Foal Imprinting

A mare goes into labor. Powerful and swift contractions expel a foal that,  for a short time, lies helpless in the straw or on the grass. A handler quietly approaches the wet creature that is drawing its first breaths. This human, foreign to the foal, as is everything else in its environment, kneels beside it and begins toweling the newborn dry and running gentle hands over its body.

Cheryl Manista

Desensitization is a gradual process wherein you eliminate the response to a stimulus by repeating the same stimulus until there is no longer a response.

The rubbing and touching are called imprinting.

Can this procedure at birth convince a horse to stand quietly later on in life when it is being shod? Can one, at this early stage, teach the horse to accept being saddled and ridden with little or no resistance when it reaches two or three years of age? Can one, in that first hour after birth, teach the foal to yield to rectal palpation, being tubed, having its muzzle clipped and its ears handled, even though those procedures occur later in life?

Yes, says Robert M. Miller, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., providing that the foal has been properly imprinted immediately after birth.

Sound preposterous? The answer to that question, too, is yes, but only if you have never talked to Miller, read his books, or watched his video.

Miller is a fascinating man who is dedicated to the animals he has cared for through the years, especially horses and mules. Almost single-handedly, he has changed the way in which thousands of horse owners around the world now look at handling their foals immediately after birth.

First, a brief biography to introduce this equine pioneer.

The Man Behind The Technique

Miller received his Bachelor of Science degree in animal husbandry from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture in 1951 and his DVM from Colorado State University in 1956. He was a general practitioner for all species from 1956 through 1987. In 1958, he became founder and chief of staff of Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic in California. He held that post until his "retirement" in 1987.

Today, he is a writer and lecturer with dozens of magazine articles to his credit, along with a number of books, a video, and hundreds of cartoons.

Perhaps the book that brought him to the attention of many horse owners was Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, published by Western Horseman in 1991. The book celebrated its eighth printing last year.

In the book, Miller outlined a step-by-step approach for handling a foal in the first hours after its birth. To many readers, his approach was totally new and innovative and, perhaps to some, a bit far-fetched.

However, horse owners by the thousands tried it and found out that it worked. Today, Miller is in demand around the world as owners in many breeds want to learn more about this amazing, yet simple approach.

Just recently, for example, he conducted a seminar for the Japan Racing Association as that progressive group indicated it wanted to adopt his imprinting techniques for foals which are born in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Is it a miracle approach that this man defined and refined after a visionary experience? Not at all. It developed slowly in his mind over a period of years, and it is based on a strong foundation of equine psychology.

Miller says he was like most horsemen in the '60s, who thought that handling foals shortly after birth could be detrimental. A major fear was that the mare would reject her offspring because of the foreign human odor that would be left behind.

However, Miller had an open and inquisitive mind as he began to ponder experiences that cast doubt on this bit of folklore.

"I noticed in my early practice years," he says, "that when I had to assist in the delivery of a foal--manipulating his position in the mare, pulling him out, and then toweling him dry and treating him--that such a foal behaved differently when I saw him again."

The "again" was usually about three weeks later, when the youngster was vaccinated and dewormed for the first time.

Miller could sense and see a difference in attitude in these foals which at first puzzled him. They were less afraid of him and put up little resistance when he vaccinated and dewormed them.

Equine Behavior

He couldn't dismiss the matter from his mind and began reading and studying about animal behavior. His first introduction to the word "imprinting" came in the written reports of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian scientist. Lorenz spent a good deal of time studying newly hatched geese. He found that the goslings were programmed to attach themselves and follow the first thing that moved after they emerged from the egg.

Normally, this would be the mother goose that had laid the eggs and sat on them to maturation. However, if the mother goose were removed from the scene, the goslings would bond to anything else that moved in their vicinity immediately after hatching, be it a dog, human, or even an inanimate object.

At first, it was thought, this sort of imprinting occurred only in birds. Continued research by Lorenz and other scientists, however, demonstrated that the process occurs among a wide variety of animals.

This led to another term that Miller uses extensively when discussing imprinting of foals--"critical learning period." It is during this time that the brains of animals and humans are highly receptive to certain types of information.

It has been proven, says Miller, that at the time a child learns to talk, it can be taught five or more languages simultaneously and will learn to speak each one fluently, complete with proper accent, for the rest of its life.

