Dr. Robert Miller (http://www.robertmmiller.com) popularized imprinting foals with both the term and practice. He’s famous now and deserves credit for the time, research and material he’s put out there to encourage breeders to interact with foals at an early age.
Granted, Miller’s convictions concerning early handling makes first encounters for vets, other service providers and trainers easier, but is it less traumatic for the foal? Does his immediate repetitive approach produce a trusting foal, or one who has been conditioned to capitulate? It doesn’t include the foal’s input – or permission – in the process; let alone the mom. Some may view obedience as the ideal permanent state of a horse, but, provided alternative approaches, most who seek a partnership with a horse would probably opt for a more cooperative strategy.
Desensitizing is overdone
Desensitizing has become the buzz word of late in the horse industry. The way people are interpreting the concept – including imprinting techniques that assault the foal before he can see, stand or react – seem to go too far. Horses that are exposed to sensory overload, presumably designed to teach them to ignore instinct by dulling their reactions to reasonable concerns, tend to lose some of the spirit that makes them a special animal. This includes the bevy of techniques designed to scare the fright out of the horse in the starting under saddle process. It’s sad to see how some of these rituals are scrambling the horse’s brain.
There seems to be too much focus these days on practices aimed to disengage the mind of the horse. Wouldn’t you rather engage a foal in a way that gives him permission to contribute to the conversation? Sure, it may take a little more time and some give and take, but the lessons learned (by both of you) may mean the difference between good and great.
Imprint later and more kindly to include the foal
Simply postponing ‘imprinting’ for a few days and doing it in a way that honors the foal can have a huge impact on how your baby approaches future challenges. Sure, you can immobilize the foal at birth, repeat poking 30-40 times in each place and produce a compliant pet, but if you wait a few days to start interacting with the foal once he can stand, see and consciously respond to your activity, you might find a responsive and interactive process more rewarding as you strive to encourage this foal to become a willing, eager and participatory partner. This begs the question – do you seek to condition a submissive steed, or one who feels welcome to contribute to solutions? There’s no right answer – it depends on what you want. Personally, in working with performance horses, I’ve found the stand-out performers talk back a bit – and usually have good reason for their objections.
Encouraging a trusting, thinking horse
If your aim is a thinking and contributing horse, it’s probably better to start messing with him at about day two or three of age. Of course, you’ll want to ensure adequate transfer of IgG (done with a blood test – learn the hard way once and you’ll never skip this needle again) and it’s a good idea to have your vet do a foal exam at this time, so they’ll be some handling at 18-24 hours of age, but this can be done quietly and easily.
By postponing your ‘training’ of the foal until he’s aware enough to express himself, you set the stage for mutual respect and a foal that regards humans as fair and accommodating leaders to be enjoyed and trusted. Foals are curious anyway, and if you proceed with patience, they’ll come to you. If the mom trusts you, she’ll usually help.
Horses know more than most people give them credit for. Establishing trust can be huge in laying the foundation for future training. That doesn’t happen by immobilizing a frightened foal and forcing repetitive acts on him to ‘desensitize.’ Instead, consider spending some quiet time in the stall or pasture and letting the foal approach you.
At some point, you’re going to want to put an arm around his chest to get him to stand still for some touching and petting, but this should be after he’s decided you’re not a threat. Even at three days old, you’ll rarely have to flip a tail and can always position his hind end near a wall if you’re working alone to hold him still until you chose to release. One calm and kind lesson teaching the foal to stand when you need him to for as long as you require (keep it short, but make sure you decide when it’s over) will probably suffice
With most foals, you’ll be able to find a spot that they love to be scratched. It’s a good idea to start each handling session rubbing that itch. Teach your foal that your approach means pleasure and he’ll appreciate your presence and be more likely to try to understand your requests.
Early foal training goals
Sometimes, you’ll get a precocious foal (it’s usually a filly) that needs to be taught to lead almost immediately. We’ve had a few that have literally headed for the hills alone at day two or three of age as mom went crazy on the end of a lead rope. Usually, it will take less than five minutes to teach those foals to accept a halter and lead (a butt rope helps, but is rarely necessary with these bright critters). For most foals, though, it’s not necessary to start this training for at least a couple of weeks – or a couple of months – it depends on the foal.
The basics at only days old are to be able to approach and touch the foal without him panicking (so you can at least dunk the umbilical cord without trauma), stroking the back, shoulders, ears, face and legs and to encourage the foal to come to you and appreciate your presence.
By three to four weeks of age, you’ll probably want to be at a point where you can pick up all four legs and have a blacksmith pretend to work on a hoof. Of course, haltering the horse should be a non-issue at this point. The foal should be excited to see you and welcome the attention and turnout freedom you provide.
Happy foals make it more fun for you
If you’re in a hurry, you can always capture and immobilize a baby with force. This will set you back, though. Foals that are handled with patience and kindness as the training process begins are a lot more eager to please. They also become more well adjusted performers as serious training ensues.
Anyone can take short cuts to dominate or desensitize a horse, and sometimes, it’s necessary to do so for safety sake. But, most of the time, you can engage a foal so he gets excited about the new game you’ve planned for the day. Allowing the foal to participate in the process produces eager learners and more determined performers as time passes. At least, that’s been our experience.
The next time you embrace the fad of the day (or guru of the decade), ask yourself if what they are advocating allows for customized approaches. Each horse is different and there’s rarely a solution that works for all. Usually, it’s best to take bits and pieces of ideas offered with an open mind so you can test what works for you and your horse with a bit a scepticism applied. Horses are usually born happy but it’s humans that make or take their glee with the domesticated crew. If you’re passionate about horses, why not help your foals develop an attitude that includes a zeal for learning from you? You’ll likely find such an experience a lot more rewarding than developing a dictatorship aimed at mindless obedience.
What have you learned from the foals you’ve worked with? Please leave a comment below so others can learn from what’s worked, and what hasn’t, in your experience.