In the early 90’s, imprinting foals became widely popular, due in large part to Dr. Robert M. Miller’s support. And, as with any technique, there are people who swear by it and people who are obstinately opposed to it.
Let’s look at both sides of the story.
When did imprinting begin? The history of imprinting goes back long before Dr. Miller’s book and advocacy. Native Americans are said to have routinely talked to foals in utero and handled them immediately after birth. Other cultures also had similar practices, recognizing that these baby horses grew up to be less afraid of human interaction if handled at a young age. So, needless to say, it’s not exactly a “fad.”
What is the current-day definition of foal imprinting? In the general sense, imprinting refers to the act of desensitizing the newborn foal to touch all over their body, and often includes rubbing them with other objects, such as newspaper and plastic. Most will say that this has to be done within 24 hours of birth, and as early after birth as possible.
What are the benefits of imprinting? It is a great way to bond with your new horse and to gain its trust. He will also be less “spooky” around the objects used in the process. It can lay the groundwork for your relationship with each other.
Why would anyone choose not to imprint? If done incorrectly, the result may be a horse that is largely nonreactive to anything, or he may be traumatized to the interaction. If you are not careful, the horse will see you as an equal and will treat you as such. If you fail to replace the fear you took away with respect, to him you are merely a playmate.
What now? Imprinting can be a valuable tool if used correctly. If you have been imprinting for years and have appreciated the bond it gives you and your horse, then by all means, continue. If this is your first horse and your first act of training, you might want to reconsider. Your horse is not going to be un-handleable if you don’t imprint. As the University of Washington discovered, there were no behavior differences after weaning between foals that were imprinted and those that were not. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t interact with the newborn, though. He should hear your voice and feel your touch as soon as possible, just don’t get overwhelmed by the thought of having to imprint.
Have any success (or horror) stories about imprinting? Share them!
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Photoby Laura Hutchinson, website designer of Mel-O-Dee Stables and passionate photographer.