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Foal Imprinting:  Overrated Or Miraculous?

By Jeffrey Rolo

Foal imprinting has taken the world by storm since Dr. Robert M. Miller began strongly advocating it during the early 90's. The question is: is imprinting just another fad or is its recent popularity legitimate?

I believe the real answer falls somewhere in the middle.

Dr. Miller is clearly a gifted horseman who knows the merit behind imprinting, but although he brought it to the spotlight in recent times the act itself is centuries old. Native Americans were practitioners of imprinting, speaking to foals before they were even born and handling them extensively during their first few days after birth. Clearly imprinting is a key tool in an experienced horseman's "arsenal."

So why did I suggest foal imprinting falls halfway between fad and legitimacy?

Because while the act is definitely legitimate, I have seen advocates take it to extremes that borderline on fairytale. I compare foal imprinting with the recent horse whispering craze. Some promoters of "horse whispering" suggest they hold a deep, mystical ability to communicate with horses… they hype it up far beyond what it truly is: natural horsemanship that is accessible to any horseman!

The same is true for imprinting. At its core foal imprinting is a very beneficial process that can lay down the groundwork for your future relationship with the horse, but try not to look beyond what it really is: a tool. If you do not have the opportunity to imprint your foal chances are your foal will still come out equally fine.

Exactly what is foal imprinting?

When a foal is first born there is a span of about an hour where the foal will lie down and rest before drinking his mother's milk for the first time. During this small window the foal's owner will enter the stall and rub the foal down from head to tail in order to desensitize him and form a horse-human bond.

Some handlers will stick with the basics and desensitize the foal solely to touch while others will go further and desensitize the foal to paper bags, newspapers, vacuums, clippers and insertion of a finger into the anus.

Does it work?

Yes. I have imprinted some foals before the foals were able to feed for their first time and the results were wonderful. Each of the foals was not afraid of humans and would actually leave the mother's side to approach me when I visited.

So what's the catch?

Some of the foals were born too early for me to arrive during their first hour out of the womb, so by the time I had arrived they fed once or more. I rubbed them down anyways and the results were exactly the same: the horses were not afraid of humans and viewed me as one of the herd.

And that right there is the crux of the issue. Some imprint advocates proclaim legitimate imprinting can only take place during that first hour and if you try imprinting techniques after that hour has passed you are merely "training" your foal instead. I have found no difference between those handled during their first hour and those handled during their fourth, so as far as I'm concerned it's a matter of semantics whether one "trains" or "imprints" beyond the first hour.

Semantics aside, foal imprinting is important.

You do want to visit your young foal as early as possible and expose him to your presence and touch. While I may not have found any difference in a horse that has been imprinted within one hour of birth or a couple hours after birth, I have seen a significant difference between foals imprinted within a few hours and those not imprinted at all that first day.

Do not underestimate the power of working with those foals the first few hours and days, for those are the days where the horse will be the most impressionable. The groundwork you lay there will remain with the horse forever.

But be careful!

If you imprint a horse improperly you can end up doing far more damage than good. Remember that the foal will be very impressionable at that age, so if you reassure him and desensitize him to certain actions or stimuli he will forever better respond to them. On the other hand if your desensitization attempts are done improperly such that the foal becomes traumatized or manages to resist your attempts instead, you will have set a difficult precedent to break in the future.

For that reason, I generally advise sticking with the basics. Visit the foal so he immediately sees you as a regular part of the "herd." Talk to him soothingly as you pet him down, paying particularly close attention to his head and ears since those are areas an adult horse dislikes most.

Rubbing a foal's front shoulder area and upper haunches are particularly effective if you wish to relax him. Those two areas are the same areas the dam will nuzzle to comfort her foal, and in fact if you watch horses in a herd they all focus on those areas throughout their entire lives.

Ultimately imprinting is a wonderful tool that can be performed by anyone, but if you are relatively new with horses it is recommended you purchase a couple videos or books on imprinting so that you can rest assured you do it correctly.

And if you miss that first valuable day… don't worry! Just interact with your foal as quickly as possible because whereas the foal may be a little more apprehensive as time goes by, you can ultimately develop a bond with a horse of any age.

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