June 9, 2011
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Since equine imprint training was introduced to the veterinary profession and equine industry about 50 years ago, it has come into widespread use throughout the world. We have come to know that imprinting does not interfere with the future performance of an equine athlete but does enhance it.
I am a veterinarian and also a trainer and breeder of Standardbreds. I use imprinting with my horses and know from my experience that it makes a difference in horses’ performance and attitude toward humans.
The imprinting period should begin immediately postpartum for best results.
The training of neonatal foals during their critical learning time in the hours and days after birth is not a new idea. The practice has been performed by various horse cultures throughout history, especially by nomadic tribes that lived in constant contact with their horses. What is relatively new is modern trainers and veterinarians have found that the method enhances a horse’s attitude toward humans and training throughout its life.
A half century ago, observing foals that had been handled extensively at birth due to dystocia, one of our colleagues, Robert N. Miller, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., realized that these foals had undergone imprinting.
Imprinting is a visual bonding in precocial species. In the horse, foals bond with and will want to follow and travel with whatever they see moving around with them soon after their birth.
In nature, foals bond with members of their herd. But surrogate bonding is possible in most species at any age, so the baby foal readily bonds with a human handler as soon as it is born. When imprinting is performed correctly, the newborn foals will see humans not as predators but as fellow horses.
Also during imprint training, a foal exposed to frightening stimuli sees the trainer as the dominant horse or herd leader. Submissiveness is created by dependence, not fear, which psychologically is the ideal relationship between horse and human.
Imprint training also involves desensitization to most sensory stimuli by touching the foal anywhere on his body, fluttering objects nearby or making loud noises. A calm demeanor thereafter is usually the result, permanently habituating the foal to most sensory stimuli.
Next, the foal is sensitized to performance-related stimuli. The foal is taught to respond to head and flank pressure, allowing control over the fore and hindquarters. This should be taught the day after birth.
Dr. Miller combined the imprinting factor, which improves the foal’s responses to and attitude toward humans for the rest of its life, with routine training. He has shown us that horses can learn “good manners” and an increased response to stimuli will later improve their performance.
Imprint training beginning at birth is possible because a foal is precocial, that is, born neurologically mature with all its senses fully functional so that it can keep up and follow the bond in order to escape danger. Miller suggests that imprinting sends messages directly to the brain before other stimuli can have their effect, and that imprinting will be retained for the horse’s lifetime.
So, though Miller didn’t invent imprinting, he gave it a name, popularized it and explained it scientifically.
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