The long-awaited moment has arrived. After a smooth and uneventful delivery, a precious, wet and fuzzy foal lies steaming in the straw, taking his first breath. He moves, lifting his wobbly, curly head, and attempts his first nicker in response to his mother. She stands, and begins to sniff, lick, and nuzzle him.
You watch in awe and admiration, and find it hard to believe that this soft, gentle, small and helpless creature will someday carry you off. If you know about imprint training, then you know it is at this moment that you can influence whether you will be carried off happily on his back, or unhappily at the end of a lead rope, or worse! This moment, just after birth, is a crucial time in a foal's development, physically, mentally, and socially. It is at this time that you can teach him to accept you as his alpha, a trusted friend and dominant figure, in his life.
Domesticated horses, like wild horses, live by instinct - they flee from danger, and find safety in the herd. Horses are, by nature, social creatures, who live in herds with an established pecking order. This pecking order is what humans can learn and use to communicate effectively, and bond, with horses. In the herd, the newborn foal bonds with his dam while bonding with other horses around him, so could he bond with us as well? The answer is yes, he can.
Knowing herd instinct and behavior helps us to understand and relate to our equines, and to become a member of the herd. Through proper imprinting, a human can become a dominant herd member, from birth on.
What is imprinting?
Originally developed by Robert M. Miller, DVM, author of Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, imprinting techniques are performed on newborn foals just after birth. Imprinting is a learning process for establishing behavior patterns. Desensitizing, the phenomenon underlying imprinting, is the act of habituating, or applying a stimulus until the animal is less sensitive and less reactive, and relaxes.
Like "sacking out" is used for the older horse, imprinting is used to get the foal accustomed to stimuli. For instance, by repeatedly rubbing a soft towel on the foal, he will eventually get used to it and relax, as he learns it hasn't hurt him. He gives in and quits resisting. Repetition will reinforce the desensitization, and will verify that desensitizing occurred. Imprinting will not take away all fear from the foal, but it will remove the fear of the person involved, putting that person in the same category as the foal's mother, a source of companionship and security.
This procedure at birth can prepare a horse for the things that he will be confronted with later on in life. To stand quietly while being handled and groomed, clipped, shod or trimmed, rectally palpated, and tubed, are some of the things that can be taught through imprinting, as well as learning to yield and to accept tack and rider with little or no resistance. Foals can learn at this early age because they are born neurologically mature, with the ability to feel, see, hear, and smell, and the younger the foal, the faster he will learn.
"Anyone can imprint," says Wendy Malone, imprinter and trainer for Spotted Fawn Paint Ranch, "but you can imprint for the good or for the bad, depending on how you do it. If it is done properly and thoroughly, with patience and consistency, stopping the stimulus only after he submits, the foal will learn to accept what you are doing, and relax. If the foal holds out and fusses long enough and you stop before he submits, he will get what he wants, and will have learned to resist." What the foal learns during this crucial learning period, he will retain for life.
Wendy explains, "In imprinting foals from birth, I perform three sessions in the first 24 hours. The first session is done with the newborn in my lap, before the foal stands up. It generally lasts about an hour, though it varies with different foals. Most foals don't get up to nurse for almost an hour anyway, so it doesn't interfere with feeding. The next two sessions should be performed within 24 hours, one while the foal stands, and one while he lies down again. The second and third sessions usually go much quicker than the first, because the procedure is already familiar to him, especially if you did a thorough job the first time."
How it is done
Wendy Malone was raised on a foundation Quarter Horse and cattle ranch in Eastern Oregon. At age 18, she began her horse training career as an apprentice to a Native American horse trainer who taught her how to understand and gently train wild horses. She spent the next 3 years studying Mustangs in their natural Eastern Oregon wild habitat. During the following 25 years, she learned from and trained with some of the top ten trainers in the U.S.
Some of her experience included training and showing 2-year-old snaffle bit futurity AQHA horses at the San Francisco Cow Palace, training AQHA race horses at New Mexico's Ruidoso Downs, working the Patterson's 300 Arabian brood mare barn, plus 5 years as an Equine Veterinarian's Assistant in Oregon.
Wendy has trained a variety of the U.S. breeds, in both English and Western, on show ranches in the western states prior to moving to Montana. For the last 7 years, she has owned and operated the Spotted Fawn Paint and Quarter Horse Ranch, where she raises APHA and AQHA horses for show, performance, pleasure, and ranch work.
Up to three people can be involved in the procedure. One holds the mare so that she doesn't injure the handlers or the foal, and the other one or two work with the foal. Items useful in imprinting, or desensitizing, are towels, portable clippers (both quiet and loud ones), noisy items such as a jug of marbles, a plastic bag, paper, cans, and keys, and a spray bottle containing water.
The mare, standing or lying nose to nose with the foal, is allowed to nuzzle and lick her foal while it is being rubbed and handled, so bonding can be established between them as well. The initial session relies on handling the foal before it has a chance to rise. By not allowing the foal to get up, the foal is learning submission to a human handler, and will accept the human as a dominant figure. Nothing is done to hurt the foal.
