Making Imprint Training Work
Imprint training pioneer Dr. Robert Miller debunks some of the common misconceptions about this useful foal handling technique.
The technique of imprinting has been used to help train foals for more than 50 years, but common misconceptions about what it means to imprint young horses still exist. While recent years have seen more and more owners and trainers fully commit to properly using this valuable foal handling procedure, a few basic misunderstandings still remain that prevent those who attempt to apply imprint training techniques from achieving the results that they desire.
Dr. Robert Miller, one of the pioneering practitioners of equine imprint training, believes that proper implementation of imprint training principles make a horse more trainable and easier to handle, but only if it is done correctly and completely—and only if the person performing the technique is realistic about exactly what the process is meant to achieve.
“You’re not going to change [a foal’s] personality,” Miller says. “Energetic will be energetic. Lazy will be lazy. Highly reactive will be highly reactive. Indifferent will be indifferent. Intelligent will be intelligent. But what [imprinting] does is, if you do it right after they are born, before any other learning goes in—you build a foundation.”
Understanding what that foundation is meant to support is the key to getting the long-term results that proper imprint training can provide.
“You’re not imprint training the body,” Miller says. “You’re imprint training the mind.”
In the wild, horse have always been prey animals and, therefore, a foal must be able to get to its feet within an hour after birth and run with its herd as a means of self defense. This history means that even domesticated horses are born with a healthy paranoia of just about everything. Fear is the natural first response a horse feels to new stimuli. They have to learn not to fear people, objects and even other animals.
It is almost impossible to teach a horse anything if his focus is on self preservation.
“It applies to us, too,” Miller says. “If we are preparing to take a test, and we’re really scared, our learning ability isn’t nearly as great as if we are laid back and relaxed and can think things out.”
Fear and anxiety interfere with the learning procedure because, in any animal, it increases the primary defensive behavior.
“In some species, [the defensive behavior] is to fight, so fear will precipitate an attack,” Miller explains. “But in the horse, fear usually precipitates flight or the desire for flight.
“In the horse—and this is only true in the horse and not dogs, cattle or people—control of the feet controls the mind. When you control the animal’s primary defense, you control the mind. In wolves, it’s control of the muzzle. In the human being, it’s control of the hands. In horses, it’s control of the feet. Every school of horsemanship has relied upon [this concept] even if they didn’t understand why it worked.”
The main goal of all imprint training is to minimize the fear responses that can keep a horse from learning.
“If we don’t have the fear, the horse isn’t thinking about running away,” Miller says. “Instead, the horse is paying attention and subject to quick learning.”
It is important to Miller that people understand that imprinting and training are two different things—a fact that he believes sometimes gets overlooked.
“Imprinting is a visual memorization of what the foal sees moving around it, and it triggers an instinct to trust and to follow,” Miller says. “Training is learning by reinforcement. The only reason I called the process Imprint Training is because it’s training during the imprint period.”
In nature, a foal imprints on its mother and the other members of its herd, serving to protect the foal against predators in the wild. However, foals can also imprint on a variety of other creatures, too.
“In domestication, it can be a human, or a dog or a piece of machinery,” Miller says. “Anything that moves, the foal will be imprinted upon it and tend to want to go to it and be near it and trust it.”
It is this inherent trust that Miller uses to teach the newborn foal that the world isn’t nearly as scary as it would otherwise believe it to be.
“In an hour to hour and a half, I can get so much done with a foal,” he says. “It’s a great time saver.”
Doing It Right
Miller often regrets calling the process Imprint Training because people confuse the meaning of term.
“I often have people come up to me and say, ‘I imprinted my horse when he was 6 months of age,’ or it was an 18 month old,” he says. “They don’t understand that imprinting only occurs in the horse [immediately after birth].
“It’s not that way with all species. Dogs, for example, imprint between 6 and 7 weeks of age. But that is a different species. They are not precocial. They are helpless as babies, just like humans. Whereas in the precocial species like horses, the ones who must be able to run from danger by the time they are one hour of age, the imprinting begins in the hour after birth.”
To Miller, the advantages of imprint training are that it happens very quickly, you don’t have to rely on or undo any previous negative learning, and since the foal is already down and has yet to stand, you can prepare a foal for most of what it needs to know for the rest of its life in about an hour.
During that time, Miller touches literally every part of the foal—from nose to tail and from ears to hooves—with the goal of habituating [making it comfortable with and unafraid of] common loud or frightening sounds or movements that can spook a horse, being touched in the areas that will be handled during farriery and during veterinary examinations of every body opening, as well as pressure in the saddle area. Teaching foals not to fear pressure in the girth area is usually saved for the second session when they are already on their feet.
“You remove the anxiety, the fear,” Miller says, “and they are quicker to learn other things.”
The mistake most people make when imprint training is that they don’t do enough at the right times, either during the first session when the foal has yet to stand, or during subsequent training sessions when the foal is on its feet.
“I poll every audience that I speak to,” Miller says, “and what I’ve learned from doing this over the last four decades is the two most common mistakes are rushing the training and failing to follow up after the first session.”
Miller says it is almost always men who make the mistake of rushing the first session of imprint training.
“They are usually working for a ranch or farm,” he says, “and they show them my video and tell them they want them to do this with their foals, and they rush it.”
For example, when Miller is habituating a foal to having his feet touched, he taps the bottom of each hoof with his hand 100 times to ensure that he’s tapping long enough for the foal’s initial fear response to the touch to wear off and he learns that having his foot touched isn’t something to be afraid of.
