Basic Behavior Breeding Stallions Pregnant Mares Basic Training 101


Wendy Malone

We've all grown up learning about baby ducks and how they can "Imprint" to anything or anyone different than their own species and become what they are around to mimic their behavior.

I had a girlfriend in college who went to the community park pond and took one of the tiny newborn yellow fuzzy ducklings and brought it back to our dorm room! She kept that duck all year and it went everywhere with her and became adapted to her way of life and surroundings. Judy was her mother and the little duck (now grown) couldn't go back and relate to being a duck in the pond any more!

Well, horses aren't ducks and won't stop being a horse with all their natural instincts just because we "imprint" them to fit into our environment! They will incorporate all the new outside stimuli we present to them during their first moments of life into their entire life experience, and retain that acceptance without fear for future training. These stimuli could often cause them enough fear to fight or to flee.

Imprinting is a term that well known veterinarian Robert Miller used for the process of this behavior changing pattern that takes place when we are part of the foal's life in the very beginning to shape and mold his world to include a broader acceptance and experience of our way of life into his and his into ours when done properly.

Various forms of imprinting have been used for centuries without a term for these processes. Native Americans and other cultures have been known to handle the foal early and to touch it all over and introduce outside stimuli or pressure points on the foal to take away the fear of the human in it's world and what will be introduced to later in training.

I learned from a Native American horse trainer how to catch wild horses and fit into their world by understanding them and their natural instincts as a horse whose whole existence was based on survival from predators. That is how they see people, and remember that by all definitions we are truly predators. I was taught how to become an accepted "herd" member and not a predator to fear and run away from. I was taught to touch and handle them from birth whenever possible and to use the touch method to bond with them at any age if the foaling was missed, and it has always been successful.

Since we are coming into the age of "gentle training", this "imprinting" process is very timely and accepted as the best way to start your foals without harsh restrictive methods of halter breaking, sacking out, tying up legs, etc. So, I will briefly discuss how to accomplish the desired result of successfully affecting their learning process to include these new influences that we will present to them at foaling time.

Before we begin the process, I want to make it clear that the very best time to accomplish this new learned behavior pattern, is the moment the foal hits the ground at birth. What is even more important is that you have a live healthy foal and mother, so if you feel something is not right with your foal or the mare during and after the foaling, do not proceed with the imprinting. Call your veterinarian immediately to make sure they are both healthy before you proceed with imprinting.

Now, to begin, you should be present at foaling time. As the foal slips out of the mother and is lying there, you can quietly go in and remove the bag from around the baby's head and feet and clear it's mouth and nose of any extra mucous or obstructive debris, then back away and don't disturb the mare. You don't want her to get up too soon and break the umbilical cord before all the blood has flowed from her to the foal, which can take another 10-15 minutes.

The baby may begin to struggle and break the cord, or may come out with it already severed. After the umbilicus has been broken, you can quietly go in and dry the foal by briskly rubbing it all over with towels to warm it and get it's blood flowing. Spray the navel with Iodine or Nolvasan to prevent infection. At this point, you must keep the foal from getting up when it is struggling. You should hold the baby's head in your lap as you are kneeling and keep its chin supported up with your left or right hand, depending upon which side the baby is laying. When on it's left side, your left hand will hold the chin and throat area up and back a little to the right.

As the foal struggles to get up, hold its head and turn it more to the right (toward the body) to keep him down. Horses can't get up without the use of their head and neck for balance. You shouldn't interfere with the bonding process of the mother and foal, so situate the foal to be facing the mother's head where she's laying or if she's up, don't get between them.

It is best when the mare can still lick her foal while you are holding the foal on the other side from her. If the mare is too protective, you may need someone to halter her and loosely hold her so she can bond, but not interfere with you.

Now that you are in position and ready to start, you should have an "imprinting" kit in a bag next to you, which can include anything you want. I have a plastic sack that contains a soft (finishing) horse brush, 2 white plastic grocery bags, a tied plastic bag with jar lids and tin cookie cutters that will jingle easily, a small spray bottle of warm water, a battery operated hair clipper, a wide, stretchy belt, and a foal sized halter.

