Half a Century of Imprint Training
Half a Century of Imprint Training It’s been more than half a century since I stumbled upon the fact that horses can learn from the time of birth, and that their most powerful learning periods are in the minutes, hours and days after they’re born. Even more significant, the imprinting period of the horse occurs the first day. Imprinting in all species occurs during a specific time period, and only then. During this time, the animal learns what species it belongs to and bonds with whatever it sees moving near it. Of course, in the case of the foal, that’s usually the mare and other members of the herd, but in a domesticated environment the foal can bond with any moving creature or even a non-living moving object. For example, I was shown a foal in Argentina that bonded to a tractor that moved past it immediately following its birth. I also remember a foal in Arizona that bonded to a manure cart that was wheeled out of the foaling stall,
Some species are imprinted by a location, and that's why such creatures are able to find home after long migrations. Certain species also have delayed imprinting periods. These are known as altricial species, which includes dogs, cats, and humans. The newborn young are quite helpless and completely dependent. Other species, particularly prey animals, are precocial. In order to stay alive in the wild they must be able, soon after birth, to get about on their own, feed themselves, and keep up with their mother and the group. Precocial species includes birds such as ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, pheasant, and grouse, and mammals such as cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and equines.
The ancestral wild horse evolved in a habitat surrounded by hungry predators such as wolves, lions, and the Sabre-toothed tiger. The newly foal, in order to stay alive, had to be able to run at top speed in order to keep up with its fleeing dam and other members of the herd.
Newborn foals will be imprinted by a human if that person spends time with it and handles it a bit. Training of the foal is also possible during the imprinting period because the most powerful learning times for equines are that early in life.
Thus, I called my method "Imprint Training" because it consists of training during the imprinting period, followed by more learning after the imprinting period is over (after the first day).
Because the method was untraditional, it was initially met with a lot of skepticism. But, the consistent success of the method has, after 50 years, led to its acceptance all over the world, in every breed, and in every discipline. Done correctly it is 100% effective. I have never had a failure and few people do.
However, it is essential that it be done correctly, because the newborn foal will learn the wrong thing just as quickly and as permanently as the right thing.
For guidance, the best resource is my book, Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal (Western Horseman, 1991) and my video, "Early Learning" (Video Velocity).
During the past decade the validity of imprinting training has been substantiated by people using it in other precocial species.
I know of two large cattle ranches in Australia and seven in the U.S.A. that bring cows near term in so that the calves are able to be handled briefly at birth, then rubbed and towel dried. I'm told that after maturity these cattle can be easily approached out on the range.
Range cattle are usually handled for the first time at branding time. They are roped or otherwise restrained, branded, vaccinated, dehorned, ear marked and the males castrated. They never forget the experience, which leaves them skittish.
Cattle imprinted at birth by humans will forgive this process done later on, just as I found imprinted foals would forgive me for trauma inflicted at a later time. Many zoos and exotic animal training facilities are now imprint training newborn precocial species including zebra, camels, llamas, rhinoceros, elephants, and many bovine species. I didn’t invent imprint training. It was logical to assume that during 6000 years of domestication that various societies, especially nomadic tribes, had discovered how dramatically a horse can be made docile, friendly, responsive, and unafraid.
As the years passed, I, too, discovered positive proof that this was true. Several Native American Plains tribes did routine imprint training of newborn foals, including the Cherokee, Kiowa, and Comanche peoples. There are at least two tribes in Canada and one in Argentina where proof exists that they also imprint trained foals. In addition to my experience with countless client's foals, all of my own horse and mule foals were imprint trained, with superb results. With a total of 3 to 4 hours of training time spread over a 2-week period and starting with a birth session, my foals have learned most of what they needed to know for the rest of their lives. Our foals were gentle, and friendly. They could lead, tie, move forward, backward, or laterally on command and turn on the forehand ore hindquarters. They accepted trimming of the feet or later shoeing, bridling, saddling, and grooming and were tolerant of plastic, paper, flags, noise, dogs, electric clippers, fly spray (use warm water) and veterinary invasion of any orifice.
Imprint training has been hailed as the 20th century's greatest advance in horse training, and I’m humbly grateful that I was able to make this contribution to an animal I love: The horse, which has suffered so much in mankind's work and wars.
Imprint training a newborn foal at The Home Ranch, Clark, Colorado. I teach lateral flexion of the head and neck, gently, with one finger while the mare bonds with the foal.
The next day I teach the foal to lead.
My daughter assists me with a day old foal. One of our own. Second lesson I am testing the tail to be sure she is thoroughly desensitized.
I imprint trained “Scooter” 26 years ago. Here she is at 20 days of age. I ride her regularly. She’s the one I’m on in Spalding’s photo