With the foal lying down, legs away from you, gently towel him dry and rub your hands gently all over, allowing the mare to sniff, nuzzle, and lick.
"It's really fun," says Wendy. " The foal is so small and easily moved. At birth, when you are one of the first things he meets, he accepts you as another mother and a dominant herd member. The reason it works is that humans are seen as predators unless we are there, at the beginning, before they get up. We represent all humans. Later on, it would take longer, because we have to establish trust and dominance.
"While Mom licks and touches, we touch, and he bonds with both of us. The key," Wendy says, "is to not get between the mare and foal; don't separate them, let them bond too. If Mom is not ready to get up, you can bring the foal to her head. The foal will not be confused about who his mother is; horses are not like ducks. Their natural instincts are not hampered. Then, when you are finished, leave them alone."
To start the desensitizing process, begin rubbing the hands gently over the face and head, repeating until the foal doesn't flinch or resist and is completely relaxed. You can't do too much, but you can do too little. Move to the ears, then the nostrils, and the mouth. Gently insert your finger in the orifices and move it around carefully but deliberately (desensitizing for future tubing and dental examinations) until he relaxes completely. Do not stop until you feel him totally relax. Be thorough with the mouth - rub the lips, gums, tongue, and roof of mouth until he accepts it and relaxes.
Next, rub the neck, shoulders, back, tail, and under the tail. Using a gloved hand, gently insert your finger into the rectum (for future rectal palpations), until he is relaxed.
Move to the stomach, paying particular attention to the area between the hind legs (for future nursing if a filly, and future sheath cleaning and handling if a colt), until relaxed.
When the foal has accepted the handling of his body, start working the legs (front leg first is best), by rubbing, bending, and straightening them until completely relaxed. Then tap firmly on the hooves, wall and bottom (for future hoof maintenance), until relaxed.
Because horses need to process things on both sides, you must do everything again on the opposite side, until he is relaxed. Be careful that he doesn't get up.
If the foal is accepting the hands everywhere, start rubbing with paper, then plastic, then the clippers (don't clip!), the keys, the marble jug, and the bag of cans, using each stimulus as long as needed until he relaxes completely. Put his halter on and off several times, until he relaxes and accepts it. (Do not leave it on while he is unattended.) Use a spray bottle with warm water to spray him all over (towel him as you go), to desensitize him to spray-ons. Again, remember to do both sides.
"When he is comfortable with everything, leave the two of them alone until the next session," Wendy advises.
Wendy usually performs two more sessions and continues the training for the next few days as well, after imprinting. Weaning is another important time to run through the process.
"In my video, A Member of the Herd, I show and tell people how they can imprint alone, effectively, if they don't have any assistance. I believe strongly that if the only thing you can do at foaling is to rub the foals all over with your hands and your heart in the bonding process, you will gain their trust. Then they'll still allow you, later in life, to do anything else with them, just because you've become intimate with them, and they've let you into their family of trust," explains Wendy.
"When training a foal, the younger, the better," Wendy says, "so use the imprinting procedures as soon as possible. Training a foal can still be done even if not immediately after birth. Using the imprinting techniques will still work, though not as efficiently, and we can dominate them in the correct way when they are small, by establishing the pecking order. It is easier if you work with a partner once the foal is up and around, to help hold him. The foals get stronger, faster, and bigger very quickly."
Wendy adds, "The natural instinct for a horse is to lean into pressure. At this young age, it is very easy to teach them to move away from pressure and to yield to pressure. If you use one simple cue at one time, it is easier for them to learn. When they respond, release the cue immediately. To move the shoulders or hindquarters over, give a steady push until the foal stops leaning and steps away from the cue. That teaches him to yield to pressure."
For leading, Wendy gives a steady push from behind with the right hand while the left hand puts a steady tug on the halter, not forward, but to the left, to get the feet to move, releasing the pressure when the foal moves. "After a few repetitions," Wendy says, "the foal can be moved forward. Soon he will connect the push and pull, and later the pull will be all that is needed. He will learn to tie this way, by giving in to the pull, and not pulling against it. Another thing I like to teach the foal is to accept the cinch, by wrapping a cinch around him until he accepts it and relaxes. Never do anything to hurt a foal or cause him pain, and pet him a lot. Foals are very quick learners."
Horse owners everywhere have tried imprinting and found out how well it works. The results of this simple approach are life-long results, and if performed correctly, will eliminate much of the need for the round pen. Following, joining up, hooking on, getting their attention, whatever you prefer to call it, will already be there. The horse will see you as part of the family,
Wendy explains, "We need to help horses to adapt to our world of man-made things. I think it is even more necessary today than it used to be. When training horses, I try to do things with the least resistance, and I find it's a lot easier with a little one in your lap than a bigger one in the round pen.
"What I would really like to see," Wendy says, "is more people getting schooling in imprinting, so that large ranches and farms that turn out a lot of foals could have someone properly imprint their foals. It's really worth a lot. Imprinting is for the betterment of the horse, and so nobody gets hurt," says Wendy. "Everybody benefits from it."