Why I am against Imprint Training of foals

Dr Miller from the USA is the leader in Imprint Training of foals. I am going to share with you some of his quotes directly from his work and will discuss. Techniques between different people may change slightly, but the objectives don’t. So for the purpose of this note I have focused on what Dr Miller thinks are the advantages. I would be really surprised if by the end of this article you are not horrified by this disrespectful invasive way to desensitise a foal.

1) Bonding with the imprint trainer. Immediately postpartum, the foal bonds simultaneously with its dam and with one or more persons handling it. Such foals see humans, not as predators, but as fellow horses.


2) Submission, but not fear. During imprint training, the foal cannot escape (its natural method of survival) exposure to frightening stimuli. As a result, it becomes dependent and submissive in its attitude. The foal sees the trainer as a dominant horse or herd leader. Psychologically, this is the ideal relationship between horse and human. We must have submissiveness in a horse if he is to work for us. But, the submissiveness should be created not by fear (a predatory role) but by dependence (a dominant leader role).


3) Desensitization to most sensory stimuli (visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory). Most parts of the body, including all body openings, are desensitized. Rapid, repetitious stimuli (flooding) are used until the foal is habituated, i.e. permanently non responsive to those stimuli. Loud noises, fluttering objects or being touched anywhere on the body will thereafter be calmly tolerated.


4) Sensitizing to performance related stimuli. Specifically, the foal can be taught to respond (rather than habituated) to head and flank pressure. The responsiveness allows control over the fore and hind quarters. The foal will lead where directed, and will move its hind end laterally in response to the touch of a finger in the flank region. This is best taught on the day after birth, after the foal is on its feet.

Ribbleton: the bond that a mother and her foal create during the first hours and days is critical for obvious reasons. To invade this most personal space for anything that is not absolutely necessary (such as veterinary care) or is offered by the mare and foal is simply rude. How would you feel if you were a new mother and someone came in and did the following to your baby? Horrified I am sure, so how can it be ok to do it to someone else’s baby?

I read the words “the foal cannot escape” – this alone is just so unfair on the foal and mother.  To take advantage of a babies lack of mobility to invade it’s every personal part – how can this be respectful? The concept that the horse must be submissive to “work” for us says it all. If you are looking for a piece of  sporting equipment, if you are looking for a dominant relationship, if you are looking to make sure your horse “respects YOU” then maybe imprinting may be the way to go!

Desensitization is one of the key things imprinting aims for, yet when I sit back and think about this I don’t want my horse to be desensitized, I want them to be sensitive, smart and careful! I am with our newborns a number of times each day from birth so that I am perceived as a normal part of life. I don’t force myself on our foals – how can I expect to build trust and friendship if I use force? When was the last time you liked someone who forced you to do things?

By the second day of life nearly all foals will be a little wary of your approach and certainly be uncomfortable about having their sensitive places touched. I really feel that it is important to embrace and respect this natural uncertainty. With some foals I may gain their trust within a week or 2 and others a few months, but the thing that is really important to me is that we go through the process of building this trust – our relationship is genuine. I get so many comments about how happy our horses look in our photos – this relationship most certainly does not come about through force and manipulation.

I have a very simply philosophy here at Ribbleton – IF YOU WOULDN’T LIKE IT DONE TO YOU, THEN THE HORSE PROBABLY WOULDN’T LIKE IT EITHER.

This is not a note to discuss how to work with foals. If you would like to know more about how we work with foals please send me a private note for discussion. Each human and each foal are individuals and therefore should be treated as individuals.

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