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Home > Articles & Interviews > Improper Imprinting - By Dr. Miller

Improper Imprinting

The following article was written by Dr. Miller to explain what can go wrong if Imprint Training is done incorrectly.   

It has been forty-nine years since I discovered the learning power of newborn foals, experimented with my own foals, and coined the term “imprint training” (because it consists of training during the imprinting period, which is right after the foal is born).

At first largely rejected because it was not traditional, and because of the fear of causing later behavior problems (a completely fallacious concept), the method is now in widespread use all over the world.  It took nearly half a century to overcome old misconceptions, myths, and baseless opposition.

I learned a lot during this time.  I learned that imprint training isn’t new.  Very little in horsemanship is.  Certain cultures and various individuals did learn the advantages of shaping behavior in newborn foals in the past.  All I contributed was to give it a name, ritualize the technique, explain its scientific basis, and popularize it.

Countless people have told me about their results, written to me, sent me pictures and videos, consulted with me, and argued with me about imprint training.  As a result of all this experience, I have learned that it can, like any kind of horse training, be done incorrectly.  In fact, my impression is that most people don’t do it exactly as I do.  Many of them, in my opinion, do it incorrectly.  In spite of this, most of the foals still turn out to be models of good behavior.  However, sometimes doing it incorrectly leads to a spoiled foal.  This is especially true if the foal is strongly dominant (an alpha personality), or if it is a very excitable foal, or–worst of all–if it is a dominant and excitable foal.  These are the very foals in which correctly performed imprint training is most profoundly effective.  It guarantees a respectful, calm, responsive horse rather than the insolent brat it could be.  Done incorrectly, however, such a foal’s behavior will be worsened.

I poll every audience to which I lecture, and I find that bad results are obtained at less than 1% of foals subjected to imprint training.  The percentage has dropped in the past decade, probably due to a better informed populace, but it should be zero.  In forty-seven years and experience with thousands of foals, I have NEVER had a bad result.

When one is reported to me, I question the handler at length in order to determine what went wrong.  I have learned that there are two mistakes commonly made.  These mistakes are made frequently, but most foals are naturally submissive enough and level headed so they turn out satisfactorily.  But, make these mistakes on an alpha, or a hot-head, or a dominant-hyper-excitable foal, and you will produce a MONSTER!

Remarkably, in my half century of experience, one of these mistakes has been invariably made by men.  The other has been entirely made by women.  It is essential that anyone performing imprint training be aware of these mistakes, analyze WHY they are made and determine not to make them.

I will make no attempt in this article to describe the imprint training process or explain its scientific basis.  I have done that in several books and videos, many magazine articles, and hundreds of seminars.  In recent years other horsemen have written books and made videos on their version of the method, and although they are not identical to my method, most of them are completely acceptable to me.  As in all my horse training methods, there is no one correct way of doing them.  There are, however, incorrect ways and that’s what I want to share with the many horse owners who are doing imprint training, or plan to do so.

MISTAKE 1: The Birth Session

The initial session is best performed as soon after birth as possible.  One minute of age is more effective than one hour.  One hour more effective than one day.  Believe me!  No one has more experience with this than I have, and with almost every breed you can name.   Four things are accomplished in this birth session:

A - The handler or handlers imprint upon the foal just as the mare does.  This causes bonding, trust, and a desire to follow.

B - We can desensitize the foal to almost every frightening stimulus it will be exposed to later in life.  This can include farriery, veterinary procedures, grooming, saddling, girthing, bridling, noises, dogs and other animals, electric clippers, insecticide sprayers and so on.

C - We can teach the foal, very quickly, to yield.  Specifically, we teach it to yield its head and neck by flexing laterally, and to yield its legs by flexing all of the leg joints   and holding them flexed for a while.

D - We gain respect by not allowing the foal to arise when it wants.  The dominance hierarchy (the order of leadership) in horses is established by control of movement.   Thus, if we temporarily inhibit the foal from getting to its feet it will see us as a leader, not as a threat.

The most common mistake made in this birth session is to rush it.  Thus far this mistake has been invariably made by men.  Typically it is on a large farm.  There may be multiple foalings going on, and a majority of them are at night.  Male employees, who in my practice experience, were probably shown one of my videos and told to do similarly, are too impatient.  They rush the job and instead of desensitizing the foal to everything, they sensitize it.  The foal struggles, wishing to escape, and the handler rewards that by stopping the stimulus prematurely.  Technically we call this a “failure of habituation.”  The next day the foal resists everything, and the handlers conclude that imprint training does more harm than good.

This is the reason that many farms are hiring women to do their foals.  Most women love to work with those newborn foals.  They do a thorough job.  It is better not to do it at all if you are not going to do it properly.

MISTAKE 2:  After Day One

I recommend the second and all subsequent training sessions be done while the foal is standing on its feet, and beginning the day after it was foaled.

In these sessions, although we test and repeat all of the previous stimuli, we do them briefly.  The emphasis at these sessions is control of movement.  Again, control of movement is how the equine species establishes its dominance hierarchy.  This is how the foal learns to respect its mother, other herd members, and how it learns to respect humans who handle them.

These sessions are done to teach the foal to lead, to stand tied, to back up, to move laterally, to rotate on the forehand and on the hindquarters.  It’s all clearly shown in my books and especially in my videos.  These sessions, which are always brief (not over 15 minutes), increasingly enhance the respect the foal will have for the handlers.

So why have so many women told me that they imprint trained their foal but now (as a weanling or yearling or older) it “is afraid of nothing including me?”  The horse threatens them, is disrespectful, and even dangerous.  

Why?  Because they did not do the training sessions subsequent to the birth session.

I ask, “why didn’t you do them?”   Occasionally, someone says, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do them.”  Or, “I didn’t think it was necessary.”   But the most common answer?

            “He didn’t like it.”

If you haven’t the heart to insist that the foal comply with your requests:

1.  Don’t have any children (I jest)

        2.  Get someone else to do that part of the training.

Very commonly I have learned of couples who share the imprint training responsibilities:

1.  She does the initial birth session.  She has the sensitivity, the nurturing ability,   the perception to do it correctly.  Sometimes he reads the instructions to her, or even flashes a video scene on a TV monitor for her to emulate.

2.  The next day he does the first of the standing sessions, teaching the foal to follow, to move in various directions, and to accept the testing of yesterday’s desensitizing procedures.  Perhaps she reads instructions to him now.

Actually, most people are perfectly capable of doing it all themselves if they want to do so.  All you have to do is study the method, follow the instructions, and enjoy the results.

Any more, when I see a colt that won’t lead, or quietly stand tied, or permit its feet or ears to be handled, or is afraid of water hoses, sprayers, clippers, plastic, paper or vets, I think, “how unnecessary.  What a disservice to the horse and all the people who must handle it.”

At last, imprint training is being accepted.  One reason for this is that it enhances later performance training.  An ever increasing number of horses winning in all disciplines are revealed to have been imprint trained, including racing.  Of course, there will always be people who cannot or will not condone it, but that’s their problem.  It’s here for keeps, and both horses and those who handle them benefit, but it should be done correctly.

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Response to French Foal Study - By Dr. Miller
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