What is Foal Imprinting?

Foal imprinting is a natural horsemanship practice that has grown in popularity over the last number of years. It works by desensitizing the foal to various stimuli in the first few hours of life in the hope that it will make the foal easier to handle and manage later in its life.

Background

Researcher Konrad Lorenz discovered Imprinting when he discovered neonatal goslings attached to the first moving object they encountered. By making himself the first moving object they were in contact with, Lorenz could get the neonatal goslings to attach or imprint on to him instead of their mother. 

However, with foal imprinting you are not taking the place of the mare, you are merely introducing the foal to various stimuli it will later encounter in life, such as human touch and sounds, within the first few hours after birth. Imprinting allows the foal to accept humans and other stimuli as a normal part of their world, and it is thought to be beneficial in terms of later handling and training.

Dr Robert Miller DVM, who is the well-known advocate of foal imprinting, believes that it “offers a singular opportunity to mould a horse’s personality and shape behaviour permanently.” 

So, how is it done?

According to Dr Miller, the foal will bond with its dam and the humans who handle it after it is born, seeing the handlers as part of the herd. 

The idea is to desensitize the foal and have the foal submitting to the handler rather than fearing him/her. Dr Miller recommends the following approach:

  • handle the neonate when it is still lying down after birth,
  • rub the foal all over,
  • gently rasp the hooves,
  • insert fingers into all body cavities,
  • touch the foal with materials such as plastics and paper,
  • repeat stimuli 50-100 times,
  • repeat stimuli if the foal is alert and well at one day old,
  • also at one day old, introduce the headcollar and start to lead the foal,
  • continue foal imprinting for up to 7 days.

Dr Miller advises that follow-up sessions are essential. Without repetition of stimuli to ensure habituation, you can end up with a foal that is not afraid of humans and has no respect for them, or, the foal is sensitized and provokes a flight response because of a particular stimulus.

Opposition to Foal Imprinting

Despite numerous claims of successfully handling imprinted foals both in the short and long term, some studies do not support foal imprinting.

Contradictory findings show that foals who were separated from their mothers for just an hour can demonstrate patterns of strong dependence on their mothers and show signs of social withdrawal, aggressive tendencies and reduced playing.

Foals who had undergone imprinting in the first few days of life were no more manageable to handle than foals who were handled during the first 6 months of life in another study. 

Benefits of early handling have also been found to be temporary in some studies. For more scientific analysis on the opposing evidence to foal imprinting, click here.

Have you ever tried foal imprinting? We would love to hear your stories! Let us know in the comments!

For more handy horse care tips, click here.

Author: Lauren Ross

BSc, PgDip, Pg BADM

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