Imprint Training and Future Performance

Q. Does foal imprint training affect future performance?

via e-mail

A. There is probably no single technique in horse management that has generated more questions for behaviorists than the method of intensive handling of neonatal foals called imprint training. And it's always frustrating to try to provide a thoughtful professional opinion or evidence-based answer.

The premise and claims of the technique are for lifelong better interaction with humans and compliance with human imposed procedures and all things domestic. This should translate into a positive effect on performance.

Depending upon who you talk to, you can get any number of conflicting opinions that boil down to imprint training having a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect at all, including on handling or performance, as a foal or in the future.

For many years behaviorists could hedge by explaining that there had been no organized research yet addressing efficacy and long-term effects of imprint training. But over the last decade there have been several attempts to address the questions with systematic studies. Unfortunately, it has proven very difficult and awkward to address with research. For example, in some instances either researchers or their governing university animal care committees were unwilling to approve the procedures exactly as Robert Miller, BS, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., (who literally wrote the book on foal imprint training), has recommended. And, in some cases, perhaps the methods were not clearly understood. So most of the studies for which results have been published did follow Miller's technique verbatim (in which handling of a foal should begin immediately at birth and be repeated or expanded upon over days or weeks). Many did not proceed until after the foal had stood and nursed. The studies that found no positive effects, or found negative effects, have understandably been criticized by proponents of the technique as not having truly tested imprint training. So researchers' results are limited to exactly what they did in each study.

My recommendation would be to talk directly to farm managers who have done some form of early intensive handling and get an understanding of what exactly they do and what they have experienced in terms of future performance. In addition, ask them about the opportunities they have had to critically compare horses that have and have not gone through early intensive handling.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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