Make a Lasting Imprint

It's been 14 years since the concept of foal imprinting hit the equestrian world's collective consciousness. Since then, the notion has been marketed, written about, practiced, modified, and even studied in scientific research. In short, it's been put to the test. So how has foal imprinting stood up over time and under scrutiny?

Today, numerous breeders use imprinting as part of their routine foaling procedures. Yet other people have questioned whether what most horse folks are doing is truly imprinting--and whether it really makes a difference in the way a foal perceives human beings and handles the many challenges of domesticated life. Here, we look at both sides of this still-relevant issue.

Some Background

The theory behind imprinting is that during a certain timeframe known as the "critical learning period," a young animal's brain is highly receptive to auditory and visual stimuli and can absorb and retain certain types of vital information. Nancy Diehl, VMD, assistant professor of equine science at Pennsylvania State University, explains that true imprinting helps a young animal recognize its kin, learn who to follow, where to get sustenance, and how to recognize calls from its own species.

The term imprinting was introduced by Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz, who learned that goslings would bond to whatever first moved after they hatched, be it the mother goose, a dog, or a human.

The concept of foal imprinting became prominent through Robert M. Miller, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who devotes his full time to the teaching of equine behavior and imprint training. Miller was familiar with Lorenz' work and had noticed that foals handled during difficult deliveries were later less afraid of him and less resistant to handling. Combining these pieces, Miller developed a behavior-shaping routine and literally wrote the book on the technique--Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal--published by Western Horseman in 1991.

The Basic Approach

Miller's book (now in its second edition) and subsequent video give a systematic, step-by-step guide to his imprint training technique (see Following is an overview of the process, beginning after a safe delivery.

With the foal still lying down, you (and possibly a helper or two) gently, but firmly, restrain him.

1) Handle the foal's entire body, including rubbing inside his ears, mouth, and nose. Flex his legs and gently tap his hoof soles to simulate farrier work.

2) Rub the foal all over with such items as newspapers, buzzing clippers (blades removed), spray bottles, and plastic bags.

3) Repeat the entire process on foal's opposite side.

4) Let the foal stand and nurse, then repeat the entire procedure with him standing.

The key to success lies in continuing each action until the foal is relaxed and no longer resistant. For instance, if the foal struggles to rise while you're holding him down, don't let him up until he lies quietly. If, at any stage, you release while the foal is still struggling, you teach him that resistance leads to freedom.

The Influence of Imprinting

Miller has noted four specific ways that his imprint training can impact a foal:

  • Bonding with the person doing the imprinting, so the foal views humans essentially as fellow horses, not predators;
  • Submission, since the foal learns to see the human as herd leader. However, it's important to note that the goal here is respect, not fear;
  • Desensitization to many sensory stimuli, achieved by repeatedly exposing the foal to specific stimuli until he no longer reacts; and
  • Sensitizing to other stimuli, specifically those related to equine performance, such as yielding to pressure on the head or flank.

For Stevie Manos, a trainer at Flying Colour Farms in Kensington, N.H., the benefit of imprint training is helping foals understand their relationship to humans early on, while reducing their flight and fear instincts.

Misha Nogha, who breeds Norwegian Fjords at her Shota Fjords ranch in Cove, Ore., has used a method based on Miller's technique for the past 10 years. She thinks it teaches foals that some experiences are non-threatening, which helps them tolerate similar experiences later in life.

Points of Contention

Despite her belief in Miller's method, Nogha agrees with Diehl that "imprinting" is a misnomer for the process. "I consider it more like desensitizing the foal to humans and their quirks, restraints, and such bothersome things as hair clippers, fly sprays, and ropes," says Nogha, who once experienced classical imprinting with an abandoned duckling. "It is more about introducing horses to domesticated life than actually bona fide imprinting."

One point where Miller's process differs from classical imprinting is that the procedure must be repeated as the foal grows, unlike imprinting in the wild. Miller noted that he continues imprint training for the first few days after birth, halter-breaking the foal, teaching it to stand tied, and more.

Nogha, too, follows at-birth imprinting with an expanded program of exposure. In the days following a foal's birth, she'll put a ball cap on the baby, stack traffic cones on rubber feed pans, and put balls in the water tubs. All of this, she says, teaches the foal to stop and assess new items and new situations instead of running off scared.

Diehl notes another point of contention: While research has pinpointed critical learning periods in several species, no one has scientifically defined it for horses. "We don't know how long this period lasts," she says. "Maybe it's two days, maybe you only get five minutes."

Manos and Nogha both believe that foals are particularly impressionable during the first few days after birth. But both also start their imprint training as Miller recommends, right when a foal is born, or sooner. Manos once started working with a foal whose hind legs were still inside the mare. And Nogha has begun talking to foals that are still in utero. She admits she's not sure how well it works, but recalls doing it with one foal that was then born unexpectedly, when she wasn't there to imprint him.

"When I called out 'Well, good morning!' to him just like I did when he was in utero, he whinnied at me, ran straight up to me, and acted like we were old pals," she says.

Finally, Diehl, who conducted a two-year study of Miller's method, found the strict, regimented procedure physically demanding and hard to follow to the letter, particularly since Miller's approach differs a bit depending on which book or article(s) you read. These are among the reasons she feels that few people follow Miller's plan precisely. Nogha and Manos are perfect examples. For instance, while Manos says, "Dr. Miller has an excellent approach," she adds her own elements to his method. Likewise, Nogha says, "I think Dr. Miller is giving us a good template. But I am sure everyone's approach is different, as it should be. Only you know your horses' individual needs and personalities."

