Postpartum Impression

Your new foal can learn a lot in the first 72 hours of his life.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

The first few hours after a foal is born is a window of opportunity to shape that foal’s behavior for a lifetime, according to Dr. Robert Miller of Thousand Oaks, California.

A horse can be taught how to behave later in life, but it might take a lot longer.

Dr. Miller gets a head start on these conditioned responses before the foal stands to nurse.

“They actually have greater capacity for learning in those first hours of life than anytime in their lives,” he says.

Ideally, he suggest several follow-up sessions during the foal’s first two weeks.

“The first training session should be done immediately after birth in what is known as the ‘imprinting period,’ ” Dr. Miller explains. Many people, of course, aren’t inclined to bird-dog a mare in foal closely enough to see the neonate take its first breaths. However, the foal can still benefit from imprinting techniques if they’re done within the first 72 hours postpartum.

The objective of Dr. Miller’s imprinting technique is fourfold:

1. Bond the foal to the human, establishing a relationship of security and trust. This is done by rubbing, stroking and handling the foal.

2. Habituate the foal to all sorts of stimuli it will experience later in life, like a saddle on its back or clippers buzzing around its ears. Each stimulus is repeated until the foal is desensitized. When the foal accepts the stimulus, it will relax completely.

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3. Sensitize the foal to other stimuli. This is a conditioned response like picking up his feet when asked, following the lead rope without resistance or moving his hindquarters laterally when cued on the side.

4. Inspire submission, getting the foal to accept the human as a benevolent leader. “When the foal is handled before he ever gets up, the human is actually preventing the foal from rising,” Dr. Miller says. “Right there, the foal starts learning submission.”

This in itself is not revolutionary. A horse can be taught all these responses later in life, but it might take weeks or months of training. Dr. Miller gets a head start on these conditioned responses before the foal has even stood to nurse.

Errors to Avoid

Insufficient Habituation

The most common mistake people make is not repeating a stimuli often enough to habituate the animal. Dr. Miller suggests 30 to 100 repetitions on each side.

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Not Establishing Dominance

This is the cardinal sin of proper imprint training. The mildest result will be rude behavior, but the payback can be much worse from a horse with a dominant personality.

“It’s really tempting to let the foal suck on your fingers or let it rub all over you, but for his sake as much as yours, you need to dominate that foal,” says Dr. Miller.

“If he nips at me, I give him a quick flick with my fingers on his nose. It doesn’t hurt; it just makes him think, ‘Hmm, that wasn’t pleasant. I’ll not do that again.’ My actions always let the foal know that I can touch him, but he can’t touch me. I can rub on him, but he can’t rub on me. I am the leader.”

Dr. Robert Miller retired from 32 years of private practice to write and lecture. He gives clinics on imprinting, animal behavior, veterinary science and horsemanship. He has written several books, including one on foal imprinting, and produced a video on the subject as well.