Effects of Imprinting

Results of Texas A&M University's research into imprinting's effects on six-month-old foals conclude that neither the frequency of imprinting sessions nor their timing after birth influenced foals' later behavior. Some veterinarians disagree with the findings.

The study, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, was conducted by Jennifer L. Williams, PhD, and colleagues in the Animal Sciences Department. They attempted to scientifically investigate the common practice developed by Robert Miller, DVM, which is documented in his 1991 book, Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal.

The study was undertaken in response to questions from Texas ranchers interested in gentling their field-born foals whose first human handling was during weaning. Imprinting was conducted by five investigators with varying degrees of horsemanship, four of whom were male Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) personnel, using 131 TDC Quarter Horse (QH) or QH/Percheron cross foals born in 1999 and 2000. Objectives included determining if four imprinting sessions conducted at birth, 12, 24, and 48 hours after birth produced calmer foals as judged by their responses to various testing procedures (see sidebar below) as 6-month-olds; and identifying whether any single session specifically produced such foals.

The imprint training was generally consistent with Miller's methodology, but not identical, owing to investigators' time constraints, equipment availability, and ease of catching the foals. Foals received no further handling until they were retested as 6-month-olds.

Herb Sloan, DVM, a Kansas/Colorado-based veterinarian and Thoroughbred breeder who has imprinted numerous foals said, "the void (the break from handling) doesn't make sense. Ignoring the relationship can't be representative of imprinting's benefits." Miller said in response to this study that when imprinting is done correctly, a foal will still demonstrate imprinting training later despite lack of contact with humans.

In addition to the study's initial conclusion, the researchers suggested horse imprinting should be renamed, perhaps as "early training sessions," since "imprinting" specifically refers to young animals establishing social preferences and even attachments shortly after birth.

The study produced a number of unexplainable anomalies, including shorter test times produced by the 2000-born foals and longer test times to complete ear rubbing by foals handled in a single session immediately after birth.

The results refute anecdotal information from veterinarians, horse owners, and breeders. University of California, Davis-based Sharon Spier, DVM, PhD, associate professor in the department of medicine and epidemiology, has performed imprinting research that awaits publication. While applauding the researchers' efforts and agreeing the term "imprinting" is controversial, she said, "I do not believe that the concept of early learning in foals can be discounted based upon the findings of this study. I believe that imprint training could produce different results depending on how it is performed and how it is tested."

Spier expressed further concerns about the modifications made to Miller's established protocol and failure to test foals which were difficult to catch. But her chief concerns surrounded using different people with varying levels of horse experience and time constraints.

Citing her own experiences as a student at Texas A&M, she recalled a huge variation in horse handling methods by TDC personnel. "As all of us with horses have witnessed, having 'horse experience' does not always mean good horsemanship. The terms horse training and time constraints are usually not compatible," Spier said.

With Texas A&M's imprint training procedure, the trainer:

  • Rubbed the foal's entire body with the hands, starting with the foal's face, then rubbing the neck, chest, sides, stomach, each leg, and the rump;
  • Picked up each foot and slapped it with an open hand;
  • Rubbed the insides of the nostrils with the fingers;
  • Inserted fingers into the sides of the foal's mouth at the approximate position where a bit would later be fitted;
  • Cupped a hand in a "C" shape and rubbed it up and down the foal's ears with fingers inside the ears;
  • Lifted and moved the foal's tail up and side to side;
  • Rubbed the foal's entire body with a 0.3 x 0.3 m blue plastic bag;
  • Sprayed fly spray perpendicular to the foal's nose, approximately one meter from the foal, enabling the foal to smell the spray;
  • Held a bottle of water one meter from the foal and sprayed it, beginning directly behind the poll and moving toward the tail;
  • Haltered the foal;
  • Pushed on the foal's side until it moved away from pressure (done on both sides);
  • Taught the foal to lead three meters; and
  • Taught the foal to stand still by holding it in place until it stopped struggling against the imprint trainer.

Additional imprinting tasks used in Miller's methodology, but not done in this study:

  • Insert a finger into the foal's ear canal and move the finger around.
  • Rub the foal's lips and gums;
  • Massage the foal's tongue;
  • Flex the foal's head and neck to each side; and
  • Run the body (not the blades) of electric clippers over the foal's body to simulate clipping.

Stimuli used during the testing procedure after six months:

  • Rubbed the foal's entire body with hands starting at the face and moving toward the tail;
  • Cupped hand in a "C" shape and rubbed hand up and down the foal's ears with fingers inside the ears three times;
  • Picked up and tapped each hoof with the hand three times;
  • Sprayed fly spray one meter in front of and perpendicular to the foal's nose;
  • Standing one meter from the foal, sprayed with fly spray starting directly behind the poll and moving toward the hindquarters; and
  • Led the foal three meters.

About the Author

Meg Cicciarella

Meg Cicciarella is a freelance journalist who lives and writes in Homer, on Alaska's banana belt, the Kenai Peninsula. Her articles have appeared in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines.

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