rough. But does this mean they can never be trained and managed? If you’ve ever attended a Cavalia show, it is a sight to behold. These very skilled animal trainers have a truckload of loose stallions on stage, together (with some geldings, too, but no mares are in the lineup). There is only a meager three-foot plywood barrier separating them from a seated audience. Handlers and acrobats intermingle with the horses in amazing ways. There is some noticeable minor jostling and butt-nipping between the horses. But, for the most part, these big boys are all under very good management, and nobody is carrying a pitchfork or a cattle prod. In fact, the horses are naked, meaning they aren’t wearing halters, harnesses, bridles or any other type of “control” tool. Granted, this level of training is not for the casual hobbyist, Cavalia puts hundreds of hours of training into their performance animals. But it shows that big, intact males aren’t always hard-wired, permanently untrustworthy.

Dog "nibbling" on a ram, who doesn't mindOn the flip side, there are definitely animals which are just born ornery. This is the nature part. I would assert that we always need to be trying to breed away from orneriness, striving for calm, gentle, level-headed livestock which are easy to handle. Some breeds do better at this than others. The mistake, I think, is that when repeating this all-rams-are-mean platitude, it contains in it a note of acceptance. And, therefore, an excuse for continuing to breed them, thus perpetuating genetically mean rams. So, I would then say this: if you have a ram that’s consistently trying to kill you, or other sheep, then put him in the freezer and shop for a nicer ram. Because pleasant-tempered rams do exist. The world is full of good rams. There is no reason to be passing on the genes of one that has serious flaws of any kind.

Now, on to the nurture part. I believe that much of ram behavior is actually just environmentally influenced. Primarily, if you assume your ram is a psycho and treat him that way, he’s likely to fulfill those expectations. If you are approaching him with the wariness of a lion tamer, always holding up a chair and cracking a whip, he’s going to read that, and be uncomfortable around you too. And the relationship will go south from there.

Nice ram turned mean

One time I had a ram lamb here who was just extra sweet and friendly, all on his own. From the get-go, he was very curious about me, would seek me out, and really liked being petted and scratched. One day, I was busy and ignored his solicitation for petting, and he butted me. Just a small shove, but definitely in a rude and inappropriate demeanor. I clocked him with a tool that happened to be in my hand. He winced and lowered his head to the side in deference. I immediately moved in and briefly touched him gently as a reward for the yield. He never did it again, and remained a very sweet, gentle and friendly animal.

Offering the hand softly, not in grabbing modeLater, when he was an adult, I sold him to someone who just wanted to breed a few ewes; and I thought he’d be a great pet for a small farm since he was so kindly. I noticed as we loaded this gentle dude into her truck, that the new owner was extremely jumpy around him. He made a move to consider hopping out, just because the door was open. I usually never try to block sheep from going somewhere, because it never works; they can always out-maneuver a person (or mow them down: recall my friend with the broken leg). Plus, I know they aren’t going anywhere, so there is no reason to panic of a sheep tries to “escape.” They’re just gonna run to other sheep, back to a comfort-zone area, or some other predictable place. They are easily picked up with a bucket of grain as a lure, or with a dog. No big deal.

This lady did try to block him, though. And not with a simple side step, a gentle hand up and a soft whoa. Rather, with a big, crazy, arm-flapping, spazzy, excitable maneuver, her eyes bugging out of her head, and her hollerin’. My poor ram flinched and looked slightly offended, unsure what had warranted this rude and disrespectful treatment. Oh, boy, I thought, calm down lady. After that, even though I’d told her this ram was really mellow and loved a good cuddle, she had all sorts of questions about what could go wrong with him, all the ways he might be mean. ‘Cuz she’d heard the all-rams-are-mean platitude, and that you should never pet them or be nice to them. She was wary that I’d already “ruined” him by allowing him to become tame.

Sure as shootin’, it only took her a few months to email me and report that he was mean, that she was afraid of him, and she was having a hard time handling him. Sheez. Nature? Or nurture?

