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Wrangling on the Range #73

Foal Imprinting Debunked!

                        WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #73

From the editor of "Horse and Rider" - June 2010

Breaking News: Horses Aren't People

     A team of researchers at France's University of Rennes,
headed up by Severine Henry, has been studying human-foal
interaction and its implications since 2003. The team's studies
are still on-going, but recently released findings of the
research to date are throwing a big wet blanket on the concept of
foal imprinting.

     The notion that you could "imprint" a foal became suddenly
popular about 15 years ago (thanks to that guy with the
ultra-light and his Canada geese). All kinds of books and
articles appeared explaining how to "imprint" your humanness on a
newborn foal and thereby install the push buttons to manipulate
or monopolize its emotions and control its reactions to you for
the rest of its life. The process (to my mind) verged on barbaric
and involved launching yourself at the blinking newborn,
restraining it and smothering it with your body, poking your
fingers into it everywhere you could, then flapping plastic bags
at it, blowing horns in its face, etc. - essentially,
desensitization (or sacking-out) of the most extreme form
imaginable. Proponents of imprinting (and there were thousands)
wouldn't hear a word against the practice, despite the fact there
was a growing class of imprinting graduates which, rather than
"loving" you like a mommy and bowing to your every command,
actually appeared to hate your guts and seemed inclined to kick
your head off if you tried to touch them.

     Well, we now have some science to inform the debate. The
Rennes researchers found (in a nutshell) that horses, naturally,
do not indulge in much physical contact with their offspring;
that physical human contact with foals does not have a beneficial
effect on future handling ability and could even induce a
negative response to human contact later in the horse's life;
that foal handling involving restraint resulted in even greater
reluctance for human contact later in life (see page 50); that
stroking and touching, while beneficial to human infant
development are not necessarily beneficial practices in other
species, especially ungulates (animals with hooves). The
researchers found that the best way to elicit a positive response
to humans was to spend about 15 minutes a day quietly grooming
the foal's dam while in the foal's presence. Earlier studies have
suggested that it's the dam's response to you that has the
greatest influence on her foal's early impressions of people and
this notion seems to have been confirmed by the new findings.
Interfering in the dam's bonding process with her newborn can
cause her to perceive you as an annoyance, at best, or a threat,
at worst - a perception communicated to her foal and `imprinted'
there in the true sense of the word.

     Along those same lines, in this issue's article on
Separation Anxiety (page 20) Dr. Uta von Borstel, a researcher at
the University of Guelph's Department of Animal Behaviour and
Welfare, states that the impact of the relationship between horse
and human may be overrated: "realistically... we cannot expect
that our horses will see us as an equivalent replacement for
another herd member." According to von Borstel, we would have to
spend between 12 and 24 hours a day with our horses, every day,
to build such a relationship. That's a very thought-provoking
statement, given the number of trainers for whom achieving
dominant herd member status with the horse is intrinsic to the
training process.

     It's encouraging to see so much growth in the field of
equine and animal behaviour research. Not only are the results
fascinating, their practical applications are just as important
as medical research results, given how they can affect quality of
life for the animal. Watch for more on the implications of this
research in upcoming issues.


     When I first heard and read some years back about "foal
imprinting" I had to laugh if it was not taken so seriously by
many, as the above noted, by THOUSANDS! Can thousands be WRONG?
You bet they can!
     As a young guy in the early 1960s I was fortunate to work in
a Western Riding school where the owner did just about everything
with horses, from buying to selling, from public trail rides, to
breaking wild horses, to training horses, to breeding horses. In
those years I was new to most of the horse world per se; should
say I was kinda naive and just used common sense and went along
with the daily working on such a horse farm. 

We had foals born and there was no such thought or teaching as
"imprinting" of foals. The youngsters were there with their
Mom and we worked with and looked after the mare as usual. The
young one got to know us as part of his life, and part of how we
looked after its Mom. They are inquisitive creatures, coming up
to us and saying, "Well I'd like to get to know you, even if you
are different than me and have two legs and not four." We would
touch them some, stroke their face some, and that was about it
for a few years. Of course in a few years time they were quite
normal with us as such, and of course had no fear of us. We would
halter break them before they were six months old, and so by the
age of two they would lead and be groomed with no problems. Sure
by that age we had picked up their feet also, but that was about
all we ever did to them, until old enough to start to break to
     There was no "modern" so-called "imprinting" with them, and
they were as easy to break as eating apple pie; easy to do
whatever with; they had respect for us and they could still be a
horse, easy mannered, and they were horses and we were humans and
a bond of horse/human relations was created. They had observed
over two years how we cared for and looked after their mother and
other horses. They had trust in us; they were not spoiled; we did
not make them into "pets" over those two years. We treated them
as young horses, halter broken, grooming, picking up their feet,
and left it at that until it was time to saddle them up and teach
them to be trail horses.

     I've done it; I know it works well, real well; it is the
correct way! Modern "imprinting" is garbage! I could have told
the "imprinters" decades ago they were barking up the wrong tree.
For you young ones in the horse business take an old wrangler's
word for it: Do only what we did back in the 1960s with foals and
you will be on the right trail with plenty of sunshine and good
times with your young horses. 
     The new ideas are NOT always the correct way to go.

Keith Hunt       

To be continued

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