Handling Rams

As with most of my articles, the knowledge here has come both from my personal experience and also from the experiences of others whom I have had the privilege to learn from. (Here I must put in a plug for the ISBONA forum, available with a membership to ISBONA, and which has been invaluable for learning about this wonderful breed.) I have witnessed the odyssey of one woman in particular and an aggressive ram through this forum, and the advice given to her was extremely helpful in understanding rams.

As I have said on my ram page, the fact that a ram is an intact breeding animal and thus full of testosterone and all that comes with that makes them inherently upredictable. Even the most docile of rams can be provoked in the right situation, especially around breeding season. This brings me back to Freyr, who when I got him, I would have argued this to be totally untrue. He truly is a docile, friendly ram who loves nothing more than being pet for just as long as you are willing to give him attention. I would let him loose in the yard, and he’d follow me around like a dog, or else just graze peacefully. However, this changed after breeding season. I had a one winter ewe I decided not to breed, and he knew it. He was well separated, but he could smell her go into heat, and this ram has a high libido. So one day when his goat wether companion let him out, he went on a little rampage with the poor dog, chasing him down and trying to butt and stomp him. I stepped in, and him still being so high on himself, he charged at me too. This is the first time that had ever happened. Thankfully, I’d read the aforementioned topic about the woman with the aggressive ram, and had learned some tips for teaching a ram some manners. In Freyr’s case, that meant that as he charged me, I grabbed one horn in one hand, his hind leg on the same side of his body with the other, and then I used his own weight against him to flip him on his back. Then I sat on him for a while. But on his back like that, he was helpless, and he knew it. There was no way to fight me on this one, and eventually he conceded that indeed, I was boss, and he was not, and what he had done was not acceptable. I then let him up and put him away.

Subsequent days, I reinforced his place in the hierarchy with a little squirt bottle. I’m sure it would look humorous to most, a big tough ram subdued by a squirt bottle. But it worked really well. He hates being squirted in the face with water. Now, there was rhyme and reason behind the squirt bottle; I didn’t just randomly shoot the poor guy. I would go in his pen and tell him “Back!” firmly. Lack of compliance meant the squirt bottle. Immediate compliance earned him a scratch behind the horns. If I needed to give him a grain supplement with his wormer in it, or else anything else that could be construed as a treat, I would make him back away from me and stand nice before he would be allowed to eat it. Through this method he has become more respectful than ever, and I very much enjoy our relationship. I do find the daily little reinforcements are far more useful than having to use the more extreme flip-and-sit method, but if it comes down to it, sometimes the more extreme option becomes necessary.

It may sound harsh, but we are talking about a 200+ pound animal that is all muscle and can do some real damage if he decided humans are fair game to dominate. It is far better that a ram know his place than for a person to be injured. Besides, if a ram is willing to injure a person, and proves unwilling to repent of such actions, that is a very quick ticket to freezer camp. From what I have seen and read, rams have a tipping point, a point of no return. This is the point where an act of disrespect, such as what Freyr did, becomes a string of acts of true aggression. A ram that has turned truly aggressive, that is now fully convinced humans are below him on the hierarchy and can thus be dominated, can most often no be rehabilitated. The case I referenced before was such a case, and that ram did end up on the dinner table for the safety of the family who had to care for him and the other sheep. Simple disrespect can be remedied, but it must not be tolerated lest it become true aggression.

There are some things that can be done to prevent a ram from even getting to the point of disrespect. Some people goes as far as to never pet their rams, and only interact with them on an as-needed basis. This works well for them; it helps the rams to always keep a little fear of the predator that is a human, and thus never feel the need to test them. I do want to interject at this point that though rare, there are some rams that are inherently aggressive despite a person’s best efforts. I personally know someone who’s ram they were convinced was trying to kill them. He had been like this since a very young age. He didn’t stay for very long. Personality is at least partially heritable, which also includes a natural tendency towards aggression. As such, I believe it to be irresponsible to breed aggressive rams, especially when there are so many good, even tempered ones out there. Here at Waving Pines Farm, any aggressive ram will end up in the freezer; we will not pass on a problem temperament to anyone, and we are striving to breed decent temperaments into our sheep.