But Does It Work?

The bottom-line question, of course, is whether foal imprint training really works. Anecdotal evidence indicates that, yes, it can positively influence foal behavior. Manos, for instance, says, "I know it works, because I have raised foals both ways, and the imprinted ones have respect for humans and have no fear of everyday things. They have an overall better working attitude."

Nearly three years ago, Manos imprinted four foals, each a different breed. "They all turned out the same," she says, "very easy to work with, nothing rattles them, great for the farrier and vet. They have respect for humans and know what our space is all about. I am starting all these foals under saddle, and they all act as though they are already broke."

Nogha is likewise a firm believer in the concrete benefits of imprint training, saying that it creates foals with a desire for human companionship and reduces training and horsekeeping hassles. For example, she recently clipped an imprinted foal's mane at pasture, with no halter, no fuss. She's found it similarly simple to introduce imprinted foals to wearing fly masks, accepting fly sprays, and standing quietly for the veterinarian and farrier.

Still, says Nogha, you need to remember that all horses are individuals. "Some horses just are more aloof than others no matter what you do," she says. "I still think imprint training works to your benefit, but it doesn't always work out 100% the way you intended it to."

What Science Says

Scientific studies have yielded a somewhat less rose-colored view of imprint training. It's not so much that the tactic doesn't work, say researchers, but that it doesn't appear to work any better than other foal-handling methods.

Diehl's study, for instance, involved imprinting half of a group of foals. The next year, she used full siblings to the first crop, switching the imprinted and control groups. (So if a mare's first foal was
imprinted, the second one was not and vice versa.) While all the data have yet to be analyzed, Diehl's big-picture observation is that there were no significant differences between imprinted and control foals, "and when we do applied behavior studies, we're looking for big differences," she says.

As part of the study, the foals were videotaped during haltering at one month of age and while being handled at three months of age. A group of knowledgeable college students watched the tapes and ranked the foals based on behavior, without knowing which were imprinted. Their rankings showed no difference between the imprinted and non-imprinted foals. Likewise, when the horses began training at two, their handler was not able to guess which foals had been imprinted.

Other studies support Diehl's findings. For instance, Ted Friend, PhD, Dipl. ACAABS, is a professor of animal behavior at Texas A&M University. He has completed two studies that, like Diehl's, looked at Miller's procedure. In both cases, Friend used imprinted foals and non-imprinted foals, putting them through behavioral testing at various ages. In the tests, all foals were exposed to the same stimuli used only on the imprinted foals at birth, with Friend measuring such variables as heart rate and reactions. The result in both studies: Friend saw no notable differences between the imprinted foals and the others.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

So how does Diehl reconcile the research findings with anecdotal imprinting support? She thinks people who use imprinting and end up with well-mannered horses are probably doing other things right.

In her view, repeated positive experiences are more influential than just strict imprint training at birth. She notes that in most studies she has reviewed, the control foals do catch up to imprinted foals over time. "That tells us more about what can benefit foals over the long-term," she says. "You don't have to do a regimented procedure. If you look at the controls, they were not totally unhandled. For the most part, they all saw people around. But that just shows the power of a positive experience, however it's implemented and however regimented it is." (Diehl acknowledges that differences might be more notable between an imprinted foal and one that had had no human interaction at all.)

The Bottom Line

Diehl is quick to note that her views and her research aren't intended to disparage Miller's method. "The important issue is, what can we learn?" she says. "Can we define an imprint period? What is the minimal positive interaction that will result in a horse that's maybe more compliant with specific procedures? Miller has raised some good questions."

Her only concern is with people who become too focused on doing the procedure exactly by the book, with no accommodation for the individual handler or horse. "In one person's hands the procedure will work better than for another person," she says. But overall, she adds, "If this has made people more aware of better handling, if it helps people provide better welfare to horses and results in better horse handling, there can't be anything wrong with that."

Addressing Imprinting Concerns

Some people have raised concerns over potential drawbacks of Miller's imprinting method. Here, we address three prevalent worries.

Concern--Imprinting interferes with mare-foal bonding.

Reality--Miller's approach encourages handlers to position mare and foal nose-to-nose, to allow bonding. Misha Nogha, who breeds Norwegian Fjords at her Shota Fjords ranch in Cove, Ore.; Stevie Manos, a trainer at Flying Colour Farms in Kensington, N.H.; and Nancy Diehl, VMD, an assistant professor of equine science at Pennsylvania State University, have seen no evidence that imprinting disrupts mare-foal bonding or that mares get upset about the human presence or handling of the foal. Diehl also found that it took no longer for imprinted foals to nurse than for non-imprinted foals. However, Diehl notes that her study, at least, used only experienced broodmares and that first-time mothers might react differently.

Concern--Imprinted foals don't respect humans.

Reality--A properly imprinted foal might lose its fear of humans, but should not lose respect. If a foal does try to engage you in horseplay--nipping, kicking, rearing, and so on--Nogha says, "You must be fast and forceful [in showing] that this is not acceptable behavior with humans. If you want to see how fast or forceful, you should watch the mare."

Concern--Imprinted foals grow into unresponsive, slow learners.

Reality--Miller's procedure recommends not desensitizing the horse in key areas, such as where your leg will rest when riding, so the foal remains sensitive and responsive in those places. In addition, Miller teaches the foal in subsequent days to move away from light stimuli.--Sushil Dulai Wenholz


About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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