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About “Imprinting” Horses

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 27 December 2010 · 1,291 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
Imprinting is a term coined by the ethologist (behaviorist) Konrad Lorenz in the 1930s to describe a kind of learning occurring in newborn animals in which genetically innate behaviors are learned almost immediately upon exposure to a stimulus which is also genetically pre-programmed.  Among horse owners, the term is connected with Robert Miller, who claims to have invented imprinting as a training technique for use with foals.  However, imprinting (as defined by scientists) does not really exist in horses.

Imprinting was first described by Konrad Lorenz in geese.  He had discovered that, if he was the first large moving thing that baby geese saw, they would “imprint” on him rather than on their parents and would never learn to interact properly with other geese.  He determined that the "critical period" during which imprinting could occur was restricted to the animal’s very early life (24-48 hours after hatching for geese), and imprinting was instinctive.  In other words, it was a genetically predetermined response that was "released" by a limited set of stimuli from the environment.  In his geese, the predetermined response was following and the stimulus was a large moving object, probably because the first large moving thing they would USUALLY see would be their parents.  The imprinting stimulus for other animals varies, but the most effective stimuli are usually those that are represented in the adults of the species.

Another way of describing imprinting is that it is a learning mechanism operating very early in the life of an animal, in which a particular stimulus immediately establishes an irreversible behavior pattern in response to the source of the stimulus in the future.  The important point here is that imprinting is irreversible.  Once Lorenz’s geese were imprinted on him, they would never imprint on anything else.

Imprinting establishes an individual animal's preference for a certain species, and thus, it often shapes the animal’s future breeding activities.  If a newborn imprints on the wrong species, it will probably be unable to reproduce, because it will not be sexually attracted to its own species.  Lorenz’s geese tried very hard to reproduce with HIM, but they were entirely uninterested in other geese.

This explanation of imprinting should make it clear that imprinting does not occur in horses.  If it did, we would want to AVOID having foals imprint on humans, not encourage it.  We do NOT want horses to think they are people.

It is unfortunate that Miller incorrectly used the term “imprinting” to describe his technique, rather than using a better term such as “familiarization” or “socialization”, because these terms describe what is actually occurring.  The foals he trains are not imprinting on people.  They are merely becoming familiar with (or socialized to) them, so that people do not scare them in the future.

The behavior problems occasionally seen with hand-reared foals are sometimes claimed to be due to their being “imprinted” on people, but even hand-reared foals do not think they are humans.  The problems of these foals are caused by their being socialized only to people rather than also being socialized to other horses.  These foals then behave toward people as if people were horses.  They prefer to be with people instead of other horses, and with people, they are very pushy, because that sort of behavior is typical of young horses until older horses teach them acceptable behavior.  When humans try to discipline them, such foals can become aggressive, just as they would to another horse, so they develop problems such as rearing, nipping, or threatening to kick.

The problem with hand-reared foals that aren’t exposed to other horses is that people do not (and cannot) safely discipline horses in the same way that other horses do, so foals raised apart from other horses often don’t learn to be disciplined adults, with people OR with horses.  This problem is not because they “imprinted” on people, however.  An orphan foal raised only by people for the first part of its life is still capable of learning to behave properly if it is exposed to other horses while it is still young.  Foals don’t imprint on people, but they can fail to be properly socialized to horses.

Robert Miller is wrong, then, in calling his technique “imprinting”, but there are actually two parts to his technique, which is something that most people do not seem to understand.  One is “imprinting”, and the other is desensitization.  Miller understands this difference, but most people think that his desensitization techniques ARE “imprinting.”  In actuality, those techniques simply occur during the “critical period” that he claims exists for “imprinting” foals.  All of the handling he recommends during that period is actually just desensitization of the foal to handling.  Miller himself notes that such training can be done at any time in a horse’s life, but he finds it easier to accomplish with a foal.