Begin the imprinting process by rubbing the foal all over with your free hand to teach it to bond with and trust you. The mare licks her foal to bond with him, so our touching him all over helps him bond to us as an accepted family (herd) member since they bond to our touch, our smell and our voices. He will struggle to get up.

If you do not allow him to get free, you will establish yourself as a dominant herd member who is the head of the pecking order because he could not flee from you. This will teach him to trust you because he hasn't been hurt, but will accept and respect you in submission to whatever you present to him next. Since you are the first being he saw and touched him at birth, he will see you as part of his world and a family member, so you represent all humans to him. When done correctly, his "connection" to you will transfer to all humans later in life so people will be seen as "accepted" herd members and not as predators if you calmly and confidently achieve each stimuli presentation with his total acceptance in a relaxed manner before you go on to the next one.

Touching the foal all over can take a while to accept because you will be rubbing his tummy and genital area putting fingers into his ears and rubbing them, putting fingers into his mouth and rubbing his gums on each side, fingers rubbing in his nose, lifting each leg and tapping the soles of the foot 10 to 20 times. You will be gently, but firmly rubbing all these areas until he accepts each area, calmly and totally relaxed, before you go on, and then you know you've successfully imprinted this behavior pattern into his mind to become a "learned" and permanent part of his experience.

When you have completed the touching all over and he remains calm, quiet and half asleep, reach into your kit and take out a couple crinkly, crackly, white grocery bags and rub him all over his body and head until he quietly accepts it. These highly visible colors and noises sound like predators on dry crackling fall grasses coming to get him. When he is calm, shake the bag of cans all over him. Use the spray bottle of warm water to spray all around and over him, because he is wet anyway, you can always towel dry him again. The squirting sounds like a snake hissing, that scares him more than the water mist.

Use the clippers all over his face and ears and muzzle, but don't clip him, just get him used to the feel of the clippers on his skin and ears and the buzzing noise, and then all over his body. Then use the brush to stroke him all over, as it feels totally different than your hands and can bother them the first time. As always, make sure that every stimulus you use on the foal is presented to him as long as it takes until he is calm and relaxed at the end of the session before you go on to the next one!

Lastly, take the halter and bring it up over his nose, up and down 10 to 20 times. Don't worry about putting the whole thing on, because what frightens the foal (and all horses) about being haltered is that they can't see the nose band coming up on him. Since he can't see down that far and all of a sudden he catches a glimpse or feels something "grabbing" his nose, they become frightened by it and may throw his head up. I like to put the halter nose piece on and off until he is holding still and completely relaxed with it.

When you have completed with all the toys and tools in your "kit", gently take both his front legs and turn him over to do the same things on the other side and in the same order as the first time, still facing the mare. Don't let him get up, but keep his head in your lap and bend over him as you begin touching all over. Nature tells the foal that when he arrives, he is to look for a large body that is over him and he is to look upwards to search for his food and safety. You are now in that same position - being over him and he will accept you as a "herd member" type in this way too.

The reason you do both sides is because horses have an eye on each side, not both in front of his face like we do, so he sees on one side only at a time and experiences life, one side at time! He was created to be able to graze and have monocular vision on each side so he can eat and scan the horizon at the same time in case a predator is coming or stalking him. Each side sees something different, separate from the other, so, you must always work both sides of any horse or foal when training.

At the end of this second session, the foal should be relaxed and calm and will gently lay his head on the straw (often falling asleep). He should leave it there while you back away or you can remain there quietly until he gets up. Their quiet acceptance is how you will know that you have accomplished the imprinting successfully.

At any time, if you stop a session before he is totally accepting of the stimuli, you will have only taught him that if he resists or fights long enough, you will eventually give up and he'll win, so he will just fight longer and harder each time. If you let him go when he is forcing the issue, you will have lost all that you were trying to do. When he lays there calmly while you walk away, he will learn that he can get up and eat. They will also learn that when you finish your shots or enemas or whatever you came to do, you will leave them alone.

During the first 24 hours, I do three of these sessions with the foal lying down. The next 2 sessions won't take as much time if the first one went correctly. It is easy to walk in and find them already lying down and just go in with your kit and put their head on your lap and begin.

