Certain North American Indians spoke to horses before birth and handled foals daily the
first few days after birth. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours after birth is a period when some
species, including horses, can be imprinted. As soon as the foal is born, the mare starts
nuzzling it to imprint the fact that it is a horse.
Human beings have learned to use this time when foals can be imprinted to benefit
interaction with the horse later in life. Dr. R. D. Scoggins, equine Extension veterinarian at
the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, believes imprinting can
be beneficial if done right, but dangerous if done wrong.
"Dr. Robert M. Miller, a veterinarian from California, made imprinting popular again. He
came to the conclusion-and a lot of equine veterinary practitioners agree with him-that foals
handled directly after birth may be quieter and easier to handle than those that do not have
immediate human contact," explains Dr. Scoggins.
"Imprinting can prepare the foal to live in the human being’s world and tolerate a lot of the
things we do, such as inserting a nasogastric tube, placing a rectal thermometer, clipping the
body, working with the head, or trimming the feet. If people stop there, imprinting is not a
bad thing," Dr. Scoggins comments. However, he believes people can go too far.
"Sometimes people try to see how many things they can get their horse desensitized to until,
eventually, they get the horse desensitized to life. Some people get their foals so submissive
that the foals end up with no protective mechanisms. But we need those protective
mechanisms in the training process," he says. "The flight syndrome, for example, is used to
teach a horse to lunge, to ride and go forward, and, for racehorses, to move out of the
starting gate. If you take the horse’s natural reactions away, you might as well ride a horse
on a carousel that’s not rotating."
Another concern with imprinting is restraining the foal. "Some people don’t like the fact that
the foal will have to be submissive for the short time it takes. Frequently, the foal struggles
and people release it, which teaches the foal that it can struggle and get released. This idea
is imprinted on the foal and is extremely difficult to extinguish," says Dr. Scoggins.
Poorly imprinted horses may be impossible to train. "I know a horse trainer who had never
encountered a horse he couldn’t change until recently, in some of the western states, he ran
into about 50 of these poorly imprinted horses in one year. He said they are very frustrating
and don’t respond to the normal things that a horse responds to," recounts Dr. Scoggins.
"People should not attempt imprinting on their own unless they accept the consequences,
which may be an unusable horse," warns Dr. Scoggins. He suggests following advice in Dr.
Miller’s video and book. "I recommend his recent videos, which teach a less aggressive
imprinting technique. When you first begin, have an experienced imprinter there to remind
you what things you should do and when to stop.
"The mare should be present so you don’t create foal rejection problems. Someone ought
to handle the mare and hold her rather than just tie her to the wall. She should be facing the
foal and positioned so that the people working on the foal will not be endangered if the
mare gets upset." Remember, this is the period when the mare is most protective.
Imprinting can be done as soon as the foal is dried off. Everything you do should be done
until the foal submits. If you flex a leg and tap on it, simulating shoeing or trimming, you need
to continue and not let the foot loose when the foal struggles. When the foal submits and
totally relaxes, then release the foot. If you release it when the foal struggles, you’ve just
taught the foal to take the foot away from a farrier.
"You can do the techniques associated with imprinting for two or three days in a row. It
takes about half an hour each time. After the first 24 hours, it really isn’t imprinting; it’s more
habituation," adds Scoggins.
Remember that imprinting shouldn’t be used as a substitute for handling and training your
new foal. With supervision and moderation, imprinting provides a window of time in your
new foal’s life that can be used to make a horse that is easier to handle and train.
Please consult a horse trainer, a veterinarian, and Dr. Miller’s learning aids before trying
imprinting on your own foals.
Original Article: http://www.cvm.uiuc.edu/petcolumns/showarticle.cfm?id=79