There are two problems with Miller’s technique.  The first is that some scientists claim to have evidence that it disrupts the bonding between the foal and its mother.  Miller spends the first two hours of the foal’s life desensitizing it to various stimuli, and that amount of time taken from the natural bonding process may indeed decrease the strength of the bonding when it is finally allowed to occur.  In my opinion, even the chance of interfering with proper bonding makes the “imprinting” technique something I would not recommend.

There is no real benefit to desensitizing the foal before it bonds with its mother.  It is not that much more difficult to do it AFTER they have bonded, if you do it correctly.  In addition, Miller points out that you have to follow up on the “imprinting” desensitization by continuing to handle the foal from time to time afterwards.  Certainly, that handling will be easier if the foal was desensitized to handling shortly after birth, but the desensitization doesn’t need to occur BEFORE the mare and foal have bonded.  Let them establish their relationship FIRST, before you begin to interfere in the foal’s life.

The second problem is that the desensitization technique Miller uses is one called “flooding”, which forcibly exposes the foal to frightening stimuli. Improperly done, “flooding” a newborn foal might even make the foal permanently fearful of humans.  A better technique is to accustom the foal gradually and VOLUNTARILY to being handled, increasing its exposure to a scary stimulus so slowly that it never becomes afraid, while rewarding it for accepting new and scary things.  This technique will take more than two hours to desensitize the foal to all types of handling, so it cannot be done in the first two hours of the foal’s life, but it is a far better technique, won’t make the foal afraid of people, and won’t interfere with the bonding between the mare and foal.

Before Miller’s “imprinting” techniques became popular, good horsemen were already handling foals from early in their lives.  The foals were allowed to get up and nurse (and bond with the mare), but shortly thereafter, their navels were treated, so they were exposed to handling at a time that was probably optimal.  When they were still only a day or two old, they were introduced to wearing a halter, and shortly after that experience, they were taught to lead.  These repeated experiences helped to desensitize them to handling, so that they were never really very difficult to train.

What Miller introduced to the horse world that IS of value is an early SYSTEMATIC desensitization of foals to ALL (or at least most of) the things they are likely to encounter as domesticated animals.  The previous way of doing things was to introduce foals to things only as something needed to be done.  For example, they would learn to lead when their owners wanted to lead them, and they would learn to pick up their feet when their owners wanted to begin to work on their feet.

What Miller did was come up with a list of things that all horses are likely to experience, so that he could desensitize the foal to them all at once.  In other words, the foal learns in one session to allow people to handle its feet, its ears, its nostrils, its mouth, its tail, etc., so that, when its owner wants to handle those parts at a later time, it only needs to be reminded of its previous desensitization, rather than desensitizing it individually to each separate thing as each thing comes up in its life.  I do think such early systematic desensitization is a valuable addition to horse training techniques.  It just doesn’t need to be done all at once, by “flooding”, before the foal has even bonded with the mare.

Miller’s technique works best on newborn foals because it involves FORCIBLE desensitization (“flooding”), and it’s easier to use force on a newborn foal than on an adult horse.  However, it is more humane to use gradual, VOLUNTARY desensitization, by increasing a horse’s exposure to a scary stimulus so slowly that it never becomes afraid, while rewarding it for accepting new and scary things.  This type of desensitization works as well on adult horses as it does on foals, because it doesn’t involve force.  Therefore, if your horse was not “imprinted” as a foal, you needn’t despair.  You can (and should) still desensitize it to all aspects of handling.

With adult horses, as with foals, the value of Miller’s idea is that it encourages SYSTEMATIC desensitization.  In other words, you don’t wait until you need to do something to begin to train the horse to accept it.  You SYSTEMATICALLY desensitize the horse to EVERYTHING you can think of that  it is likely to encounter as a domesticated animal.  You teach it to allow handling of its feet, its ears, its nostrils, its mouth, its tail, etc.  You accustom it to clippers, dogs, children, moving cars, blowing tarps, etc.  You think ahead and prepare your horse to accept the scary things it is likely to encounter, and by doing so, you make life better for both you and your horse.

Systematic desensitization training should definitely be a part of every horse training program, for foals AND for adults.  If your horse doesn’t allow you to handle every part of its body, then you need to teach it to do so.  Just do such training gradually, with lots of rewards --- and don’t call it “imprinting.”




