EC Blog by: Shelby Glessner
The concept of “imprint training” is highly popularized in media, often prescribed to some of our most treasured companions such as dogs and, yes, horses.
Imprinting refers to a period of time after the animal is born when it is first exposed to its environment and, of course, its mother. “Imprint training” is indeed a misnomer. Imprinting technically refers to the process through which the neonate (young animal) develops a social attachment to the mother, which does not seem to change with the introduction of a human handler in horses as it might in other animals. The idea of imprint training is to, in a single session, introduce as many new objects and sensations as possible within the first 24 hours after birth. This might include brushes, halters, clippers, other equipment, and touching of the face, body, legs, and hooves.
Efficacy of this process is questionable. Thus far, there is no evidence to show that one specific imprint training session will make any difference in the long-term behavior of a horse. Rather, there are some safety and management concerns that should be focused on when deciding how to train young horses.
Instead of worrying about implementing a single imprinting routine with tons of gadgets and tack, consider that working with the foal early and often in simple sessions will yield much more of a result. It will be much easier and safer for you as a comparatively small and weak human than trying to wrestle a completely untrained, much larger two-year-old! While a single session of imprinting will not do you any particular favors in the future, educating your foal periodically from the start certainly will.
This is to say, not every breeding operation is the same. Some farms will breed many mares per year, resulting in foals being born when there are already in-progress horses to be finished and showed or sold. In these situations, consistent individual training with each new foal on the ground may be impractical. Such farms may find it more feasible to wait to train their young horses. These horses will take more time to start once they are older, but they will not be at a disadvantage in the long run for the lack of imprint training.
No matter which course of training you choose for your young horses, it is important to remember that any method done incorrectly can result in consequences for you as a handler or for the horse in their future. Be sure to choose a training program that works best for you and your operation, and have fun looking forward to seeing your new foals on the ground this spring.
Spier, Sharon J., et al. “Outcome of Tactile Conditioning of Neonates, or ‘Imprint Training’ on Selected Handling Measures in Foals.” The Veterinary Journal, W.B. Saunders, 11 Feb. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090023303002260?casa_token=YGQhYP1dJXwAAAAA%3AK368aPqMpXucshDS3ln9mc-3oaS-GqF0DI0zglkWFudr_S-R53SZVWnOqwCq0GoKbWGPdyqidoE.
Williams, J.L, et al. “The Effects of Early Training Sessions on the Reactions of Foals at 1, 2, and 3 Months of Age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Elsevier, 11 Apr. 2002, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159102000473.
Shelby Glessner is a graduate of Michigan State University’s Animal Science program. She spent an academic year working with renowned researcher Dr. Stephanie Valberg in the Equine Neuromuscular Diagnostic Lab at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and has undertaken extensive science and equine related coursework. Passionate about education, she hopes to pursue a career advocating for research-based practices in animal agriculture.