In dogs, the critical learning period, he says, is five to seven weeks of age. The critical learning period for them is delayed because they are born physically and neurologically immature. Puppies are born deaf, blind, and helpless. The same is true of many other animals, as well as birds of prey.

Other species, if they are to survive in the wild, must be able to detect and respond to danger immediately after birth. These animals, says Miller, are known as "precocious" species. A member of this group is the newborn foal.

The horse is a prey animal whose greatest weapon against predators is flight. In order to survive, foals in the wild must be able to get to their feet and flee when danger is detected, even though they might be only an hour old.

Nature has been generous and kind in equipping the horse in its battle against predators. In addition to unique eyesight and keen hearing, the foal is born neurologically mature.

"The foal, immediately after being born," reports Miller, "can see, hear, feel, and smell almost as well as a mature horse."

This means, he says, that the foal is ready and able to learn, even though it is lying helpless in the straw. What the foal learns during this "critical learning period," Miller maintains, will be with it for life. "What a horse learns, he never forgets."

He takes it a step further. Through the years, he says, he noticed that when he had to examine and manipulate foals while still inside the mare, the youngsters, after birth, did not show the usual fearful response when being touched.

"I believe they can become imprinted, or at least desensitized to the touch of the human hand, before birth," he states.


As Miller became convinced that imprinting immediately after birth was not only possible, but beneficial, he began expounding on his theories to anyone who would listen. It was slow going at first, but then came his book, complete with how-to photos; and the floodgates opened. Today, for example, a number of major Thoroughbred farms in the United States and throughout the world have adopted Miller's imprinting approach.

Four prime goals are accomplished with imprint training, Miller believes. They are:

1. Bonding with humans.

2. Desensitization to certain stimuli.

3. Sensitization to other stimuli.

4. Submission to humans.

There is a word of caution. Simply seeking to imprint a young foal at birth is not enough. It is a procedure that must be done correctly if it is to be effective. What a horse learns during the imprinting period will stay with it for life, Miller says. So, one can quickly realize, the lessons taught must be the right ones if the learning is to have positive, rather than negative, results as the horse grows and matures.

For example, he points out, if you are working on a foal's ear to desensitize it and the process is stopped when the animal is jerking its head away, the foal will have learned to jerk its head away whenever that ear is handled in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Timing is critical in the imprinting procedure. It must begin immediately after birth. Miller was so concerned about this point and other mistakes that he felt were being made by people eager to employ his method, that he followed publication of the book with an article in Western Horseman.

"If imprint training is done within the first hour following birth," he writes, "the foal will develop a powerful bond for the person doing the training. This occurs because contact has been made within the imprinting period and the foal will want to follow and respect the human involved, just as he will his dam.

"Some people mistakenly think they are imprinting when they apply the imprint technique on foals who are one or more days of age. You can certainly train a foal at any age, and the younger he is, the faster he will learn. You can also obtain bonding from horses at any age, but actual imprinting can only occur right after birth.

"Some people also feel that if they are unable to imprint train a foal right after he is born, there is no point in applying the techniques later. This is not true. As I just mentioned, the younger a foal is when he is handled and trained, the easier it is. So do not hesitate to apply the imprint training techniques in the first few days after a foal's birth; just do not call it imprint training."

In one sequence in his video, Miller begins working with a foal before the umbilical cord has been severed.

Ideally, he says, three people should be involved in the process--one to hold the mare so that she doesn't injure the handlers or the foal, and two to work with the foal.

The preferred position for foal and mare, says Miller, is nose to nose. The mare is thus able to keep the foal within touch, sight, and smell, and bonding can occur between them as she sniffs and begins licking it.

As Miller delved into his studies on imprinting, he quickly dismissed the bit of folklore concerning rejection of the foal by the mare if the youngster is handled by humans at birth. The opposite is true, he maintains.

"It is usually young mares that reject their foals, and they do it out of fear," he says. "They are afraid of this strange creature that is in their stall."

If a human is present and is working with the foal right after birth, he continues, it gives the mare confidence. Her fear vanishes and she accepts the foal.

If one considers the actions of horses in the wild, Miller says, it helps one to understand why a foal can bond to a human as well as to its dam.