Mean ram turned nice

Ram group resting together, touchingConversely, I went to buy a ram once; and was presented with a couple of pens full of mature rams from which to select. The owner kept tellin’ me watch out…. careful… whoa there…. look out! as I walked through the alley between the pens, relaxing my shoulders, un-focusing my eyes to communicate calm. And, sure enough, all the rams were head-high, on full alert, snorting, prancing about, stomping, bashing gates in threat to me, acting like they were ready for an epic battle. Holy crap, I thought. I reconsidered whether I should even take one. But, I needed a ram; so I figured, we’ll, I’ll just see what he produces and butcher them all if they are jerks. We had a heck of a time getting him out of a pen and into my truck, the owner warning me the whole time to watch my back.

Once here, the ram was a real bronco for the first few months. He had a bout with hoof problems, and another injury, necessitating me handling him a lot. I did it with purpose, verbalizing my intention to heal him. I used insistence that he comply, and gave appropriately forceful corrections if he was rough. I’d wait to release  him from treatment until he “gave”. Once I could feel him yield, I’d give him a brief, gentle massage or some other pleasant touching, so we ended on a good note, then let him go.

Within the year, his attitude shifted completely. I could trim his hooves while he stood. I could lead him by his dog collar. He’d stand placid while I drew blood from his jugular for testing. I could touch him gently as I walked through the herd. He moved calmly for the dogs. No more fighting, no more  mean. Hardly the same killer ram I saw in the pen at the other farm. And his lambs? All sweet and calm, just as I expect in Katahdins. Nature? or Nurture?

Observing sheep interactions

Gentle head nudging in affectionHerd animals are used to a lot of close, physical contact. Different kinds of touching are a basic form of communication between sheep. They will bunch together in times of threat, for comfort. Adults often sleep in positions where they are touching, even when there is plenty of space. Ewes and lambs exhibit a lot of bonding-type touching; not only cuddling during naps, but lambs jumping about on top of their mothers in play, or even curling up to sleep there. I often see sheep lazily lean-in to each other, sometimes doing some mutual butt-scratching.

I also observe a lot of casual oh-hey kinds of contact, which might be a gentle pawing or head-pushing, mock-butting attempts which are clearly silly in nature. My rams often do a humorous ritual where they back up fifty feet as if to get into a big head-butt contest. But then, instead of rushing towards each other and ramming, they merely trot, stop at the last minute, touch faces softly and affectionately, then relax and hang out. It really seems to me as if they are being funny, as though they understand the irony in their behavior. Maybe there is some subtle strength or bravery testing going on there, but it’s definitely a very peaceable way of determining hierarchy. These types of touching are welcomed by the touch-ee, and it’s always obvious both parties are very comfortable with the contact, and intentions are good.

Reciprocal head scratchingThen, there is rude touching. All animals understand some notion of rudeness in their own language.There is a big difference between the two types of touching, and we all know it and can read it, right? Rudeness is shoving-type behavior, intended to show force and knock the victim off balance. Pushing-in to the personal space of another with impolite intentions, versus affection.  There is head-bashing to shove another out of a grain trough. Or, not getting out of the way, or not moving with the flow, when it’s appropriate. In sheep, mounting (outside of breeding season) is usually an intentional rude behavior. My ewes do it to another to roust her out of the best spot at the feeder. Rams will do it to a young newcomer, to put him in his place. Lambs do it a lot, gender-irrelevant, as they are sorting out who’s King and Queen.

And, of course, there is butting. Butting in the shoulder or the side. Knocking a smaller sheep down completely. Or the traditional rutting behavior we see from competing rams on a wildlife show; where the two back up a mile, rush at maximum velocity, and crash heads with full intent to maim or kill. All of it is rude, rude, rude. And you know it’s rude, because the touch-ee will usually clearly show he’s taken offense, and will react in some way. If he’s submissive, he’ll scuttle away in humility and deference. If he’s not, he’ll match the challenge in anger. My sheep are generally very peaceable with each other, even in my very large ram group during the summer. The exception is when introducing a new ram into that gang, as I’ve written about before. That is a more delicate maneuver, where rude behavior briefly abounds, and has to be managed so that it subsides quickly and order is restored.

