Animal behavioralists use the term “imprinting” to describe the process by which many species of newly born animals become quickly and strongly bonded to the first “social object” they see, normally a parent. When people talk about “foal imprinting”, they are referring to the practice of handling newborn foals in specific ways that are said to make a permanent, positive impression on the foal, making subsequent handling and training much easier. This is not technically imprinting, in the scientific sense, and for this reason, some proponents of this method have come to prefer the term “early learning”. However, as the term “early learning” can be very broadly interpreted, we will use “imprinting” for the purposes of this article.
Like most things having to do with horses, the practice of foal imprinting has its advocates and its critics. Those who swear by it say that it produces friendly, easy to handle youngsters who grow into well-adjusted, extremely trainable horses. Those against it assert that it often does more harm than good, creating horses that can be overly flighty, or so dull to pressure that they are downright dangerous and nearly impossible to train. Some also believe that imprinting can interfere with mare-foal bonding and other natural processes. If you are a foal-owner-to-be, it is therefore prudent to look at both sides of the argument before deciding what you want to do when your new equine baby arrives.
Dr. Robert M. Miller’s Approach: a brief overview
The practice of foal imprinting has been popularized to a great extent by the work of Dr. Robert M. Miller (www.robertmiller.com) , a retired veterinarian and author. Though he doesn’t claim to have invented the idea (and no longer favors the term “imprinting”), Miller has delineated a very specific methodology of training newborn foals that is the basis for most of this type of training today. His 1991 book, Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, and his more recent DVD, Early Learning, provide step by step guidelines to the methods he employs. Anyone thinking of trying to imprint train a foal would do well to study these materials and see if they agree with and feel capable of doing what Miller recommends.
Miller’s methods start out with an immediate post-partum procedure that is designed to habituate or “desensitize” the foal to a variety of stimuli. These include touching its head, legs and most of the body; inserting a finger into the nostrils, mouth, ears and anus; and the sound, sight and feel of items such as a plastic sheet, a piece of newspaper, electric clippers, a blow dryer and a spray bottle. Basically, anything you don’t want the foal to be afraid of or move away from in the future can be introduced at this stage.
Miller specifies exactly how one should go about the desensitization process, emphasizing that you must repeat each stimulus until the foal is completely relaxed before you stop. Otherwise, you risk sensitizing the foal and teaching it to struggle, instead of desensitizing it. He finds that using rhythmic, quick succession repetitions known as “flooding” works best, and says, “You can never do too many repetitions, but you can do too few.” You can also be too gentle, according to Miller, so you should strive for a firm, purposeful contact.
Miller also recommends specific ways to position and restrain both the mare and the foal during this first session, as he feels it is extremely important that the foal not get away from the handler during any of the procedures. If it does get away, it may always use struggle and flight as a way to deal with the things humans present. He therefore suggests that those inexperienced with imprinting should have two assistants: one to hold the haltered mare, and a second to help restrain the foal. According to Miller, none of this will interfere with mare-foal bonding. “In 45 years,” he says, “I have never seen or heard of a mare rejecting a foal because of these methods being used, and in fact, it often help first time mothers accept the foal more easily”.
Once the foal is steady on its feet and has nursed, Miller does a second session in which he continues desensitization to things like pressure on the girth and saddle areas, lifting the feet and tapping on the soles. He also begins the very important sensitization training at this point, using his hand to teach the foal to move forward in response to pressure on its butt, backward in response to pressure on its chest, and to move its haunches over in response to pressure on its flank. He also halters the foal, though he doesn’t use the halter for restraint. The third session is where the halter and butt rope come into use, with Miller beginning to teach the basics of leading and tying in ways designed to keep the foal safe and calm.
There are those who don’t agree with some or all of Dr. Miller’s style of imprinting, but veterinarian and Canadian Warmblood breeder, Dr. Heather Smith of Taber, AB, is all for it. “What’s not to agree with?” she says simply, “It works.” After attending a 1989 conference where Dr. Miller was a featured speaker, Smith decided to try imprinting her own foals, and she was so pleased with the results that she has been doing it ever since. “I find the foals easier to approach and touch,” says Smith, “and halter breaking at 24 hours is way safer than waiting until weaning.” She also finds that foot care, groundwork and trailer loading are all easier as a result of imprinting.