The second day I begin imprinting lessons while they are standing up because they are stronger and can stand longer. If you have a partner who can help you, have them gently hold the foal from front to back(one hand lightly on the chest and the other on the rear) while you halter them and do all the same things in your kit as lying down and work both sides. If you don't have a helper, try to hold them in a corner or against a wall so it won't back up. The foals are usually well imprinted by this point and will be relaxed and should stand there as you hold them by yourself.

I use a belt or a soft rope to tie around their girth to get them accustomed to a cinch. This is a good time to pick up each foot and tap it ten or twenty times. Teach them to lead by learning to move away from pressure, as all horses will naturally move in toward pressure instead of away from it. While on the left side of the foal, hold onto the rope snap and halter with your left hand, while keeping your body in close to his and just behind the shoulder. With your right hand, push the foal's bottom forward as you slightly pull forward with your left hand, then come up front and with your left hand, push back on the halter rope and right hand on the foal's chest push backward at the same time and have the foal back up.

Do this forward and back up pressure three or four times in a row, and then as you push from behind and pull some forward on the halter, do it to the left in small circles around the mother. Within 3 days you will have the foal leading in bigger and bigger circles and then it will move straight ahead. I do these stand up sessions twice a day for three or four days. You can also add pressure to the left front shoulder to move to the right and the right shoulder pressure to move to the left. This technique also works by adding pressure to the hips.

Customize your training by adding anything you want to your imprinting experience for the foal. This is the best time to introduce to it whatever "people things" you will be using with your horses later in life. I use the cinch strap at the end of each lesson during the leading part and don't leave it on for all the other training steps. The sessions should last up to 10 minutes as they learn it quickly and get hungry every 15 minutes and want to eat or lay down.

I like to imprint foals for 5 to 7 days and then turn them out with the herd and work with them again at weaning time. They will be easy to train as they remember and retain their early imprinting lessons. Continue your program for as long as you like and add bridges to cross water, traffic, starting gates or whatever you want. My horses will come up the steps and into the house even as adults because I asked them to as weanlings. As long as I hide the cookie jar, I'm safe!

This technique works and makes for a wonderful, calm and friendly, user safe foal and will continue into adulthood. As 2 year olds, I can ride them the first day and they are willing, relaxed working partners ready to go without fear or panic of what lies around the corner. The effort and sleepless nights do pay off with BIG rewards.

If you can't be there at foaling but find the foal a few hours later, you can still use these methods and have them be effective. You won't have that "magical moment" birth experience that tells the foal to accept you and all humans as part of their lives as adopted herd members from the beginning, but then you will have to earn their trust on a personal level.

The first time you walk upright into that stall towards the foal, you will be seen as a predator that might hurt him and he will want to run from you or fight for his life! You can still make a big difference in their life as you gently begin this process of imprinting. I prefer the touch method all over their body while they are standing and begin earning their trust and bond with them through the touching even if they are a few months old, weanlings or adults.

Caution: Through the imprinting process, we are trying to make behavioral changes towards outside stimuli that the foal will encounter in our material world. These stimuli would usually trigger their natural survival "fight or flight" instincts to want to fight or run away. We hope to imprint on their minds and life experience that these outside human forces will not be a threat to them and make our later training less stressful and more acceptable to them. We are not trying to humanize the foal and make them our pets like a dog might be or become like us, as that would set up confusion and a loss of respect for humans if it is overdone.

We must allow and encourage them to maintain their own character and be socialized with other herd mates. Bottle fed foals who were orphaned early in life are an example of the many problems we can create in the future if we don't encourage them to be in the horse environment and avoid spoiling them in our environment excessively.

That is why I imprint my foals for 5 - 7 days and then turn them out to be kids and interact with their own kind. As weaning time, I bring them in and work with them again and find that their respect and training is still in tact. As in anything in life, we can go overboard and not keep the balance of respect - discipline - love - and reward. "HAPPY IMPRINTING!"

"A Member of the Herd", an instructional video by Wendy Malone on foal imprinting/bonding, was released in May 1998. The 53 minute training tape takes the viewer through all of the proven and innovative steps necessary to ensure a successful bonding process. The tape was produced by International Film Award Director/Cinematographer Bill Gibson.