Foal Imprinting


ImprintTraining.inddBy Maddy Butcher

It’s scary how bad science begets bad practice with a bit of marketing and use of the title ‘Veterinarian.’

That’s what Dr. Robert Miller has done with Imprint Training” a technique popularized by his book (published by Western Horseman). Miller piggybacked on the work of Konrad Lorenz, who played Father Goose by imprinting goslings. Lorenz wrote “King Solomon’s Ring” back in the 1950s, spouting the kind of “scientific observation” that today is dismissed as anthropomorphic and unethical.

Miller, whose book was first published in 1991, believes that intensely handling and “bonding” with foals will make them easier to handle and overall better horses. His process involves jumping in to intimately handle newborns 549_rt_Konrad LorenzKonrad Lorenzfor hours in the first days of life. He advocates lengthy sessions at time of birth, at time of the first foal’s standing, and again when the foal is first walking.

Multiple university studies have concluded that imprint training has either no impact or a detrimental impact on foals. J.L. Williams and colleagues found that to be true here. Martine Hausberger and colleagues were even more conclusive here.

clintRecently, Lauren Fraser of Good Horsemanship implored her students to reexamine the mounting evidence opposed to imprint training. She pointed to a Clinton Anderson promotional video as frightening example of imprinting at its worst. Watch it here.

In it, the foal is pinned down and subjected to multiple stimuli, all in the name of making the newborn more manageable over time. It doesn’t take expert eyes to see that this practice goes against two key horsemanship tenants:

  • Let the horse move
  • Let the horse be a horse

Moreover, Miller’s imprint “research” fails in the face of how we evaluate science based on a scale called the Evidence Pyramid. The highest-ranked evidence involves systematic reviews, that is, meta-analysis of several studies all considering the same topic. The lowest-ranked evidence is expert opinion.

evidence-pyramid copyAs Dr. Steve Peters writes in the book, Evidence-Based Horsemanship:

“Consider your sources. Stick to university studies, clinical studies, and other reports without bias and without any ulterior motives (like selling you something)…The weakest information is based on expert’s opinion.”

Miller cites as Don Burke, Kent Hersman, and Tom Dorrance as experts testifying to the success of imprinting:

  • Don Burke is an entertainer and TV host for a lifestyle show in Australia.
  • Kent Hersman is a small-time thoroughbred breeder.
  • Tom Dorrance??

On his webpage touting the benefits of imprinting, Miller quotes Dorrance:

“I found out these young ones learn just as fast, or maybe faster, than older ones. It’s surprising how quick these little ones catch on and how lasting it is.”

It’s true.

tom

Tom Dorrance, back cover ‘True Unity’

On page 31 of True Unity, Dorrance pens these very words. But Miller has taken them shamefully out of context. Dorrance happens to be discussing the value of starting to work around horses when they are weeks or months old. Of working with foals, Dorrance continues:

 My approach is not quite so sudden, and there is a time and a waiting for the foal to present itself to me more than me presenting myself to it…Anytime the foal gets a little unsure and wants to withdraw I back up and take a fresh start; maybe then, or some other day.”

I couldn’t find one single respectable horseman or woman who would endorse imprinting.

Randy Rieman, for one, lets the foal and mare get squared away without much interference. Rieman runs Pioneer Mountain Ranch in Dillon, Montana, worked with the Dorrances. He likes to develop horses with their sensitivity and instinct for self-preservation intact. Imprinting interferes with those essential components of a horse’s development.

“I think imprinting is detrimental. It creates problems you’ll have to fix later,” he said.

 

 

25 comments


  • Jucretia Snow

    I can not tell you how devastated I am feeling right now! Several years back everyone in my area was imprinting. My husband and I imprinted our paint filly. This is the granddaughter to my first barrel horse. She was my dream horse. I have experienced so many horrific issues with this mare, I don’t know where to begin! Problems I have never experienced. After many terrible incidents, it finally hit me one day… THE IMPRINTING! I have raised many colts and NEVER experienced these issues. After another incident today, I am feeling that her damage is permanent. I am older now and my old bones can’t take another fall. We ruined the nicest horse I have ever had! If you are considering this, don’t do it! It’s not natural and you may find yourself with a dangerous horse! I am beyond sad!

    February 13, 2017
  • I recently purchased a 18 month colt as a future herdsire that had been imprinted at birth. He has absolutely NO respect for my space and couple that with being a hormonal teenager, he is dangerous. Every time he is handled it is a total uphill battle. I have had many foals over the years and never imprinted any….and all of those are totally respectful and responsive. This one, he is going to have brain surgery because he is just too dangerous.

    December 26, 2016
  • MNich

    I asked Tom directly about this once. Shame on Dr. Miller.

    May 01, 2014
  • Thank you for your insightful article and highlighting the issue. When I watched the foal imprinting film I felt like I was watching a rape take place.
    The images haunt me , and no doubt the experience haunts the foal and mare too.