Because of her perspective as a veterinarian and breeder, Smith pays particular attention to desensitizing the groin and perineal areas of both colts and fillies. “I check them for any abnormalities, as well as desensitizing the scrotum, penis, udder and vulva, as well as the anus. These animals tend to accept procedures such as sheath cleaning, foals nursing and rectal examination much better down the road.” Smith also believes that properly imprinted youngsters are less likely to get injured. “As a veterinarian, I have observed that most young horses that get hurt seem to do so because of the tremendous and instinctive flight mechanism. Anything that can be done to prevent a horse from running blind in avoidance is a good thing, and imprinting helps with that.”
Many people, like Smith, find imprinting beneficial, but there are certainly those who believe that it can cause serious problems, especially when done incorrectly. This includes a number of prominent trainers, including respected clinician, Josh Nichol. “Horses communicate through directing each others’ space,” says Nichol, “and what I have found with many imprinted horses is that they lack this spatial understanding. This places humans in a vulnerable position, because if a horse won’t soften to our space – or worse, tries to direct ours – we can easily get hurt. The imprinted horses I’ve seen have often been labeled pushy, impatient or even belligerent, but really, this is a trained response situation.”
Nichol sees the potential benefits of imprinting and understands the need to be able to handle and doctor a young foal, but he feels that the long-term negative effects he has witnessed outweigh the benefits. “Most folks already struggle to understand the spatial mind of the horse, and imprinting, as it is often done, seems to desensitize the horse to its own natural way of communicating, creating a dulled sense of space. I’ve seen this get quite dangerous, and while I realize that this is not the intention of imprinting as it is taught, it is often the result.”
Other equine professionals, such as trainer and author Cherry Hill, have concerns about aggressive or invasive imprinting possibly interfering with certain natural post-partum processes, as well as potential injury to foals if carried out by inexperienced handlers. On her website, www.horsekeeping.com, Hill says, “More than one vet has told me that they think handling the foal extensively at an hour of age can interfere with the mare expelling her placental tissues. And some foal's legs are wobbly or have deviations that excessive handling might stress or harm.” Her latter concern is echoed in a study on imprinting conducted by Pennsylvania State University researcher Nancy Kate Diehl, MS, VMD, who states “The handler in this study was experienced with foals and found the potential for trauma to the foals, as a result of the intervention, to be undesirable.”
Dr. Miller is aware that such concerns are out there, but he says, “It is unfortunate that people are making such statements because they simply aren’t true, and they’re going to scare some people away from an extremely safe and effective training method. I have talked to literally thousands of people who have used my methods, and not once have I heard of a foal being injured – not ever. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s just not happening. Believe me, I would have heard from people – and their lawyers – if my methods were leading to injuries.” He adds that his early training methods are being used extensively and increasingly throughout the horse industry all over the world, which would not be the case if they were creating a significant number of problem horses.
For those who remain uncomfortable with immediate, intensive post partum handling of a foal, there are other options that can still have great benefits. Hill has outlined an early handling method in her book, The Formative Years, that she has found very effective in producing friendly, easy to handle and trainable foals, without the necessity of intensive intervention during the first hours of life. However, she is not critical of Dr. Miller’s style of imprinting, if carried out correctly by competent handlers. As she explains, “If properly done, ‘imprinting’ can lead to a confident horse that would not fear the touch, sound and sight of things he would encounter in man’s world.” She does caution that improperly imprinted foals can become hypersensitive, resentful or fearful, “the opposite of the goal,” but points out that any kind of training, if done poorly, can create problems.
Ultimately, it is the decision of the foal owner whether to imprint or not, but if you are thinking about doing it, be sure that you are well educated about the process and its alternatives. In addition, make sure that you have the time and determination to see the whole program through, and that you have experienced help on hand.