I have seen this "imprinting" technique go horribly wrong. A woman I know did this to a foal. She has been handling horses her whole life and is great at training. She decided to give this a try. Very quietly followed the instructions in the book. She thought the foal accepted it all really well. What I saw in his eyes is that he was so stressed he just shut down and let her do what ever she wanted to him. But the minute they turned him lose in the pasture with the mare he took off running...from us and from the mare. The only time he let the mare next to him was to get some milk, then he ran away from her. Over the next year they tried to catch him in the 10 acre pasture, with no luck. Finally, they gathered enough people to corner him and he freaked and drove his head through the barn wall and he died. So no, I don't think we should try to bond with babies. That is mom's job, only.
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QUOTE (Antique Cowgirl @ Jan 5 2011, 02:36 PM)
I have seen this "imprinting" technique go horribly wrong. A woman I know did this to a foal. She has been handling horses her whole life and is great at training. She decided to give this a try. Very quietly followed the instructions in the book. She thought the foal accepted it all really well. What I saw in his eyes is that he was so stressed he just shut down and let her do what ever she wanted to him. But the minute they turned him lose in the pasture with the mare he took off running...from us and from the mare. The only time he let the mare next to him was to get some milk, then he ran away from her. Over the next year they tried to catch him in the 10 acre pasture, with no luck. Finally, they gathered enough people to corner him and he freaked and drove his head through the barn wall and he died. So no, I don't think we should try to bond with babies. That is mom's job, only.


"Shutting down" is just one of the possible problems with the "flooding" technique of desensitization. Technically, shutting down is called "learned helplessness", and it's considered to be the equivalent of depression in people. The horse learns it has no control, so it just gives up, and if it undergoes such experiences too often, you will end up with a depressed horse. It will probably be very obedient, but at what cost? In the case you describe, the foal not only failed to imprint on people OR the mare, but the flooding actually SENSITIZED him to handling (made him fear it even more), rather than desensitizing him. So, neither the imprinting nor the desensitization was done properly, and you say the woman was an experienced handler. IMO, the chances of things going wrong are just too great with Miller's techniques. However, once the foal has bonded with the mare, systematic VOLUNTARY desensitization should indeed be started ASAP. Socialization and systematic desensitization are good ideas. They just need to be performed appropriately.
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What a timely post. This topic came up on a LI forum this week. Thanks for the studied precursor and the opinion.

I am not one who's in favor of systematic approaches to any horse. They're all different and I think you need to be adept at reading and responding to what your horse is trying to tell you in any training activities. Granted, I haven't gone through the 75 comments to date (good for you!) and this may have already been addressed (sorry if it has), but I do think people need to be careful about formula strategies for any horse.

It's so wonderful to see someone suggesting people give mares and foals time to bond. I agree 100% with this ideal (and thank you for putting it out there).

I'm new to HorseCity and can't figure out how to find or sign up for your blog outside of this forum. Can you give me a pointer? Thanks.

Nanette Levin
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I agree that each horse is an individual and a trainer should be able to read and respond to each horse's individual reactions. What I meant by "systematic" is that there should be a list of things that every trainer teaches every horse to accept while it is still very young, and the trainer should work systematically through the list. That list should definitely include handling every part of the horse's body, and it should also include anything the horse is likely to encounter as it gets older (e.g., children, dogs, bikes, cars, blowing tarps, etc.). HOW the trainer works through the list will depend on the horse's individual reactions.

I'm afraid I don't know how to sign up for the blog, either. I think it's possible to do RSS feeds, but I don't know how and am not really interested in learning. However, I usually post my blogs every other Monday, so if you checked every other Tuesday, you should find a new one. I'm a week late right now because of troubles with the website, but my next blog will be next Monday. Thanks for your interest!
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A study by Williams et al (2002) exposed 13 foals to "imprinting" at 2,12,24 and 48 hours of age. A further 13 foals served as the control group and did not receive the "imprinting". By three months of age, there were no significant differences between the imprinted and control groups in terms of their acceptance of handling or their heart rate responses during standardised handling tests.