    April 02, 2014
  • Sue

    What steps do you take for gentle imprinting? We have our first foal arriving in a month and I only want to handle this baby with the best intentions.

    March 31, 2014
    • maddy

      Sue,
      Research shows that intensive, invasive handling is not appropriate. Hausberger and company have some excellent points. They are linked in the article, but here is the link again Otherwise, as Randy Rieman and Tom Dorrance have said, let the mare and foal get squared away and introduce yourself without aggression. Good luck.

      March 31, 2014
    • Laura

      When I do any imprinting I give the mare and her new foal 1 day to bond. Then I go out and spend time in the paddock with the mare and brush her and give her attention. Pretty soon the baby comes up to see what is going on and then I start brushing him. I also play with the babies ears and tail, but I never restrain him. If he wants to leave he can, I don’t want to scare him. I have had excellent results with this. The foal grows up trusting people and enjoying attention.

      April 03, 2014
      • maddy

        Thanks for your comment, Laura. Sounds like you are doing a great job. Congrats!
        But what you are doing is not imprinting. Imprinting is when you impose yourself on the foal. Konrad Lorenz, for instance, would have substituted himself for the mare entirely.
        Experts say this is wrong. In fact, your good rapport with the mare may be one of the most important keys to success with the foal.
        Thanks again!

        April 04, 2014
  • Thanks for the article. I hope it is read by everyone who is considering imprinting. I have trained horses for over fifty years. Late one summer, when I was twenty, I was hired to round-up and break a half-dozen feral horses/mustangs in Montana. They were never imprinted by a human. My approach was to allow the horses to develop relaxation, focus, self-confidence, and confidence in me while I sat and moved among them. They learned to trust me and enjoyed my company. It never occurred to me to use force or to frighten them. In two weeks, three of the horses liked being ridden. However, I rode them without bits (although I did saddle them). Regarding the other three, two of the horses were about two years old and too young to be ridden and the sixth horse was developing her trust in me when the snows came.

    The cowboys in the area thought I was pretty amusing, but, after a while, their amusement turned to amazement. I still believe in and encourage this approach. I call it “befriending, not breaking.” If you allow a horse to have the freedom to move, develop his intellect, and decide you are a likeable person, you will have a friend who will look forward to moving with you, not away from you.

    March 29, 2014
    • maddy

      Chris,
      This is a thoughtful and articulate comment. It impressed me for its frankness, humility, and perspective. Thank you for taking the time with the horses in your charge and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences here.

      March 29, 2014
  • mary

    I met Dr Miller while my mare was in foal. I practiced his method of imprinting on the one and only foal my mare had. I would NEVER do it again.

    March 28, 2014
    • maddy

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. Sorry for your experience. We learn from mistakes, right?

      March 28, 2014
  • Mary

    In response to the Imprint Defenders who think it is ok:

    Miller writes in his book that you should get in AT BIRTH and handle foal for ONE HOUR. Then, when foal is standing, to perform “desensitizing procedure” again. Then again, within hours, teach the foal to tie.
    This is in the book, under “Ideal Training Schedule for Newborn Foals”!!! Come on, imprinting fans. Wake up! This is not cool!

    Harmful Nonscience at its worst.

    March 28, 2014
  • Balanced-Step

    anytime a human forces him or herself on an animal usually has more of a negative impact…..it misses the trust part

    March 28, 2014
    • maddy

      Thanks for your comment. Force and Trust, two incompatible words. You’re right.

      March 28, 2014
  • Marla Mortimer

    I can’t speak for research outside of my own experience. But, I’ve been breeding APHA horses for 30 years. For the first half of those years I knew nothing about what is called ‘imprinting’. And we usually didn’t bother the foals, and let our interaction with them be at their convenience. Started halter training at about 1 month old. Then, learned about ‘imprinting’ and started applying my versions of it. While not doing as aggressive imprinting as talked about in this article, we do handle foals at birth after mama has had a chance to get up, nuzzle and lick the foal. We don’t keep the foal from her, but after she seems content the foal is doing well, we begin rubbing them down, desensitizing areas that are usually problem areas as horses get older, i.e. ears, mouth, nose, (should a stomach tube be needed), flanks, cinch area, legs, and hooves. We spend roughly 20-30 minutes doing this. If the foal wants to nurse, we stop and let it. We halter train at about day 3. We continue this practice for about a week. Then back off and just interact with them when cleaning pens, or whenever the opportunity arises. We reinforce the halter training when we move the mare and foal from one place to another. There has been a noticeable difference in the approachability and interaction with the foals since adopting this practice. When humans are around them they come up and want to be rubbed, scratched in the places they can’t reach as well, they aren’t fearful of humans and don’t take a defensive stance when approached like the foals did that we raised without this method. So while not a scientist, or what would be deemed a professional horse trainer, I feel my years doing this has some merit. And I think ‘moderation’ is the key in most all things, imprinting included. This subject, like all subjects, has both pro’s and con’s written about it. As for me, I see many pro’s, when not done too aggressively and in moderation. And I really hope that providing me email address in order to share my thoughts does not get me a bunch of spam!

