Imprinting endows a foal with trust and willingness, and it takes fear of and struggle against humans away.
Konrad Lorenz demonstrated how incubator-hatched geese would imprint on the first suitable moving stimulus they saw within what he called a “critical period” between 13–16 hours shortly after hatching.
When I was about 12 yrs old, my sister and I incubated a chicken egg. At last, a tiny chick emerged. Unfortunately, the first thing he saw was our old dog whose face was right in there with the rest of us, breathing on the little guy. The dog checked on the chick frequently, and it followed the dog everywhere, peeping incessantly. Eventually, the dog tired of his companion, but the chick was eager to follow the dog well into adulthood.
Foals start as a blank slate on which we can write their future relationship with humans. A newborn foal’s impressions of the world and what is “normal” are formed most strongly at birth to 36 hours. If, during that critical socialization period, humans demonstrate that they are friendly and not to be feared, that they are strong and there is no use struggling against them, and that they can direct a horse’s movements with understandable cues, a foal will take humans into their lives as a normal occurrence. Later training at 2-3 years old can be almost like training a willing dog. While the foal imprints on its natural mother, and we leave the foal with her to teach it all about “horse” language, we can become like grandparents and teach our foal about human language and human interaction.
If you are fortunate to attend your horse’s birth, you have the perfect opportunity to become a partner in every sense of the word.
But, to back up a minute, it starts with the mare. She must be very manageable so that you can get to the foal and immediately start touching, rubbing, and manipulating her baby from the first moments with no trauma from her. She must be rock solid to make your job as easy as possible. See Desensitizing Exercises
Imprinting a Foal:
Imprinting is a two-person or three-person exercise, so get your partners.
One person must have control of the mare. If at all possible, the mare should be a part of the procedure. She should be on a lead and able to see what is happening to her baby. If she is very frantic, keep her further away so she doesn’t accidentally step on the foal or hurt a handler. But if she is relatively calm, let her look over the operation, nervously moving but not dangerously twisting and turning. You may notice her try to nip the foal in an effort to tell him that he should get up and move away. Prevent her doing that, but let her watch and occasionally nuzzle.
When the baby is only minutes-to-hours old, you must gently put it on the ground on its side. Kneel behind and reach over to hold its top front and top rear leg to keep it still. Fold its little head toward its rump. (If it is bigger than the Caspian foal here, this procedure may take two people). The 2nd person leans over from behind and starts rubbing. Touch each part of his body with conviction. Rub vigorously. Your touch must be firm but not painful.
Rubbing is more vigorous than stroking. Stroking is firm, smooooooth. But Rubbing calls for you to be a little firmer and faster to really desensitize the foal to manipulative handling.
Now move on to the next part of his body. Rub his shoulder, his rib cage, under his chest and belly. Has he struggled? Then do it again over and over. Every muscle, every hair.
I think you will be amazed at how relaxed the foal becomes. He will appear to be asleep during most of the handling.
Now his legs: Lift them, bend them and straighten them until they are as relaxed as rubber bands. Tap on his hoof. tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Maybe even 50 times. If he is flinching or fighting, keep tapping. Over and over until his is relaxed.
Lift his tail. Up and down like an old pump handle. It will also become as limp as a rubber band.
When you think you can touch him everywhere, get a battery-operated set of clippers, a shaver, or vibrator and vibrate all over his body (including, of course his head and feet.) We want to be able to clip for show when he is older. He may nearly fall asleep with the vibrator when he relaxes.
Now, turn him over and work with the other side.
Repeat this sequence of rubbing and touching twice a day for three days. It will progress quickly. Your foal will practically fall asleep each time you lay him down, and the mare will begin to ignore the procedure.
When there is total acceptance of you, you can start touching, rubbing and manipulating while he is standing. For standing desensitizing, approach him from behind when he is in the nursing position so that he does not see you coming and learn to back away from you. This is also a first lesson in having people behind the little guys.
Imprinting can save you weeks of training later in his career. Kristull Ranch has been imprinting their babies for over 15 years. If anyone tells you that imprinting damaged their horse’s personality, they simply didn’t do it right.
Worst case for Twinkle is that she will eventually have to learn to stay out of your space. In the meantime, Tinkle’s owner cannot stand or walk steadily, so having her come to the golf cart for grooming and handling is a blessing. When she decides to RIDE in the golf cart, we’ll start to instill some space rules.
Twinkle follow-up. 1 month of age. She loves to be touched.
Here is a follow-up picture of the two foals seen in the demonstrations. The little silver filly is Twinkle at 12 months old. The larger black colt is Aukara’s black foal seen at 1 day old in the pictures above. He is just 10 months now but already doing all exercises our fully grown horses must do before riding.
Thank you Louis Moncivias for demonstrating with Aukara. Thank you Danielle for your love and gentle patience.
Thank you Kristull Ranch in Austin, Texas for picture opportunities.
Thank you Robert M. Miller DVM and and Clinton Anderson for sharing your insights and methods for foal imprinting, which we have used and demonstrated here.
Under no circumstances should information presented here be construed as veterinary in nature. Always consult your veterinarian if problems persist. Additionally, horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does horse-pros.com or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.