Nice meets nice, rude meets rude

Soft ears, soft eyes, chin outstreched, loving pettingSo, we know not all touching is bad, especially in herd animals. Touching is actually a very important part of sheep language and relationship development, which is fundamental to herd mechanics. So this makes us stop and ask, what about touching between us and them? Humans and sheep? Well, it’s the same language, we just have to make sure we’re speaking it.

Obviously sheep notice us. I don’t know whether they realize that we are different than them somehow, or not. But they do acknowledge us as somebodies. And they choose how to interact with us based on their perception of us as a somebody. Some of them wisely conclude we hold the grain bucket, but also the hoof trimmers, and choose to keep a bit of lifelong distance. My sheep keep a bigger distance with strangers who visit the farm as compared to me. So, they definitely have awareness of humans, and of different individual humans. Some sheep get curious. You can see it in their expressions, they look at you, ears relaxed, soft eye contact and soft bodies, leaning in with neck outstretched and vulnerable, snuffling. As if they are thinking who, or what, are you exactly? You don’t look like a sheep. But, do you want to touch? Are you nice?

This is not the time to arm-flap and threaten, in lion tamer mode. This is nice touching and it warrants nice touching back. Usually at first, I will close my hand, and offer one finger to lightly touch the nose, then casually withdraw and let them come in. Sheep don’t like our big, open, monkey hands, because they know those are for catching and hoof trimming and vaccinations. So, I close the fist at first, and just do a tiny boop with a finger. Soften, soften. I soften my shoulders and face, turn slightly sideways, exposing my vulnerable side, I don’t stare, don’t look away, un-focus. I just relax. Often, sheep will get more curious, and invite more touching over time, and then, eventually tame themselves. I encourage this kind of touching, rewarding it with a type of touch the sheep likes, because it is relationship-building in the herd way, and makes for calm sheep handling.

Aggressive butting, defensive postureOnce sheep get tamer, some of them start coming in more. They may like scratching or massage, and may see if they can demand it. They may start experimenting with slightly rude touching, to see if it flies with you. This is where you have to read them, and determine, are you being rude, or affectionate? If they start to cross the line, you have to set the limit. I think this is equally true for ewes as for rams.

I have a new yearling ram right now who went through this phase. He would come in for petting, enjoy it for a minute, lean against me sweetly, but then, sometimes, push. Just a little too hard. It felt like he was testing. It was very subtle. When he did it, I would shove him back, then withdraw my attention and petting. If he yielded and came back to me softly, petting resumed. One day, he tried to escalate, pushing back harder, clearly making it into a contest. I snatched him by his collar, whipped him down on the ground in fetal position, and put my knee in his neck and held him there. When I felt him give, I let him back up. I turned my side a bit to invite him in, let him return to me in deference, and rewarded him with gentle touching again. Over time, he learned. Now he is very casual and relaxed around me, comfortable with touching, but no longer tests me or gives me any rudeness. And, his curiosity subsided, now I’m no longer a novelty, but a constant.

A scene full of tension and rude dominanceI think it’s important to match the correction to the level of offense. A small, impolite shove does not warrant a pitchfork full force in the noggin, nor does a hard butt warrant a light swat on the rear end. This can clearly be seen when sheep sort out a disagreement, if one shoves a bit, the other will shove back to say hey! But they usually match the force of the offense with about equal force, not more, not less.

This is where I think a lot of people go wrong with rams. If you start out being all tough-beans with a ram who is trying to initiate polite, relationship-building touching, he’s going to think you are very, very rude! He’s going to conclude, watch out for that guy, he randomly butts with no provocation! So best to hit him first, to teach him a lesson, not to mess with me. Sound familiar? I think it’s what a lot of people do to rams, is preemptively threaten or attack them, which actually makes them mean!

