I guess you could say that everything people know they learned from animals–about bonding with newborns, that is.
I’ve always appreciated the importance of “bonding” with our newborn children and I felt the same way about “being there” with our newborn baby filly as soon as she was born. Instinctively, I felt the need for my husband and me to bond with that filly, even though we aren’t the biological parents. After all, her mother, Annabelle, gets all the credit for all the hard work she’s done with carrying and delivering her baby, and with what lies ahead for this single mother (as the father is in Michigan and never got to meet his offspring.)
Anyway, back to the bonding. . . I knew it was important, I didn’t know until just recently that there’s an actual word for it in the “horse world.” It’s called “imprinting” and it’s vital to the newborn foal’s future relationship with people. I admit we humans are only surrogate parents here, but we do want to do our part. By the time we greeted our baby foal (still yet to be named, as we continue to seek the perfect fit!), she was already licked clean by her dear mother, nursed, and was walking around the stall.
Horse experts say that imprinting in the first days after birth is crucial. This includes handling the foal, while always being cognizant of the mother horse’s anxiety level of those around her. Using soft tones, you must hold the baby in an embrace, while it’s laying down, and stroke its ears and handle its feet and gums, so that it’s comfortable later on when you need to clean and attend to these areas. Horse people even say you should blow gently into the baby’s nostrils, so that it recognizes your breath and smell and feels comfortable with you. If the mare is comfortable with you and how you handle her and her baby, then the baby also generalizes that people are good.
I’ve so enjoyed being a part of this process, although I’ll be the first to say that Annabelle and her new baby respond first and foremost to my dear husband and our children, who have always been directly involved in their care. I must admit that sometimes I feel like a “third wheel,” more of someone who documents this incredible phase of life through pictures and words. They’re the ones who actually do it.
I’m happy to say that all this imprinting is working. Annabelle’s baby is adjusting to her new home so well and Annabelle is such an accomplished mother. She is somewhat of an expert, as she’s delivered and cared for two previous foals before she came to live with us. Annabelle came to us as an expectant mother and as already an expert in the matter!
Annabelle’s baby walks nicely with us, in her halter now, as long as dear Mom is nearby. Annabelle also makes sure that she is always the one in charge, knowing where her baby is at all times. When the baby is sleeping, Annabelle stands guard over her. When people approach to visit, the baby will come up to the fence to greet them, and as I found yesterday, will even suck on your fingers in her effort to appease this oral stage. She gets the idea that people are good. We’re just protecting her from too much visiting by closely monitoring the time she spends–always with Mom–in public view. But we’re all adjusting nicely, this new family of ours!