Not Just For Horses. Effectiveness of Imprinting in Other Species Confirms Its Value
It has been over half a century since I stumbled across the fact that foals can be trained right after birth, and the method is now in use all over the world, in every breed, and in every discipline. Although I did a couple of videos on the subject, the publication of the book Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal by Western Horseman is what led to the worldwide acceptance of the method, because that magazine is so widely read and respected, and because the book has been translated into many different languages.
The imprinting period occurs right after birth in precocial species, the animals that enter the world fully developed. They are small, but unlike altricial species in which the young are born helpless and neurologically immature, such as puppies, kittens, and human babies, the precocial species have all their senses functioning. They are able to stand soon after birth, follow mother and the herd, and run from danger. Most important, their best learning times are during the minutes, hours, and days after they are born.
So, foals are precocial, as are cattle, sheep, goats, deer, antelope, and many other animals.
In such creatures, the imprinting period is right after birth, during which they will memorize the appearance of anything they see moving near them, and will then be programmed to follow, to trust and to seek that thing. Of course, normally what they see is their mother and other herd members, but they will be imprinted just as readily by another species, including humans, or even by moving objects that are not alive such as a wagon or a cart, if they see such things as newborns.
The imprinting period is all over by the next day, but the best learning periods are not. Precocial species learn best and most lastingly in the minutes, the hours, and the days after birth.
So, in addition to just handling the newborn foal, and allowing it to remember us, we can also do a lot of training. We can desensitize it to all kinds of frightening things, and we can sensitize it to other things. Thus, we can desensitize the newborn foal to electric clippers, but also teach it to gently yield and flex its legs and its head and neck.
Because such early learning is not traditional in modern society and because our own babies are altricial and helpless, it took a long time for the horse industry to accept training of the foal during its imprinting period right after birth.
However, the power of imprinting is obvious when we see a day old foal keep up with its mother as she stampedes away when frightened.
Actually, nomadic tribes who lived with their horses 24 hours a day caught on to imprint training ages ago in various parts of the world. There is definite proof of this. It was discovered long ago.
What works in one precocial species will work in another, so some examples accompany this article, which will hopefully allay the fears of those breeders who think harm can be done if foals are trained soon after birth.
Harm can be done if the foals are improperly handled, because the learning is so immediate and so permanent, so please do not try to train foals during and after their imprinting period unless you are willing to follow the instructions in the book, or in my videos to avoid mistakes. It's not hard to do. I've had 100% success in the countless foals I have done since 1959. In fact, as explained in my book and videos, several problems can be prevented by correctly handling the newborn foal such as rejection of the foal by the mare, aggressiveness by the mare towards humans, and fear of humans by the foal.
By 2 weeks of age, future ranch horses should lead, tie, accept pressure in the saddle and girth area, trust humans, be unafraid of cattle and dogs, be prepared for the farrier and veterinarian, accept handling, ropes, plastic, clippers, fly spray, and so on. Mine do.
Have Trunk Will Travel is an elephant training center at Perris, California. Their many elephants are used in TV, movies, circuses, etc.
This young bull was imprint trained at birth, using the Western Horseman book and one of my videos as a guide. Here he is holding my video. Owner Gary Johnson said that imprint trained elephants can, by 3 years of age, know more behaviors taught to them than can any traditionally trained elephants.
The video is “Early Learning”
My daughter, Laurel, riding our mule, “Jordass Jean” at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Jeanie” is the only mule ever invited to do exhibition jumping at the Olympics. She was the first mule to be formally imprinted with my method. She became a Western and English show champion, a Hall of Fame mule, she made pack trips, cut cattle without a bridle, and never once refused a jump in her life.
In Kenya in 1988, on a veterinary camera safari, we were shown a black rhinoceros bull that a native handled, petted, and towel dried as soon as it was born. He stayed with it until Mom arose and then he got away. This is the result. The photo was taken in the wild, in a ½ million acre wildlife preserve and cattle ranch. Debby gives him a treat. (Note that I’m standing behind her.)
An imprinted rhino sunbathes in the wild while we take photos.
The Hinterland Ranch of Sisters, Oregon, has imprint trained many newborn Llamas, a precocial prey species, fully functional at birth.
Owner Kay Sharpnack uses the Western Horseman book as her guide.
I only imprint trained one zebra, at the Saddlerock Ranch, near where I live. Owned by the Semler family, Tami Semler assists me. Photo by Debby Miller
Nancy Nunke of the “Spots ’n Stripes” Ranch, at Ramona, California has many different equines. Included are 30 Zebras, imprint trained at birth, and gentle enough for children to ride.
Note the bitless bridle.