I should caution here that it’s always difficult to separate anthropomorphism from just competently reading animal body language, in the same way they read each other. We always tend to interpret animals’ mindsets into our own words, that’s how we try to understand them, and convey these concepts to others. But we shouldn’t cross over the line of thinking “I trust you” or projecting other notions-of-goodness-and-righteousness into the minds of animals. Animals are inherently selfish, and most of their behavior is driven by this core. All I’m saying is that good animal trainers manipulate this selfishness, by teaching animals that it’s in their best interest to display gentle behaviors to us, and that rudeness has regrettable consequences. So, it’s less that I come to trust my rams, but rather, I come to trust my training of the rams.

Two brains of touching

Ram peers resting and touching, even in hot weatherI wrote before about how years ago, I learned about the magical effect of soft petting; and how it contrasts from the other ways we may engage in touching animals, such as patting, scratching, wrestling, etc. With my young ram who was in “politeness training,” we did none of the rougher touching during that time period. Instead, I tried to mostly offer very light touch, stroking the surface of his fur, or two flat hands on either end of his back, giving gentle circular massage, connecting with him. I very much wanted his thinking brain working as we develop this relationship, versus letting his reactive brain come into play, and rehearse undesired behavior. I wanted to reward and reinforce nice.

Which brain you’re engaging is a key distinction, and I think is what’s behind the notion that you should just never touch or pet rams at all. Because if the only kind of touching you’re doing is rough scratching and head-patting, this puts the ram in reactive mode and may encourage reciprocal roughness. And when you correct him for roughness, he’s not in thinking/learning mode, so he may just react more and escalate. But, if you are interacting with his thinking brain by offering light touch, then he does something rude, you can remove the pleasant touch, remove your attention. And his thinking brain will wonder, darn! How do I get the touch back? And he will seek and learn, rather than react and push.

A word about feed

Ram offering courting moves to another ram: rude!The other variable in this behavior equation, I think, may be nutritional. Animals that are amped-up on high protein feed tend to have a lotta behavior in general: hyper, twitchy, jumpy, hairtrigger, reactionary; sometimes silly, but sometimes twitty and rude. My friend Art, who had the raw milk cow dairy I’ve mentioned before, commented to me that after switching his cows to a grass-fed model, he was amazed at how much easier they were to handle in the parlor. He had become used to rude kicking, stubbornness and impatience in his cows in generations of grain feeding. On grass and grass hay, same cows, same genetics, calmer demeanors.

So I ponder whether this is part of why I have less behavior trouble than so many of my peers who commiserate about difficult rams. My sheep eat mostly grass, and only occasional low-protein, whole grains. So perhaps that is part of the recipe of calm animals, is a modest, natural diet.

“Your Results May Vary”

I always love this disclaimer, so often used in advertising. I’m only saying what works for me, and am not asserting everyone else should do what I do. (And who knows, maybe my tombstone will read: she became too relaxed around rams…Winking smile) There are some perfectly good reasons to not work too closely with rams. One being for people who feel they don’t have good animal training or “reading” skills, or are just inexperienced with livestock. Also, for people who have very large herds, or offsite range flocks where the humans can’t interact with the rams frequently to reinforce training and good behavior.

Certainly inherently mean rams are born into the world. Especially, ahem, in some breeds more than others. This part is pure genetics, and I believe we should penalize this trait heavily in breeding choices. Mean rams are not just an inconvenience and danger to people; but rather their over-amped testosterone behavior tends to extend to their sheep peers, making life stressful and dangerous for the whole flock. Thus, I don’t agree with accepting mean rams as the status-quo. I don’t believe you should treat rams as if they are killers right from the get-go. And I don’t feel that it’s necessary to avoid touching or petting rams, or avoid developing a polite relationship with them, in order to keep them manageable. I think those things are all wives’ tales, long repeated, and not challenged enough.

Not that I don’t listen for the patter of rushing feet when any sheep are behind me, or keep the sheep in my field of view when I have something they want,  like a bucket of grain. I maintain awareness that even a previously gentle sheep could be suddenly rude without warning. But this is my my fundamental belief: some of it’s nature, but a lot of it is nurture. If a person has a lot of psycho sheep, or consistently mean rams, it may be time to introduce a little Zen into their handling and see if that’s where the problem really lies.

Newly introduced rams relaxing, grazing peacefully together

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