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Does Imprinting Make A Better Horse?

By Jeffrey Rolo

"Imprinted from birth!" You are bound to hear those words often when looking over young horses at various farms. But do these words really mean much? The answer may surprise you... in most cases these words won't mean much.

(For those of you who may be new to horses and/or unfamiliar with the term imprinting, when one imprints a horse one spends an hour or so as soon as possible after the birth of a foal touching sensitive areas such as the legs and ears, thereby desensitizing him for the future.)

The University of Washington conducted a study to see if there was a sizeable advantage for an imprinted horse versus a non-imprinted foal. Six foals were imprinted while six were not during a breeding season, and after weaning the foals the result of this study was that the imprinted stock did not behave any better or different than the non-imprinted stock. An imprinting advocate was invited to see for herself the results of this study, and was asked to point out which of two horses was imprinted. The advocate chose wrong.

This supports the results I have seen at my farm in the past. I have imprinted some of my foals and I have given minimal human interaction with some of my other foals until their weaning period. I have yet to see one imprinted foal that is more people-oriented or better behaved than my non-imprinted ones. Within a couple days, the newly weaned non-imprinted foal is just as friendly and easy to work with as an imprinted one.

Imprinting does generally succeed in showing the new foal you are not a threat, but done improperly imprinting will go beyond that - it will show the new foal you are an equal. I have seen loving horse owners coddle their young weanling from day one with the very best of intentions and get some undesirable results, namely a young foal that bites and kicks. The young foal wasn't at all behaving in this manner out of mean-spiritedness - quite the contrary. The young foal saw its owner as a playmate and equal and was simply trying to play. But while the old "nip and run" routine may prove fun among horses, it can hurt when the horse plays with you in the same manner.

One must always maintain a leader/follower relationship with a horse, even when the foal is one-day old! Imprinting serves to throw away fear of humans, and it is vital you replace that fear with respect. If you don't discipline "naughty" behavior adequately when they are young, they will grow up with these habits and it will be that much harder to eliminate them. I would rather start working with a slightly nervous foal than an improperly imprinted foal, for the nervous foal will show a healthy respect from the very first minute, and become just as trusting as the imprinted foal within a few days.

This isn't to say imprinting is bad - it isn't. Who among us isn't thrilled at the prospect of being a new parent and spending time with the new foal? As long as one establishes a leader/follower relationship with the new foal once the foal starts becoming "frisky" there's no reason why one shouldn't imprint a foal.

But at the same time, if you don't have the time to imprint your foal don't kick yourself over it. Allowing baby to stay with mother until the foal is ready to be weaned is perfectly acceptable, and you will still have as nice a horse as an imprinted one in the end. While many seem to imply the first hours - the imprinting hours - are the most impressionable hours in a young horse's life, I disagree. Personal experience has shown that the weaning period is the most impressionable, for that is the point where the young horse is taken away from mother and is open to finding a "replacement" to fit his mother's shoes - and that replacement will be you.

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