When is the best time to start training a horse? One hour after birth isn’t too early, according to Robert Miller, a retired veterinarian and world-renowned horse behaviourist from Thousand Oaks, California.
“By two weeks of age, my horses are trained with everything they need to know for the rest of their lives,” said Miller, the original developer of “foal imprint” training, and author of a book and video on the subject.
“What does that include? Clippers, fly sprays, ropes, blankets, paper – they never forget.”
Miller first began practising the technique in the 1960s, despite it being contrary to the existing belief at the time.
“A lot of people were totally against it,” he said, adding that many believed that handling a foal might result in an unmanageable “spoiled brat,” or that it would break the bond between the mare and her offspring.
Eventually, the practice has become accepted worldwide in all breeds and disciplines, as a means of habituating horses to human contact and eliminating fear.
But some naysayers continue to condemn imprint training, even PhD-level animal behaviourists, admitted Miller, the author of numerous books, videos, and articles for Western Horseman magazine.
“One reason is that they’ve tried it, but they didn’t do it right. Any horse-training method, you have to do it right,” said Miller.
All higher species, from ducks to wolves, form a powerful association with the first thing they see at birth, said Miller. For horses, the effect is the strongest in the first 24 hours after they are born. Proof of this is seen in rare cases where foals have become inadvertently imprinted even to a certain tractor on the farm or a feed cart, for example.
“It doesn’t even have to be alive. Whatever moves in that postpartum period, it will memorize it.”
The peak learning period for a foal is very early in its life, but the window for actual imprinting is only within the first 24 hours, he said.
One common mistake occurs when people attempt imprint training, which involves touching or rubbing all parts of the animal’s body for up to an hour, but rush through the process.
At first, the foal is terrified and has to be held down. Stopping the process at this point freezes the animal’s mind in the “fight or flight” stage, he said, so it is necessary to keep at it until the foal is totally calm about being touched, exposed to smells, and noises.
“You’ve got to take your time. You cannot do too many stimuli when you are desensitizing body parts, but you can do too few,” said Miller.
“You have to go beyond until you reach the point of what’s called habituation, that is when they become relaxed and oblivious to the stimulus. I call it Phase 3, when it’s like, ‘Oh, that feels good!’”
Not doing a followup after the initial birth session – preferably the next day – is the next most common mistake.
While the first session is aimed at eliminating all fear of human contact, the 15-minute followup sessions during the foal’s first week of life teach the animal to respond to and yield to human pressure. This involves moving forward, backwards and sideways with “lightness,” which he described as the ultimate goal of all horsemanship.
Obnoxious behaviour, which often occurs with bottle-fed colts that are indulged excessively by their owners and allowed to misbehave, won’t result if imprinting and early learning is done correctly, he said.
“You’re desensitizing it to the things that you want. I want that foal to be absolutely unflappable to applause, a train whistle, or if somebody drops something, or a dog barks. But I want it sensitized to the point where pressure will cause it to move,” he said.
“It’s probably unattainable, but the objective I want when training horses, is zero fear of the human, but 100 per cent respect.” [email protected]