Most breeders have their own pet theories and approaches to the training of foals – usually based on their own practical experience, over a period of time, of what works, and what doesn’t. The ultimate aim for all those involved in the breeding world must be to produce easy, trainable foals who, as they develop and encounter new experiences, are curious rather than fearful, relaxed rather than anxious. There are endless debates about how to achieve this; how much handling and training foals should receive in their first few weeks; and, of course, the influence of temperament .....
An approach that generated a lot of controversy when it was first described in his 1991 book “Imprint Training of the Foal” the US vet Dr Robert Miller suggests that a more structured system of working with foals from the moment of their birth can develop exactly the type of relaxed, trainable youngster that we all aspire to produce. Ever since the publication of his book, and subsequent writing on neo-nates, natural horsemanship, and working with horses, his theory of what he termed “Imprinting” has divided the breeding world, especially in the United States, with some passionate adherents, and others equally strongly opposed to the approach. We thought that it would be interesting to take a further look at the impact of his theories, particularly through the eyes of breeders who have used the technique of imprinting with real success, and those who have serious reservations about it.
Define Your Terms! (And the Case of the Yellow Boots)
Some of the controversy and confusion surrounding foal imprinting may have been generated by the terminology. “Imprinting” is most often associated with the zoologist Konrad Lorenz, and those great pictures of him followed by flocks of young Greylag geese – they had adopted him as their mother because, having been hatched in an incubator, the first objects that they saw upon hatching and learnt to associate with a “parent” were Lorenz’ feet in bright yellow boots. Those boots represented their mother, and they were programmed to follow them faithfully. And there’s the clue – the term was first used in the 19th Century by the biologist Douglas Spalding, and Lorenz built upon his work, applying the term particularly to flocking birds, who need to be able to identify their parent very quickly after hatching. Lorenz identified what he called a “critical period” after hatching when the young Greylag would learn to recognise its parent’s unique voice, outline, and characteristics – all essential for survival. Almost all young creatures go through the same process of filial imprinting, often starting in the womb – researchers have realised, for instance, that human babies learn to recognise their mother’s voice whilst still in the womb.
But the process of foal imprinting as described by Dr Miller is actually rather different from the way the term is used by biologists and psychologists, and that might well have caused some confusion. It is unlikely that breeders would be keen to convince a newborn foal that they were the mother, rather than the mare, but many sceptics see that as a risk!
Dr Miller does draw upon the idea of a “critical learning period” after birth, but his proposed techniques are closer to what biologists would call “Habituation” – the repetition of certain behaviours that are rewarding – and “Desensitisation”, most famously associated with Pavlov and his dogs! “Systematic desensitisation” has been used by psychologists for many years to treat deep-seated anxieties and phobias. Dr Miller’s approach seems much closer to this treatment than to what has traditionally been understood by “imprinting”.
So What is It?
Dr Miller describes imprinting as offering “a singular opportunity to permanently mould a horse’s personality. For a short time, the new born foal is programmed to imprint stimuli. The right procedures at the right time yield dramatic results”
As he originally conceived it, imprinting involved a highly regimented handling procedure done at birth, and then repeated and developed over a period of several weeks. So immediately following birth, the foal is gently held down and the handler carefully probes the baby’s gums, teeth, ears, mouth, nose and rectum. The foal’s feet are handled and tapped, and in subsequent sessions distracting sounds are introduced, clippers are held against the foal’s body, and it is exposed to other potentially “scary” experiences and sounds – like flapping plastic, and paper crinkled against its skin. The initial session can take up to an hour, so many people prefer to allow the foal to have its first feed before working with it; others milk the mare and bottle feed the foal its first colostrum before the imprinting session. Over the next 12 hours, two more 5 or 10 minute sessions are recommended, followed by 10 minutes once a day. Handlers are urged “not to quit while the foal resists”.
Miller argues that this approach leads to the foal bonding with both its mother and the handler – seeing humans not as predators, but as fellow horses. During imprinting, the foal cannot escape exposure to frightening stimuli, becoming “submissive and dependent in its attitude”, seeing the handler as a dominant horse or herd leader.
Monster or Miracle Horse????
If, by now, you are beginning to feel deeply uneasy about the whole process – you are not alone! Dr R D Scoggins, of the University of Illinois, describes how native Americans would “familiarise” the foal to the voice of its owner by talking to it before it was born, and then handling the foal regularly on a daily basis post-birth: what they did not practise was the sort of intrusive and enforced contact described by Dr Miller. “Some people”, he says, “try to see how many things they can get their horse desensitised to until, eventually, they get the horse desensitised to life!” He argues that horses need their protective mechanisms of flight or fight that can then be channelled and harnessed in the training process – to teach them to lunge, to go forward, 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” There is also the risk of inexperienced handlers turning the sessions into “play”, producing a horse which still thinks it’s great fun to leap all over you when its fully grown! A breeder posting their experience on the Chronicles of the Horse forum describes how they went to town on imprinting when their first foal was born, and created a monster: “To this day he much prefers the company of a human over an equine. He has zero respect for personal space”.
Peter Rossdale, in his classic book “Horse Breeding” describes the sequence of behaviours that the newborn foal goes through, and argues that these are “essential for survival .... It may be easily disturbed by external influences, such as managerial interference. For example, someone wearing a brown overall, handling the foal before it has established knowledge of its dam, may become the object of the foal’s care-seeking behaviour. Foals may become confused during the first hours after being born and fail to develop a strong bond with the mare. In some cases this could be due to brain damage, but it seems that the strength of instinct varies with the individual and it is to those foals with weak instincts that managerial influence can, in itself, do harm.
The same variation of strength is found in the maternal instinct, so it is important for management to ensure that no action is taken that may prevent, interfere with or break mare/foal and foal/mare relationships.”
A number of replies on the Chronicles of the Horse forum to an enquiry about imprinting the newborn foal supported the principle of imprinting; one poster says of her imprinted foals that they all have grown up to be wonderful horses or ponies – “respectful, having a ton of heart, and very trusting of everyone. NONE of them have been pushy, rude, belligerent, or invaded my space.” But, interestingly, she seemed to use a “Miller Lite” approach – not interfering in the bonding between mare and foal immediately after the birth, leaving the initial imprinting session until the following morning, reinforcing with 2 or 3 short sessions each day.
It seems as though the original imprinting technique, initially adopted enthusiastically by some breeders in the U.S, has never really taken off in the U.K. And Dr Miller himself is now advocating a more consistent approach to handling and desensitisation, perhaps alarmed by the numbers of less experienced handlers using the technique.