Imprinting training in the newborn foal

** Voici un autre des travaux que j'ai fais dans le cadre de mon cours de "Equine Behavior" avec l’université de Guelph **


When it comes to foal, many techniques are used, loved or hated! The range of methods is wide and creativity is on. Sometimes this creativity works for the best, sometimes it works for the worst. There is a major concert from equine behaviorist and scientist about the ethical aspect and the necessity of so called “imprinting training”. This kind of training technique is slowly gaining popularity among equestrian folks and is practiced more and more often. The most popular technique is the Miller imprinting method, many references are found about it in scientific paper and it seem to be the most practiced in equestrian facilities. Some breeders are doing imprinting, sometimes even without really knowing they are doing it, by being around the foal at birth.  Both of those “techniques” will be analysed in this paper. There is a loads of different beliefs about whether doing those type of trainings are beneficial or not, so scientists have started to do research to see if it really produce better adult horse and mostly, if it enhance the welfare of the foal. This is the question that will be studied here.

What is imprinting?

Imprinting is a critical period in a foal life. It comes right after the birth of the foal and this period is believed to last 48 hours (McGreevy, 2012). In this period, foals are innately programmed to follow whatever is moving around them ( Miller, 2001). This is a survival programming of the foal to attach to is damn early after birth. Imprinting occurs naturally, without any external intervention (William and al., 2002) and it’s irreversible. This phase is critical for the survival of the foal, as he needs is damn to protect him, but also to teach him how to be a horse. The foal will learn all he needs to know during the time he spends with his damn (which plants they need to avoid, how to communicate with other horses, how to groom, etc.) (Price, 1999), So if a foal does not imprint well with his mother this can become a problem as he matures, especially for feral horse.

Imprinting training techniques

With the discovery of this critical period in the newborn foal, trainers have found that this could allow to shape the foal’s behavior in an early stage in his life (Miller, 2001). Knowing that, people have begun to train foals in this period, using different techniques, to achieve the behavior shape they want in the foal. This type of training is claimed to produce better horses that will be less reactive to multiple stimulus later in life and will be easier to train (William and al. 2002).

 Some trainers are discrete during this time and just make sure to be around the foal, because they just want the foal to habituate to human. Habituation is a process where a gradual exposition of a stimulus decrease the reaction of the horse to it (McGreevy, 2012). Much breeders does it even if they don’t realise it, as they need to check if the foal is healthy and monitor his first hours of life to be sure everything is ok. When breeders really attempt to “imprint” the foal, they start by handling the mare around the foal. If the mare is calm, the foal will learn to be relaxed around humans (McGreevy, 2012). In this kind of method, the foal can learn by watching human interact with their damn and, by curiosity, come see and discover what humans are doing. Handlers can then show tools to the foal, but he is free to retreat and he is still with his mother.

Imprinting techniques is not a new thing (like almost every so-called “horsemanship” techniques), but Dr. Robert Miller had brought those techniques back and have made them popular again. His approach is probably the best known, loved or critiqued today. In his method, training starts as soon as the foal is out of his mother by rubbing the foal everywhere, inside the mouth and ears included, by presenting him stimuli he will meet later in life like clipping, taping on feet (farrier), rubbing with a plastic bag, saddle pad and so on, and even decide when the foal can rise (Miller website, 2013). One person needs to hold and reassure the damn, while a second person holds the foal and a third one does the manipulations to him. The Training needs to be done at birth, at the 12th, 24th and 48th hour of life to be effective according to Miller.  He claim that this will make the foal more submissive, more sensitive to pressure, more desensitized to sensorial stimulus and that it will enhance the bond between the foal and the trainer (Miller website, 2013).

What are de benefits and down sides of imprinting

On the good side, being present early in the foal’s life makes it easier for him to accept the presence of humans around him. If humans are present in the imprinting time, it becomes normal to the foal, because they always been around them, he haves habituated progressively to them and do not feel like they are a threat. If the foal discover humans later in life, they will be a new thing that will need desensitization and work. So on the opposite, if humans are present closely after birth, it will just be a part of the newborn foal normal environment and facilitate human-foal relationship.

On the down side, invasive imprinting can interfere with the mare-foal bond, which can be life threatening for the foal and can also leads to behavioural problem (McGreevy, 2012). Mare play a high role in the socialisation and learning of the newborn foal. She’s the one who will teach him manners and proper responses to threats and other horses’ signals. That also means that if the mare-foal bond is compromised, the foal can be more aggressive to other horses (as he didn’t understand other horses’ signals) or can be too “friendly” with handler and starts start to act more disrespectfully toward him (McGreevy, 2012). This can even lean to aggression toward human as well. As seen in the imprinting section, foal can miss important leaning, like food selection (plants to avoid) if the mare-foal bon is compromised.

Techniques like flooding are also used in some imprinting training methods. This approach consists in a over-exposure of the foal to a potentially fearful or aversive stimuli until the reaction disappear (McGreevy, 2002). He is literally invaded by stimulus that he can not escape, they will cease only when the foal will not react to it anymore. Flooding is a form of desensitization, but instead of desensitize progressively, the horse is just exposed to it right away. For example, instead of presenting a tarp to the foal, let him sniff it and ear the sound, the foal is just covered with it until he does not react to it anymore.