"I believe that the foal is programmed to attach to and follow with whatever is moving and looms above him during the first postpartum hour," he writes in his imprint training book. "Normally, this is the mare, which is good, because when a foal in the wild is on his feet, he will be imprinted to follow, bond with, and stay close to his mother. This helps to ensure his survival.

"In a herd of wild horses, the newborn foal is also exposed to other horses in the herd, and he soon bonds with the herd. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the newborn foal can, as he bonds with his dam, simultaneously bond with other individuals around him, whether they be horses, human beings, dogs, or ducks. This is exactly what can and does occur if a human works with a foal as soon as he is born.

"Allowing the mare to lick and care for the foal is important, but if a human looms above the prone foal just as the mare does, rubs and strokes the foal, and handles his nose and mouth, that foal will be bonded with the human just as he is with his mother.

"This bonding is independent of feeding. The foal quickly learns where the source of milk is, whether it is the mare's udder or, in the case of an aglactic (no milk) mare, from a bottle or bucket. Bonding involves an attachment to the individual, whether it be horse or human, that signifies trust, security, and companionship.

"Imprinted foals will often leave their mothers in pasture and come to the person who did the imprinting. This factor alone greatly facilitates subsequent procedures because the fear factor is removed at birth and the foal wants to be directed by the trainer."

Imprinting, Miller adds, does not remove all fear from the foal. It remains a prey animal that will still run from frightening stimuli, be it visual, hearing, touch, or smell. Imprinting, he emphasizes, simply removes fear of the person involved, placing that individual in the same category as the foal's mother.

The Technique

Miller begins the imprinting process by kneeling in the straw, or on the ground, with the foal's back against his knees and the head flexed so that the foal is unable to get to its feet. He controls the head by grasping the youngster's muzzle, careful not to obstruct breathing in either nostril, and tipping the nose back toward the withers. It is important to keep the foal's back to you, says Miller, in order to prevent being kicked if the youngster should lash out with front or rear feet.

With the foal in that position, Miller towels it dry, all the while allowing the mare to sniff and lick her offspring. Once that is done, he begins the desensitization process.

However, even before desensitizing begins, the foal is learning something that it will carry with it all through life--submission to a human handler. By not allowing the foal to get to its feet, Miller explains, the handler is establishing himself or herself as the dominant force in the foal's life.

Horses are herd animals with a definite pecking order in place. Once that pecking order is established, there is little fighting in the group. Each horse knows its place and maintains it unless or until a new member is added. At that point, there will be a shuffling about, complete with pinned ears and threatening attitudes, until the newcomer is assimilated and has taken its position somewhere in the pecking order.

A dominant horse in a group, says Miller, establishes that dominance by controlling the movement of other members. This can mean both forcing the other horse to move or prohibiting movement. If, for example, a horse that is lower in the pecking order is at the water tank or a choice bit of grass, it will immediately move away when the dominant horse approaches.

"When we control movement," says Miller, "we establish our leadership in the foal's mind. When we control motion, we control the horse's mind."

With the foal in the grasp of the handler, it is learning submission and respect, but not fear. "Nothing I do to that foal," says Miller, "causes it pain."

No pain. No fear. Just submission and respect.

Once Miller has toweled the foal dry, he begins the desensitizing process in earnest, starting with the head. He rubs his hands gently over the entire head and face. The term used at this point is "flooding." The foal is literally flooded with tactile stimuli.

There is another term with which to become familiar at this point--habituation. Technically, says Miller, habituation and desensitization are not synonymous, but he uses them interchangeably in discussing imprinting.

"Desensitization is a gradual process wherein habituation refers to the elimination of the response to a stimulus by repeating the same stimulus until there is no longer a response...I use the terms interchangeably. If we can eliminate a horse's normal fearful reaction to frightening sounds, sights, and tactile sensations, the end result is the same--and it is a desirable result."

An example of habituation in humans, Miller says, can be sleeping in a room with a clock that ticks loudly. After a time, the person becomes so used to the sound that it is no longer noticed. It would only be noticed if the ticking should stop.

Back to the imprinting process.

Once Miller begins the desensitizing process, he does not stop until he feels a definite relaxation on the part of the foal. The foal must be flooded with the stimuli until it becomes habituated or desensitized.

"You cannot overdo the stimuli," Miller emphasizes, "but you can underdo them."

If one stops the stimuli before the foal is habituated, the exact opposite result from that desired will be manifested. Instead of being desensitized to a particular touch, the foal will be sensitized to it and will react to that stimuli in what might be a negative way for the rest of its life.

