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The Practice of Imprinting as promoted by Dr. Robert Miller
By Leigh Ballard
Robert Miller, DVM, is known for his pioneering work in foal imprinting. The theory of foal imprinting is based on an animal behavior phenomenon where a newborn animal bonds with and attaches its trust and acceptance to the individual(s) it sees in the first hours after birth. Normally, this individual would be the mother, but sometimes humans are present and can become a significant factor in the newborn’s bonding process.
In foal imprinting, the human present at the foal’s birth handles the foal extensively, beginning immediately at birth, creating the foundation of trust, acceptance, and cooperation for the foal’s future dealings with humans. A properly imprinted foal theoretically should be more people-friendly, easier to handle in veterinary situations, and ultimately with the farrier and trainer.
Miller’s procedure accustoms the foal to being touched all over and having no fear of humans. Over the years his method has evolved, and even includes some components from other clinicians, like Pat Parelli. Overall, the basic goals of his process are: bonding with humans, desensitization to certain stimuli, sensitization to other stimuli, and submission to humans. Timing is important to Miller’s process. Imprinting has to happen within a few hours of birth. A foal can be trained days after birth, but this is not imprinting. His process is comprised of both a birth session and some follow-up sessions.
Imprinting and foal training are two different things, explains Dr. Miller. He says, “Don’t confuse imprinting with how to train a foal, or foal training. Imprinting is an automatic thing. It’s bonding between the foal and what it sees around it. If you just move around the foal, it will recognize you later on, and be stimulated to follow you. Imprint training is foal training during the imprint period, which is shortly after birth. The advantage of foal training during the imprinting period is that you can do so much so quickly. In an hour, you can do what it would take days to teach later on. Imprinting and foal training are two different things; I’ve simply combined them.”
Imprint training requires some persistence and patience. The foal has to accept each step of the process before moving to the next step. Miller says the process cannot be rushed. Each area should be completely worked until the foal is relaxed with it. The process begins with gently flexing the muzzle to the withers and toweling the foal dry. The foal is not allowed to stand. The human is established as dominant and the foal learns his first lesson in respect. The first desensitization begins with handling the ears and rubbing the face. Then the fingers are put gently into the mouth and then the nostrils. This action is repeated a hundred times or more until there is complete relaxation and acceptance by the foal. Then the rest of the body gets attention in easily managed sections. The legs are flexed and straightened repeatedly and the bottoms of the hooves are tapped. The tail and genital areas are also repeatedly rubbed. Both sides of the foal should be completely worked. The foal will be resistant to all of this activity at first. That’s where patience pays off. Each procedure needs to continue until total acceptance is given by the foal, and sometimes that means starting over with your hundred strokes of an area.
Miller says there are two common mistakes made in foal imprint training. He has found to his surprise that one mistake is almost always made by men, and the other is commonly made by women. The first mistake happens in rushing the birth session. The mistake includes moving along to the next stage when a foal struggles instead of taking a longer time to achieve complete acceptance. The extra time is needed so that the foal doesn’t learn that resistance
gets him off the hook.
The second mistake is in the follow-up session on day two, where the emphasis is on control of movement. This foal training session, following sessions, are a brief review of the birth session, in addition to adding backing up, lateral movement, and leading. Miller has found that the most common answer given about why this session wasn’t successful is that the foal didn’t like it and they didn’t have the heart to insist that the foal comply.
Rushing or not following through to reach the desired goal of acceptance can lead to the opposite result that is desired. Miller says it’s better not to attempt imprinting if you are going to shape the foal’s behavior towards disrespect. He says, “Ill mannered horses are the bane of the horse industry. Imprint training has made life easier for both horse and horse handler.” Although most foals overcome minor mistakes in imprint training, it is especially important to follow the process correctly with a foal that has a strongly dominant personality or is highly excitable. Miller says, “These are the foals in which correctly performed imprint training is most profoundly effective.”
Although there is some discussion in the equine industry about the effectiveness of imprint training, Miller firmly believes that it enhances later training and relationships with people. More information about the process, his interviews and books on the subject can be found at www.robertmiller.com.
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