Imprinting Controversy

Imprint training is a technique used by some horsemen to create a stronger bond between a foal and a human, writes Les Sellnow in the January issue of The Horse. If imprinting is done correctly, the foal will be much less likely to resist such things as shoeing, having its ears clipped, and rectal examinations, according to Robert Miller, a California veterinarian who literally wrote the book on imprint training. However, there are some equine behaviorists and veterinarians who aren't convinced that Miller's procedure is a good idea in theory, or in practice, writes Christy West in the same issue of the magazine.

"Imprinting is often presented without ample cautions as a 'sure thing,' " said Dr. Sue McDonnell, a specialist in equine behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. "One problem is some people's application of Dr. Miller's imprint training technique, which is that you should make the foal submit until it relaxes. Emphasis is put on enforcing submission to avoid inadvertently teaching the foal that struggle will get it free.

"Some strong foals end up injured and stressed in the process," McDonnell continued. "I'm sure Dr. Miller wouldn't and doesn't hurt his foals, but some people are having trouble with his methods because it is hard to communicate to them when to stop."

Dr. Harold Schott II of Michigan State University offered a case in point.

"One owner was trying to imprint her foal and had been laying on him while he struggled to get away, trying to get him to submit," he said. "Eventually, he got worn out and stopped fighting, and at age six hours the foal was in the hospital and eventually died.

"I've also seen foals come into our neonatal unit that didn't get enough colostrum right after birth," Schott continued. "I believe -- though I can't prove it -- that some of these foals didn't get colostrum because the owners were trying to imprint the foals and not allowing them to nurse."

McDonnell expressed additional concerns, including the following:

"Foals that were handled intensively at birth have a much higher incidence of 'excessive human bonding' than others. Some of these foals don't seem to make the distinction between you as a human and them as a horse. They're very friendly and in your lap all the time as foals, which is very cute, but they are right on top of you at the rough and tumble stage. This is a problem."