Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal

Trainer Emily Johnson shares how training a newborn foal at his earliest years set the stage for training down the road.
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Trainer Emily Johnson shares how training a newborn foal at his earliest years set the stage for training down the road.
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What is quick and capable and spry on its feet, but stands only a few feet tall? What can run and jump with exuberance, but be fast asleep in your lap a moment later? What is absolutely precious, totally dear, and yet fully functional at birth?

A baby horse, that's what.

I am briefly interrupting the groundwork series as I want to share with you a very special event that has taken place on my ranch this past week - the birth of a strong and vivacious colt named Frisco.

Frisco is a stunningly handsome colt, part Morgan, part Spotted Draft horse. He's a breathtaking palomino paint in color.

Enjoying the presence and personality of a baby horse is a magnificent and endearing experience. To see the women at my barn take in little Frisco's first experiences is almost as fun to watch as Frisco himself. They coo when he sleeps, "awww" when he pees, giggle when he leaps, and gasp when he falls down. And while these moments are certainly a very special part of the experience, there is a whole other side to raising a young horse.

Indeed, a baby horse is fuzzy, cuddly, playful and small enough to seem quite harmless. But that small and relatively harmless youngster quickly becomes a strong and rambunctious adolescent horse-just like any teenager.

A young foal, while decidedly precious, is naturally precocious. It's that adorable innocence factor that draws us in and reduces us to cooing, giggling caregivers, just like we do with human babies. There is little more precious than a newborn baby-and that's a survival mechanism, because it's that helplessness, innocence and endearing physical traits that prompt us to respond with love and devotion, tenderly providing for the child's every need. And not just until they're weaned-as we all know, this care typically continues for eighteen years (at a minimum. I understand for some of you, it continues on significantly longer, and my heart goes out to you, but addressing that would require a separate column and a lot more space).

It is not so in the equine world.

Far too often, someone falls for a cute and needy young horse without fully considering the kind of leadership, commitment and proper training a young horse requires. And just like with any spoiled youngster-this can only spell trouble down the road for everyone involved.

Did you, or someone you're close to, ever try to quit a bad habit, like smoking? The longer you do it, the harder it is to quit.

It's the same for a horse (except, obviously, for the smoking part).

While a horse's behavior can be influenced at any age, it becomes more difficult to alter patterns that have been reinforced over time. Not to mention that the older-and larger--the horse becomes, the greater the risk of injury to both horse and human when conflict arises. Therefore, just like with kids, the sooner you establish good behavior and manners with a young horse, the better.

Over the past few months, I have outlined many qualities of the horse's innate character and how those qualities influence horse behavior. I've tried to reinforce that helping our horses become confidant, respectful and willing partners furthers the safety and enjoyment of horse and human.

Now I want to take you back even further in your horse's development and share with you one of the most profound transformations that can take place in the first few hours and early days of a horse's life. It's a magical learning time.

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The Horse as a Precocial Species

Each species has a critical learning period - a time period in the early stages of that animal's life where it displays a heightened sensitivity to its environment. During this time period, its development is strongly influenced by its experiences.

While the specific time period varies some among species, the most interesting thing to note is the significant difference in the timing of a prey animal's critical learning period, which occurs almost immediately following birth.

Not so with a predatory species, whose critical learning period occurs much later.

Because the horse, as a prey animal, lacks the luxury of time and security that predatory parents possess, it is critical that a newborn horse be able to become a functioning and thriving part of the herd immediately. This is the only way for survival and the continuation of the species.

The ability of the newborn foal to be neurologically mature and physically capable at birth is characteristic of a precocial species. This level of competence is necessary because a newborn horse is at its most vulnerable. The newborn foal must be able to identify danger and flee with the herd if necessary. In short, as a precocial species, the horse is a full-faculty learner immediately following birth.

Imprint Training
Renowned horse behaviorist and veterinarian, Dr. Robert M. Miller, recognized the opportunity to positively influence a horse's development during this early learning period and made popular the imprint training of newborn foals.

The horse categorizes everything in one of two ways: things to fear and therefore run from, or things not to fear and therefore not to run from. The foal begins this categorization the moment after birth. In the hours following birth, there is an irreplaceable opportunity for shaping a horse's attitude and behavior for the rest of its life.

This is not to imply that horses that have not been imprint trained can not become reliable partners, nor does it suggest that this is the only time period or way in which a horse learns. It is simply that, in those first few hours and first few days of a horse's life, they are mentally and emotionally a clean slate - uninhibited by past biases, fears, or experiences. A great deal of learning can take place at a far quicker rate during the critical learning period than once the time period has passed.

This discussion on imprint training is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive resource by any means, but rather as an overview, so you may have some context in the teachings of our foal, Frisco. For more detailed information on the imprinting procedures, I would highly recommend Dr. Miller's resources on the subject.