Foals who have been exposed to the flooding method can develop learned helplessness early in life. Learning helplessness is when the foal understands that nothing can be done to avoid a negative stimuli, that he has no control on his environment, so he just doesn’t react anymore (Hall and al. 2007). Nothing can help him, he will “froze” instead of trying to escape it. As the foal seems calm, stimuli will be removed. With learned helplessness, the foal does not understand that there is no danger, he just understand that he can’t do anything to avoid the stimuli except standing still and wait for it to be removed.

A study have shown that the effect of training before weaning are not permanent, it is subject to disappear, which mean that when a behavior is not reinforced anymore it can cease.  The study have shown that training a foal before weaning time didn’t give better results than when a foal have not been handled (Willian and al. 2002). This study looks at heart rates during the test and the time it takes to complete the task asked for the test. If handled foals were calmer or learn better than non-handled foals they would have lower heart rates or took less time to complete the task. Results have shown no significant differences between the two.


Trainers need to be really careful when it comes to imprint training; they should not interfere with mare-foal bond. Techniques where the foal is first touched by human can compromise the mare-foal bond. Those manipulation have to be repeated multiple times during the first two days of the life of the foal. It may looks nothing, but the bond between the foal and is damn is only some hours long, that mean that it’s really fragile at this stage. If the bond is compromised and the foal didn’t really attach to is mare, consequence can be disastrous, not only for the survival of the foal but also for his future behavior (McGreevy, 2012), as she is the one who will educates the foal the best.

A concern can also be taught about the way people will do the imprinting training. The Miller imprinting technique, for instance, have really precise deadlines and structures to follow, if they are not followed the success of the technique can be highly compromised. If steps are done too fast this can stress the foal at the point where little or nothing will be learned, as stress decrease learning ability (Nicol C.J 2012). Steps may also be skipped or made in an inappropriate way. There is also a risk of bad reward timing with an inexperienced handler which mean that the foal could be rewarded for the wrong behaviour, as there is many session during the first two days of life of the foal. If a technique guideline is not respected properly there is a chance that it will not work, or worst that it will cause more bad than good.

A study have shown that young horses, of two years old, that were not handled at all or that were handled until later in life does worst in learning task than foal that have been handled early in life and for longer time ( trained from six months to two years old) (Heird et al, 1986). This said, “early” occurred at six month in the study, which mean at usual weaning time. Other studies mentioned previously have found that there was no real differences between horse handled before weaning and those handled after weaning in learning task. So there is no hurry to start the training in a foal. Trainer that does “imprinting” claim that the horse is calmer and learn better, but studies exposed previously have shown that this is not true.

Imprinting is a really short period in newborn foal life and there is a difference between training of a young foal and imprinting training, because to be called “imprinting” training, it have to be in the first two days of life of the foal. Some hypothesis is that foals that are imprint trained continue to be trained after that until they are started under saddle. This can mean that it is not the training while imprinting phase that makes the horse calmer, but the fact that they are trained in a regular basis so that the learning are retained and the exposure to novel stimuli is constant. The study seen in the previous paragraph tend to support this hypothesis.


Being present in the first minutes of the life of a foal is a good thing, because breeder needs to be sure that the foal is healthy, that he start sucking, that his damn didn’t reject him, that he eliminates his first meconium, and so on. Also when looking at the damn, be sure she’s ok too and that she expelled the placenta and have no post-partum complication. But “imprinting” should not be performed as many studies have shown that this wasn’t necessary and it is easy to do a technique wrong. Foals that are trained after their weaning aren’t less trainable that those imprinted. Let the mare bond with her foal and teach him gently what he needs to know. People can be present around the foal for sure, they just need to be sure to do not interfere between him and his damn and to avoid causing stresses to them. By taking care of the damn, the foal will naturally come to see what happening, breeders can then present tools and start to desensitize the foal without retaining or force him. By keeping the foal with is damn there is fewer risks to interfere with their natural bond and her presence can also help reinsure the foal. If the mare is close to human, foal will also learn that human mean no threat to him and the calmness of the mare will help to keep the foal calm. So working close with the damn is a really good way to introduce the presence of bipeds in foal life.  


McGreevy, Paul, Equine behavior a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, second edition, saunders Elsevier, 2012

         Miller, Robert, Fallacious studies of foal imprinting training, journal of equine veterinary science, volume 21, number 3, 2001

William, J.L, Friend, T.H, Toscano, M.J, Collins, M.N, Sisto-Burt, A, Nevill, C.H , the effects of early training sessions on the reactions of foals at 1,2, and 3 months of age, department of animal science, texas A & M university, 2002

Herd, J.C, Whitaker, D.D, Bell, R.W, Ramsey, C.B, Lockey, C.E, The effect of handling at different ages on the subsequent learning ability of 2-year-old horse, application animal behavior science 15, 1986.

Miller, Robert, improper imprinting,, 2013

Price, Edward O., behavioral development in animals undergoing domestications,  applied animal behavioral science, department of animal science, university of California, 1999, Elsevier science B.V.

Nicol C.J, equine learning: progress and suggestions for future research, department of clinical veterinary science, university of Bristol, Langford, UK. Elsevier science, 2002, P 204.

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