“Men will often tap the hoof 5-10 times and quit,” Miller says, “and what they’ve taught the foal to do is to fear that touch. They have failed to habituate by stopping during the fear and flight period in the foal’s mind.”
By doing this, they have actually sensitized the foal to fear of having its feet touched, and the next day, the person can’t get anywhere near them to continue the second phase of the training.
“Whereas the foals I do, you can touch them anywhere on their body the next day,” Miller says. “Women just love this part of the training because of the intimacy of it.”
Conversely, Miller states it is almost always women who fail to complete imprint training after the first session.
“They do the birth session, but they don’t do sessions two through seven when the foal is on its feet, which is where you get their respect,” he says of the sessions where the foal is habituated to a variety of body pressure and movement cues, as well as leading and tying.
“I ask them ‘Why didn’t you do it?’ and the answer is always the same. ‘He didn’t like it, so I didn’t do it.’ They often admit that they got bad results, but claim to know what they did wrong.”
The Lessons Transfer
While one of the major complaints about imprint training is that the foal will only respond to the person he imprinted upon, Miller doesn’t believe this to be the case. The foal may be slightly more responsive to that individual, but if that person imprint trains the foal properly, anyone who handles that horse in the future will have an easier time than if the horse had never received imprint training.
Miller admits that the trust an imprinted animal gains in its imprinter doesn’t transfer directly to all other humans. However, it does prepare them for what other people may do with them and makes the horse’s transition to the new handler’s style easier and faster.
“Say you have an individual sacking out a colt who has never been ridden with a blanket, and he stands perfectly happy while everything happens,” Miller says. “If a stranger comes along with a blanket, he’s going to react with fear to the stranger, but once he’s past that and the blanket begins, the attitude is, ‘Oh, I remember,’ and the horse relaxes.
“As far as their future talent on the racetrack, as a jumping horse, as a roping horse or a barrel horse, imprint training doesn’t interfere. It actually enhances it because you remove most of the fear factors [that can interfere with learning]. If a foal has learned to be unafraid of a human presence and being touched on any part of its body, and now you want to make a rope horse out of it, it’s not going to get all boogered when the rope drags on the ground beside it or you throw it out in front of him. I wouldn’t say it improves performance, but it enhances learning.”
The same basic principle applies to imprint training a young horse to be relaxed in a stall area around other horses, in your training pen and especially when approaching what some horses consider to be a scary object—a barrel. Once a horse is hauled to a show, the environment may be different and cause anxiety temporarily, but the similarity of the situation to what they’ve experienced before will help the horse relax and perform to the best of its ability faster.
Although imprint training doesn’t affect a horse’s personality, it will help more reactive horses become more handlable. A highly reactive individual will still remain flighty, but if you’ve de-sensitized him to the everyday things he might spook at—which interferes with what you’re trying to teach them at any point—it helps him learn what you’re teaching faster.
Respect, Not Fear
Imprint training has gained wide acceptance over the last 25 years, but there are still some trainers who object to the technique. Many object for a one primary reason—they believe that since imprinting lessens a horse’s fears, it makes the horse much harder for anyone who didn’t imprint that horse to control.
“The objective in training horses should be 100 percent respect and zero percent fear,” Miller states. “Some people think you’ve got to show them who’s boss. You’ve got to show a horse who’s the leader, but you don’t have to show them who’s boss, which infers fear of the boss. It’s not necessary to be able to control the horse.”
The idea that fear of humans is necessary to maintain control of a horse and to get it to do what you want it to do ignores a fact that practitioners of natural horsemanship have known for decades—if you really want your horse to want to work for you, fear can’t be part of the equation.
For Miller, the goal of imprint training is to get the horse to see the human as a herd leader and be submissive to his or her requests as a result. You don’t want a horse to fear you, but depend on you for leadership and guidance. When done correctly, imprint training enhances a horse’s relationship with all humans. All it takes is putting in the effort to achieve the results you want instead of looking for a quick, fear-based fix.
According to Miller, in wild mustang herds, the leader is most often the oldest mare, which indicates that physical strength has nothing to do with gaining the respect of the horse or achieving leadership. The stallion, who many would perceive as the natural choice to be the leader, runs in back and chases the stragglers to get them to keep up with the leading mare, serving as more of a guardian for the herd than a leader of it.
“There are still some trainers that object to [imprint training], and there are still trainers who do it improperly and criticize the technique,” Miller says. “Any training technique ever devised, if you don’t do them correctly, you can’t expect good results.
“I hear people say, ‘I did my colt Parelli style,’ or, ‘I did my colt Kurt Pate style, and it didn’t do any good.’ Well, they didn’t do it correctly because they are very good training techniques. They blame the technique rather than themselves.”
But as with any training program, in the end, you and your horse will get out of it what you put into it. After 50 years of teaching and practicing the techniques of imprint training, Miller believes that if it is done properly, it will absolutely make a difference in the teachability and overall confidence and happiness of the horse.
“Simply put, imprint training works,” Miller says emphatically. “It works consistently and very, very effectively.
“The foal respects the mare, but is also bonded to her and trusts her. We can get exactly the same thing, trust combined with respect.”
Dr. Robert Miller graduated from Colorado State University and settled in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he founded the Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic. He retired in 1987 after 31 years as a renowned veterinarian and expert in ethology (the study of animal behavior) in order to devote his full time to the teaching of equine behavior and to support the revolution in horsemanship that began in the Western United States in the late 20th Century and is now a worldwide phenomenon.
He is best known for his scientifically based system of training newborn foals, called imprint training, which is now in use all over the world. He has authored several books, including Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal, and has been on the editorial staff of several veterinary practice and horse industry magazines.