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Could Foal Imprinting Be Detrimental?

By Jeffrey Rolo

Few would disagree that foal imprinting can lay down an invaluable foundation of trust and respect between horse and owner, but could it be possible that the imprinting process could actually serve as a detriment too? You might be surprised to hear the answer is yes.

An old adage states a person can have too much of a good thing and although some of us might love to disagree with that statement there is an underlying truth that cannot be denied. Such is also the case with foal imprinting.

When we imprint a foal we are in effect "rewriting" nature's design. Horses are prey animals that possess an inherent fear of potential threats to the herd (i.e., humans), and imprinting is an attempt change this natural instinct and make the horse view you (and humans as a whole) as part of its herd.

Whereas the general concept is fine, you do not want to completely wipe out a horse's natural instincts since a horse devoid of them will be at a liability. A good comparison would be a lesson that many parents give to their children: do not trust strangers. In teaching this lesson the parent isn't trying to create a basket case that is afraid of all people, but the parent does make sure the child realizes that unfamiliar people can be potential threats. They try to place a natural apprehension in children, and it is this apprehension that could eventually protect a child from a future "predator."

If a foal is stripped of all natural fears three difficulties are created:

  1. The foal could naively embrace potential dangers rather than allow his flight instinct to protect him.
  2. The foal can view you (and other humans) as an equal rather than a superior, thereby causing him to behave in a brassy manner towards you and potentially harming you.
  3. The foal's fearlessness and overconfidence will make training much more difficult.

The first difficulty was already touched upon with the child analogy, so let's take a closer look at the second difficulty now. You want your horse to possess a certain degree of fear of you (or respect, if fear is too harsh a term), because if he is completely fearless he will view you as an equal and a playmate. It's natural to ask, "What's so bad about that? Don't we want our horse to be fully comfortable with us?" While it's true that such loyalty and devotion is heart warming, it's important to remember that horses are big animals and whereas their horseplay with another colt causes no harm, it can hurt us!

You do not want a colt nipping your arm, running into you, etc. because even as a youngster it can hurt, but as the horse gets older and develops more strength and weight it will become progressively more dangerous.

Fear is also a necessary tool when you start training your horse because technically you are using your authority and "force" to convince your horse to submit and respect your wishes. If your horse possesses absolutely no fear or wariness of you or your potential power, when you attempt to longe him or make him move off in a round pen there's a good chance he will not. After all, you're just his little buddy who can't do any harm to him.

Ultimately when you are imprinting your horse you are showing the horse that he need not fear you, but don't ever let him lose his fear of your potential authority or force. He should look upon you as a kind and caring leader that demands respect and can bring him back into line should he act up.

And finally we come full circle to why foal imprinting could actually become detrimental. It is not a good idea to imprint in such a way that you strip away all fear from the newborn foal. You should maintain that fine balance by letting the foal know he need not fear you, but he must respect you. He should not fear you, but he should hold a healthy respect for your authority.

Or to summarize it quickly, don't ever make the mistake of becoming his playmate (which is all too easy during those first days where foals are cute and harmless). Let him know from his first contact with you that you are, and always will be, his leader.

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