    March 28, 2014
    • maddy

      Thank you for relating your experiences. Folks need to distinguish between your common sense handling & gentling and outright imprinting. Of course, your method makes sense and does not force the foal into a constrained situation. Imprinting, by contrast, can be rather invasive.

      March 28, 2014
    • johny

      agreed with Marla Mortimer . done it,witnessed it. more than once. like tom would say….it’s not so much WHAT you do-as much as HOW ya do it…. people say ‘well,you shouldn’t just force yourself in there. that’s terrible.’ well,that’s not what’s happening… with me n marla anyway… even the babies out of bitchy mares have been nice…

      March 28, 2014
      • maddy

        Thanks for the on-the-ground feedback. Great to hear from you all!

        March 28, 2014
  • Don Dickhaut

    I find your conclusions to be misguided. Imprinting is not a five hour invasive process as you describe, & that is not what Dr. Miller wrote in the book. One of the young veterinarians in the practice that I used put forth all of your arguments here when I asked her opinion of imprinting. She later admitted that she had not read Dr. Millers book I suspect you have not either! I imprint new borns gently in just a few minutes, the critical part is to imprint in the first 24 hrs. This coupled with daily handling, gentle training & discipline allows young animals to flourish as partners and “herd mates” to their humans. Summarily dismissing good practices based on mis-information & prejudice is unwise. Don Dickhaut D Cross D Donkey Farm

    March 28, 2014
    • maddy

      Thank you for your comment, Don. This article is NOT based on misinformation and prejudice, but on conversations with respected horsemen and women as well as a review of the materials at hand. I find it particularly galling that Miller would take Dorrance’s words so horribly out of context. Dorrance CLEARLY did not believe in Miller’s techniques, as confirmed by several of his renowned proteges. BestHorsePractices not is interested in the expert opinion of a few, but in the careful, considered research of many. Evidence supports dismissing imprinting as inappropriate. Gentle handling yes. Imprinting (as especially practiced in the video. Did you view it?), no.

      March 28, 2014
  • Deb Kidwell

    I read the reports cited in this article. It is interesting what you can come up with when things are taken out of context, and you are selective with what you quote. In Williams, et al. it is stated, “Foals then received minimal human handling until they were tested at 6 months.” Hausberger, et al. “imprinted foals that were not regularly handled afterwards were a difficult to approach as controls.”, “when mares were calm, foals were easier to handle.”, “invasive human interference if it induces stress..”, “Positive interactions may reinforce the development of positive relationship..”

    With over fifty years of breeding experience, first with being raised on a horse farm and now breeding American Mammoth Jackstock and mules, every single factor in raising babies comes down to common sense. I was stunned by the Anderson video used in this article. It was most aggressive, in my opinion. We practice a form of imprinting on our farm, HOWEVER, it does not include forcing the foal to do anything, nor does not involve restraint of any kind. In addition, our dams are all calm, compliant girls (we would not breed anything else). I can only speak from our experience from being present at every birth, handling the foals gently, haltering within hours, picking up feet and stroking the babies and it is this – we do not do it just during the time frames used in these studies…we do it daily, from birth through weaning. For us, and our buyers around the world, this creates a well-socialized, quiet, sweet animal who seeks out human companionship and is a willing mount. We do not use food as a reward. There were too many issues in these studies to address here, but you need to take into account the different factors which affected the animals in these studies; stalling, no handling, breed, etc. You must also take into account all of the results, not just those that fit your parameters. We conduct labs on our farm for a local university for pre-veterinarian students and will continue to teach them our methods for raising well-mannered foals and adult equines that the students can approach and pet without fear of being kicked or bitten, which seems to have been quite the problem in the European study! To each their own. Deb Kidwell, Lake Nowhere Mule and Donkey Farm

    March 28, 2014
    • maddy

      Deb,
      Thank you for your lengthy reply. I think the main message with an article like this is that imprinting desensitizes a foal to the point of learned helplessness. Of course, your gentle handling is not imprinting. Miller suggests probing the foal in all orifices and essentially replacing the mare with a human substitute.

      March 28, 2014
  • janwindsong

    I’ve held my breath ever since this ridiculous method of imposing humanness on these precious little creatures came on the scene. Glad to see it be put in the light it should be. Just another way to reveal how little some people understand the horse is a horse.

    March 28, 2014
  • Francis

    Thank you for this valuable contribution to the growing conversation against imprinting. Miller, to borrow from your reference to Konrad Lorenz, is a QUACK. And his methods are dangerous and Quackery.

    March 27, 2014

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