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Frisco's Early Learning
Once the initial shock and awe of meeting this new life simmered down and we were able to think straight, Frisco's partnership training began. I will not go into much detail regarding the methods and theory behind Frisco's early training, as much of that has been covered in the previous articles. Read about those articles here. Rather, this account is meant to show the positive relationship and results that grow from proper handling starting at birth.

Since the horse as a prey animal is inclined to be skeptical and easily frightened, the goal of Frisco's first human contact was to build trust through desensitization. Within those first hours of life lies the opportunity to gain a horse's trust and respect for all future handlings.

Teaching a horse to respond out of trust and confidence, rather than react out of fear, is a spectacular gift to the horse. He will not have to feel the anxiety, fear and distress that many horses undeservingly have to experience with trailers, clippers, the first saddling or future veterinary procedures, to name a few.

When desensitizing, it is extremely important that the stimulus is not released until the horse is calm, confident and relaxed. If a stimulus is released prematurely, while the horse is thinking flight, the horse will become permanently sensitized, rather than desensitized. This can be very difficult to go back and correct.

Frisco's body was thoroughly desensitized including: the inside and outside of his ears, his face, muzzle, nostrils and inside of his mouth. His back and belly were desensitized in preparation for his future saddle training.

He learned to relax to having a hand between his hind legs and under his tail, preparing him for future health and hygiene procedures, as well as enhancing his trust in his human handler.

After his body had been thoroughly handled and was properly desensitized, we moved on to his legs and feet. Lying in the straw resting shortly after birth, Frisco learned how to yield his front and rear legs. He learned that having his foot tapped on was nothing to be afraid of and that he could trust a human touch up and down all four legs.

Once Frisco had learned to trust human hands over and around his small body, we introduced various types of plastic, newspaper, and different sounding clippers. These objects were rubbed all over his body until he no longer took notice of their presence.

Sensitization of the Newborn Horse
When Frisco was on his feet, he was introduced to movement away from pressure. He learned how to move forward and backward in response to physical pressure. This became a valuable skill during his first leading session one day later. Using a butt rope to teach him how to come off of pressure from the lead rope, Frisco learned how to follow the feel of the rope and stick by me.

In his first training session he also learned how to yield his forehand and hind end to physical pressure. Both are very important skills for maintaining safety on the ground and under saddle.

On day two, Frisco experienced leading in more spacious areas, had his feet held while he was standing up, and loaded into the trailer.

The Importance of Follow Up Training
Imprint training done correctly takes the fear and reactivity out of a horse. It is important to note here that this is only part of the story. We want horses that are confident, but also respectful. It is imperative that all foals, but particularly imprinted foals because their fear of humans has been reduced, are handled in a way that teaches them respect for humans.

A horse of any age needs credible leadership and strong guidance as they develop proper and safe behaviors.

A horse that has respect for the human as a leader will not put its mouth on the human. Nor will it kick, push, crowd, or drag their handler. It will be a horse that has an attitude of politeness, responsiveness and willingness.

While much can be accomplished in the first few hours of a horse's life for the lessons to truly take hold in a correct way, they need to be repeated many times and in many different locations.

In the case of Frisco, we have divided his learning sessions into two or three shorter sessions throughout the day, everyday, so as to maintain the quality of his initial lessons.

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The Joy of a Safe Equine Partner
My heart weights heavily with the many stories of horses that get hurt or experience deep trauma because they were never properly prepared for what they encountered.

In domesticating horses, I believe it is our duty to teach our horses how to safely and happily exist in the unnatural settings we have put them in. This means offering them proper and adequate training so that they do not have to experience the trauma and harm that so many do. A horse should never have to experience trauma and fear at the sight of an open trailer, or injure themselves in fright at the sound of clippers or the sight of plastic blowing in the wind.

Frisco is now about one week of age and is as soft and responsive as any of the adult horses on my ranch, perhaps more so. Working with him a few days ago, my heart felt terrifically full as I watched this young horse enthusiastically hop into a trailer, confidently lead around the pasture and curiously walk over a tarp. I feel thankfulness and relief knowing that my dear Frisco has been set up to thrive and prosper in the human world and has been taught habits and behaviors that make him safe enough for a human to thrive alongside. My dream is that every horse could receive this gift.

About the author: Emily Johnson, owner of Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training, LLC, located in Broomfield, Colorado, is an accomplished horse professional with a passion for bringing horses and humans together through credible and approachable instruction.

Emily studied Equine Science at Colorado State University before spending the following years traveling, mentoring under many accomplished trainers nationwide, as she developed her own natural horsemanship style. Her training methods utilize a direct approach the horse naturally understands, which she combines with her knowledge of human learning to create the most effective environment for both.

Emily specializes in areas that include young or troubled horses, as well as horsemanship that emphasize the mind and behavior of the horse. Her instruction reflects her passion for equipping both horses and humans for success on their journey toward partnership. She may be contacted at mountainrosetraining@gmail.com.