Williams, Friend, Toscano et al. The effects of early training sessions on the reactions of foals at 1,2 and 3 months of age. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2002, 77(2):105-114
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Great thread! happy to see some very good information regarding imprinting. However it seems strange to compare Konrad Lorenz's imprinting of gosling to that being undertaken by humans towards their horses. Goslings will follow and imprint on the first moving objects they see (horses too) which are usually conspecifics particularly, mummy. Imprinting of foals with Robert Miller's technique goes much further and I agree with VwKoch, that mostly it is based on heavy flooding or desensitization.That is not to say whether it is correct or not to use with horses, it is just calling a spade a spade. I am however concerned that much early training is using these flooding techniques in detriment of future learning and performance. Do we really want to imprint a horse? i.e have it follow us as if we were a similar species, or even get into sexual trouble becuase it has been imprinted early in life to consider itslef more similar to us. It really is saddening to see imprinting techniques used on very young foals (this is actually abuse) 1, 2 or three month olds. I like very much the comment on learned helplessness as this is the inevitable outcome of improper use of punishment or reinforcement, and it is still too often we find people preaching about equine submission to their human. In this sense there is a wonderful "Equid Ethogram" by McDonnel of Penn State where she compares submission in a horse-human dyad to helplessness.

All the best!
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A study by Williams et al (2002) exposed 13 foals to "imprinting" at 2,12,24 and 48 hours of age. A further 13 foals served as the control group and did not receive the "imprinting". By three months of age, there were no significant differences between the imprinted and control groups in terms of their acceptance of handling or their heart rate responses during standardised handling tests. Williams, Friend, Toscano et al. The effects of early training sessions on the reactions of foals at 1,2 and 3 months of age. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2002, 77(2):105-114


Miller claims that his techniques just aren't done correctly in studies that find no effect (which makes me wonder how many other people do it incorrectly, if even the scientists can't do it right). In this case, it clearly wasn't done correctly, because he does it immediately after birth. Even waiting 2 hours is too long, if you're testing HIS technique.

Anyway, desensitization is always temporary if it isn't reinforced. Apparently, foals need reinforcement more often than once in three months. :-) I've NEVER believed the claims that you can do nothing for the next two or three years, and the horse will still be perfectly gentle. Certainly, it will be easier to desensitize it the second time, but it would still need the reminder of what it previously learned.
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Great thread! happy to see some very good information regarding imprinting. However it seems strange to compare Konrad Lorenz's imprinting of gosling to that being undertaken by humans towards their horses. Goslings will follow and imprint on the first moving objects they see (horses too) which are usually conspecifics particularly, mummy. Imprinting of foals with Robert Miller's technique goes much further and I agree with VwKoch, that mostly it is based on heavy flooding or desensitization.That is not to say whether it is correct or not to use with horses, it is just calling a spade a spade. I am however concerned that much early training is using these flooding techniques in detriment of future learning and performance. Do we really want to imprint a horse? i.e have it follow us as if we were a similar species, or even get into sexual trouble becuase it has been imprinted early in life to consider itslef more similar to us. It really is saddening to see imprinting techniques used on very young foals (this is actually abuse) 1, 2 or three month olds. I like very much the comment on learned helplessness as this is the inevitable outcome of improper use of punishment or reinforcement, and it is still too often we find people preaching about equine submission to their human. In this sense there is a wonderful "Equid Ethogram" by McDonnel of Penn State where she compares submission in a horse-human dyad to helplessness.All the best!


I think the only thing that saves us from having a "learned helplessness" epidemic in horses is that people don't spend that much time with them. So, if a person reduces a horse into a learned helplessness situation in one training session, the horse probably has about 23 hours to recover its equilibrium before being subjected to the next session. If it happens often enough, though, you truly get the broken-spirited horse that is the victim of abuse, IMO. Horses have great personalities if we just allow a little give-and-take in the relationship. It's too bad more people and horses can't experience that kind of partnership.
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