Horse Health

Can Imprinting Go Too Far?

by Sarah Probst
Imprinting is beneficial if done right, but dangerous if done wrong warns Dr. R.D. Scoggins, equine Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
As soon as a foal is born, the mare starts nuzzling to teach the foal that it
is a horse. Humans have learned to use this time when a foal can be
imprinted –  the first 24 to 48 hours of its life – to benefit human-equine interaction as the horse matures.
Certain North American Indians spoke to horses before they were born and handled foals daily during the first few days after birth. California veterinarian Robert M. Miller has popularized this practice of imprinting through numerous publications including his book Imprint Training.
“He came to the conclusion – and a lot of equine veterinary practitioners agree with him – that foals handled directly after birth are quieter and easier to handle than foals with no immediate human contact,” says Dr. Scoggins.
“Imprinting can prepare the foal to live in our world and tolerate a lot of
the things we do to horses, such as inserting a nasogastric tube, placing a
rectal thermometer, clipping the coat, working with the head, or trimming
the feet. If you stop there, imprinting is not a bad thing.”
But some people try to see how many things they can get their horse desensitized to until, eventually, they get the horse desensitized to life. Some foals get so submissive that they end up with no protective mechanisms. But we need those protective mechanisms in the training process. The flight syndrome, for example, is used to teach a horse to longe, 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.
“Some people don’t like the fact that the foal has to be submissive for
the short time required for imprinting. When a foal struggles, these
people release it, but they are only teaching the foal that it can struggle
and get released. This idea gets imprinted on the foal and is extremely
difficult to extinguish.”
Poorly imprinted horses may be impossible to train. “I know a trainer who had never encountered a horse he couldn’t change until, in some of the western states, he ran into about 50 poorly imprinted horses in one year. They don’t respond to the normal things that a horse responds to.”
“Do not attempt imprinting on your own unless you accept the consequences, which may be an unusable horse,” Dr. Scoggins warns.
“I recommend Dr. Miller’s approach, which is a less aggressive imprinting technique. When you first begin, have an experienced imprinter on hand 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 tying her to the wall. She should face the foal and be so positioned that the people working on the foal will not be endangered if the mare gets upset.”
Imprinting can be done as soon as the foal is dried off. Everything you do
to the foal should be continued until the foal submits. If you flex a leg and
tap on it, imitating shoeing or trimming, do not let the foot loose while the
foal struggles. After the foal submits and totally relaxes, then release the
foot. If you release it when the foal struggles, you're teaching the animal
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, though, it really isn't imprinting; it’s more habituation,” Dr. Scoggins explains.
Imprinting is a learning process, occurring during the critical time soon after birth, in which a long-term behavior pattern is established. Habituation, by contrast, is the process of repeatedly exposing an animal to something until that thing no longer causes the animal to react.
Imprinting is not a substitute for handling and training your new foal. With supervision and moderation, imprinting merely provides a window of time in your foal's life that can be used to make the horse easier to handle and train. Before attempting to imprint your own foals, consult an experienced imprinter, a veterinarian who understands the subject, and Dr. Miller’s learning aids. rh horse logo
For more information:
Sarah Probst is an information specialist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. This article appeared in the Rural Heritage.
This article appeared in The Spring 1999 issue.

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