But in returning to the topic of keeping rams respectful, if one chooses to interact with their rams for more than hoof trimming and such, then there are some things that one needs to know about such interactions. Things we take for granted as friendly, often the same things we see in our dogs, do not have the same meaning in a ram. For example, the simple act of coming up and asking to have his head scratched. It seems innocent enough, but what it tells the ram is that he entered your space on his terms, uninvited, and demanded that you give him something he wants, a scratch. That he is given that has just affirmed that you submitted to his wishes. These are little tests, but they can add up to bigger ones. Maybe the ram will get more pushy with his person for a while. If this is met with nothing but what he deems submissive behavior, then he may try a more serious challenge, like a head butt. I scratch Freyr, and I believe that a person can safely do so and safely interact with a ram as long as they keep in mind what they are telling the ram. I scratch Freyr on my terms. When I enter his pen, he is only allowed to come so close, and only with his chin up. If not, the squirt bottle. If so, I complete the last few steps and enter his space on my terms, and I offer him petting as a reward for complying to my terms. He is expected to move if I tell him to, and he leads very well on halter, or just by a horn. (One reason I love horns- I can just grab a horn and lead the ram.) He has just learned to accept that he must do as I ask, because I am the boss. Good things come from that, and only bad things come from misbehavior.

I do need to add that what I have talked about above really only applies to rams a year old or older. At less than a year old, and this knowledge mostly comes second hand from others with more experience than I, a ram is very impressionable and is learning his place in the world. Part of this is learning that he is a sheep, and that we are people, and that people are not sheep. We are something else, a predator to be respected, and not another sheep to be tested. This is very important that they learn this. Thus, as hard as it is, ram lambs should not be coddled or cuddled, no matter how friendly they seem. Not only can this teach them that humans are just sheep too, but it can even teach them that humans are more submissive. It’s the same principle as above; giving them attention that the ram seeks out is the same as giving into the demands of that ram lamb and teaching him you are submitting to him.

I have also had first hand experience with some of this with my ram lamb Sam. Since birth, he has always wanted to be the center of attention. At first I gave in to him, petting him right alongside my ewe lambs. But then he started to escalate it, ramming both ewe lambs away to that he would get all the attention. I did some research, sought the wisdom of the more experienced shepherd of the ISBONA forum, and realized exactly what I had been doing wrong. (Though his mother is part to blame too, as she doesn’t discipline him, and just lets him push her around.) The next time Sam butted one of the ewes, he was promptly flipped onto his back. He had such a surprised look on his face, like he couldn’t believe someone told him no. After that day, he hasn’t tried butting the other lambs again. I’ve also quit petting him; he gets lightly popped on the side of the face if he comes demanding scratches, and then sent on his way. And he has learned. He is very respectful of people now, as well as the other sheep, and while he does comes to investigate the people, he has quit demanding attention. He is being halter trained now, and has become quite good about being handled in general. Next spring, he will get the same privileges as his father, and will hopefully be every bit the same gentleram.

I want to make sure to note that these rules do not apply to ewe lambs, who by nature tend to be more shy and skittery. It is good to handle ewe lambs as much as possible and gain their trust. It is so much easier to tame them young, and makes life easier when it comes to handling them for routine maintenance. And from what I have gathered from the wisdom of those more experienced than I, it is rare that a ewe will turn aggressive with such handling. There are exceptions, and some ewe demand a little more discipline, but it would still be the same signs; demanding attention on her terms rather than asking for it.

These are the things that I have come to learn about rams and keeping the peace with them. I do enjoy my Freyr, and I do not want to scare anyone with what I have written in this article, but I also want everyone who owns a ram to be aware so that potential injury and heartache can be averted. It is so much easier just to keep a ram respectful than to fix a disrespectful one. And then too you can better enjoy them for their handsomeness and presence, and not fear having to refill a water bucket or change some bedding. Rams can be truly enjoyable; my Freyr Bear can stand as a testament to that!