As foaling season approaches, one of the topics that frequently arises is whether it is desirable to “imprint” the new foal. “Imprint training” is a term used to describe a technique developed and popularized by the notable veterinarian Dr. Robert Miller. This technique requires human handling of the foal immediately after birth (before it has stood and nursed), and performing a strictly regimented series of handling procedures while the foal is kept lying on its side. Because of the worldwide popularity of this concept, a fair amount of research has been conducted to evaluate its validity and usefulness to the horse-owning community. A review of this research was presented by Dr. Nancy Diehl of Pennsylvania at the American Association of Equine Practitioners meeting held December 2005 in Seattle.
The term “imprinting” is used in quotation marks here because any learning that may occur during early intensive handling of foals is not equivalent to imprinting observed in other species. A good example of true imprinting is the duckling that is hatched and initially cared for by a human which then follows the human and does not socialize normally with its own species. The negative implications of such behavior by a foal are many and obvious. Such a foal would require bottle-feeding, would undergo undue stress if left alone in a stall and would not adapt well to a herd situation. For this reason, scientists, including Dr. Miller, have replaced the term “imprint training” with “early intensive handling.”
According to Dr. Miller, his technique of early intensive handling of foals results in foals that learn desired behaviors (tolerance to halters, clippers and handling of feet and legs, etc.) that will not be forgotten by that individual for the rest of its life. In addition, the foal will bond with and submit to humans and be more compliant to all future handling and training. If that sounds too good to be true, it will come as no surprise that the reviewed research did not provide good substantiation of Dr. Miller’s assertions.
In her review of ten published studies and her own unpublished data, Dr. Diehl found “no consistent, positive findings connected to early intensive handling with regard to compliance and long-term benefits in training or in reaction to novelty or potentially fearful situations.” In other words, imprinted or not, foals will show resistance to routine handling procedures during their early training and will still spook from traditionally “scary” objects.
The researchers, in general, found no statistical difference in the response of imprinted and non-imprinted foals to procedures performed weeks or months later, including haltering, leg handling, vaccinations and deworming. Most notably, in most studies, both groups of foals improved in compliance with subsequent testing, with behavior differences between the two groups becoming virtually imperceptible over time.
This information then begs the question, “If there are not clear benefits to foal imprinting, is there risk of harm from the procedure?” Of particular concern here are the issues of whether early human intervention will interfere with the bonding of the mare and foal, or if it can negatively impact the foal’s health. In terms of the latter issue, physical injury to the foal and poor absorption of colostrum due to delayed nursing would be the main concerns. It turns out that studies show no significant difference in mare-foal bonding or in colostrum absorption between imprinted and non-imprinted foals. Careful study of proper foal handling technique should minimize the risk of significant physical injury of the foal occurring during this process.
The other concern that I personally have in regard to imprint training is the possibility of “spoiling” a foal during the process. Although this cannot occur in a single handling session, repeated and persistent desensitization can result in certain foals learning to dominate the humans in their environment. These foals may express increasingly aggressive behaviors such as biting, kicking and striking in order to maintain their perceived dominant position within the “herd.” This obviously creates a dangerous situation that can be exceedingly difficult to resolve as the foal grows and becomes stronger. Correct foal handling does not produce this problem, but it can be difficult to discern when useful desensitization crosses the line and begins to produce negative consequences.
Personal experience and communication with other experienced horse people has led me to the following conclusion in regard to imprint training of foals: Consistent proper handling of the foal during the first several months of life is far more important to its training and socialization than early intensive handling during the first few days of life. In addition, socialization of the foal in a herd environment also has lasting benefits that are not realized if the mare and foal are secluded from other horses.
Following Dr. Diehl’s presentation, Dr. Miller took the opportunity to personally address the research findings. He expressed his concern that the imprinting of the study foals had been done by a wide variety of individuals and may not have strictly adhered to the procedure as he described it. Therefore, he cautioned the audience that the poor results achieved in a group of not more than a few hundred horses could not conclusively dispute his own results based upon thousands of horses and a lifetime of experience.
Unfortunately, discussion of imprint training with horse owners would suggest that the vast majority do not strictly follow Dr. Miller’s procedure. In addition, very few horse owners possess even a fraction of Dr. Miller’s horse experience. Therefore, it is likely that “real world” results probably more closely resemble those of the researchers in Dr. Diehl’s presentations than those of Dr. Miller himself. Those owners who are raising quiet, compliant foals probably owe the credit more to consistent daily handling than any benefit of early intensive handling.
So should you imprint your foals? Certainly, there is no obvious
harm in it, as long as the mare does not object. However, if you
prefer to treat the navel, help the foal nurse and then go back to
bed, the research suggests that you can do so without feeling
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