Each stimulus must be repeated until the foal no longer resists and lies submissively in the straw or on the grass in a completely relaxed state.

After working on the face and head of the foal, including the poll, Miller moves to the ears. He rubs and massages each ear until the foal is desensitized to having them touched. There is no excuse, he maintains, for horses that do not want their ears touched. All it takes is time and patience during the imprinting process right after birth.

After finishing with the ears, Miller moves to the mouth and nostrils. He inserts his finger in each nostril and wiggles it about until the foal becomes completely desensitized. This paves the way, he says, for an unresisting horse if a stomach tube must be passed through the nasal area later in life.

Next comes the mouth, as he inserts a finger and rubs it back and forth on the gums and lip corners, along the underside of the upper lip and over the tongue. The foal is being prepared for carrying a bit in its mouth and for having its teeth examined as it grows toward maturity.

Just how much wiggling and inserting is required before habituation occurs varies from foal to foal, but repetition rates generally run from 30 to 100, he says.

There also is a variation in how much the foal struggles to get up during the process. Some foals are so strong-willed and sturdy that it requires two handlers to keep them lying down while stimuli is applied. Others are very passive and accept the procedure with little or no resistance.

As a rule, Miller has found, the more strong-willed foals will be faster learners in the later training phases.

Next comes the neck. Miller rubs and massages both sides of the neck, including the mane. He moves from there to the withers and back, moving all the way to the base of the tail. Then he does the tail and the perineum--the area directly under the base of the tail.

When he has achieved the desired result--total acceptance and relaxation--in those areas, he moves to the shoulder and legs. When the legs are handled and flexed, the foal might choose to struggle, and care must be taken by the handler to avoid being kicked or struck, thus the position at the horse's back. Miller starts by rubbing his hand over the shoulder, rib cage, and chest, then proceeding down to the foreleg. He bends and straightens the leg repeatedly until the foal accepts the handling and its leg becomes flaccid, totally devoid of tension. Throughout its life, the imprinted horse will allow its feet to be picked up and its legs manipulated without resistance.

There is one area Miller does not try to desensitize. That is the area where a rider in the future will apply leg pressure or the touch of the spur. Here he wants just the opposite effect--being sensitized rather than desensitized.

As Miller works on the legs, he provides a bit of stimuli that will gladden the heart of the youngster's farrier in the future. Holding the limb at the pastern, he firmly taps the bottom of the foot with the palm of his hand 50 or more times. This procedure, he says, desensitizes the horse to future pounding when the hooves are trimmed and shod.

He also desensitizes the groin area. In the case of females, it allows a handler to check the udder in the future without the mare resisting and removes any danger of a foal not being allowed to nurse when the female matures and bears young. In the case of stallions and geldings, the desensitizing allows for cleaning of the sheath without resistance when the animal reaches maturity.

Miller also works on the rectal area to desensitize both males and females for rectal palpation in the future. He dons a surgical glove, covers a finger with lubricant, and gently inserts that finger into the foal's anus, wiggling it about until the foal relaxes and pays it no mind.

When Miller has finished one side of the foal, he rolls it over and repeats the procedure on the other side because, as he explains, the horse's brain is unable to transfer knowledge concerning one side of the body to the other side.

Once Miller has the foal desensitized to the touch of his hands, it is time to move on to more sophisticated stimuli. He rubs the foal's body with newspaper and plastic; runs electric clippers around its face and legs, though he doesn't actually do any clipping; sprays the foal's body with warm water; and fluffs its hair with a blow dryer.

The amount of time involved in the imprinting process varies, but normally it takes about one hour. The key, says Miller, is to take all the time required so that desensitization, rather than sensitization, occurs.

The goal, he said, is to convince the youngster at this early stage that a human handler can invade its space and touch and manipulate any part of its body, but that the foal must never use its mouth or teeth on a human, nor invade a human handler's space.

Miller continues his training for the next couple of days after imprinting. By the time he is finished, the foal is halter broken, will stand while tied, and will move backward, forward, and from side to side with only light stimuli.

The results of imprinting and early training, he emphasizes, are permanent, and the foal will grow into a horse which is unafraid, but respectful of humans, and one that is easily trained for whatever discipline best suits it.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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