The following article was written by Dr. Miller to explain
what can go wrong if Imprint Training is done incorrectly.
It has been forty-nine years
since I discovered the learning power of newborn foals, experimented with my own
foals, and coined the term “imprint training” (because it consists of training
during the imprinting period, which is right after the foal is born).
At first largely rejected
because it was not traditional, and because of the fear of causing later
behavior problems (a completely fallacious concept), the method is now in
widespread use all over the world. It took nearly half a century to overcome
old misconceptions, myths, and baseless opposition.
I learned a lot during this
time. I learned that imprint training isn’t new. Very little in horsemanship
is. Certain cultures and various individuals did learn the advantages of
shaping behavior in newborn foals in the past. All I contributed was to give it
a name, ritualize the technique, explain its scientific basis, and popularize
Countless people have told me
about their results, written to me, sent me pictures and videos, consulted with
me, and argued with me about imprint training. As a result of all this
experience, I have learned that it can, like any kind of horse training,
be done incorrectly. In fact, my impression is that most people don’t do it
exactly as I do. Many of them, in my opinion, do it incorrectly. In spite of
this, most of the foals still turn out to be models of good behavior. However,
sometimes doing it incorrectly leads to a spoiled foal. This is especially true
if the foal is strongly dominant (an alpha personality), or if it is a very
excitable foal, or–worst of all–if it is a dominant and excitable foal.
These are the very foals in which correctly performed imprint training is most
profoundly effective. It guarantees a respectful, calm, responsive horse rather
than the insolent brat it could be. Done incorrectly, however, such a
foal’s behavior will be worsened.
I poll every audience to which
I lecture, and I find that bad results are obtained at less than 1% of foals
subjected to imprint training. The percentage has dropped in the past decade,
probably due to a better informed populace, but it should be zero. In
forty-seven years and experience with thousands of foals, I have NEVER
had a bad result.
When one is reported to me, I
question the handler at length in order to determine what went wrong. I have
learned that there are two mistakes commonly made. These mistakes are made
frequently, but most foals are naturally submissive enough and level headed so
they turn out satisfactorily. But, make these mistakes on an alpha, or a
hot-head, or a dominant-hyper-excitable foal, and you will produce a MONSTER!
Remarkably, in my half century
of experience, one of these mistakes has been invariably made by men. The other
has been entirely made by women. It is essential that anyone performing imprint
training be aware of these mistakes, analyze WHY they are made and
determine not to make them.
I will make no attempt in this
article to describe the imprint training process or explain its scientific
basis. I have done that in several books and videos, many magazine articles,
and hundreds of seminars. In recent years other horsemen have written books and
made videos on their version of the method, and although they are not identical
to my method, most of them are completely acceptable to me. As in all my horse
training methods, there is no one correct way of doing them. There are,
however, incorrect ways and that’s what I want to share with the many
horse owners who are doing imprint training, or plan to do so.
1: The Birth Session
The initial session is best
performed as soon after birth as possible. One minute of age is more effective
than one hour. One hour more effective than one day. Believe me! No
one has more experience with this than I have, and with almost every breed you
can name. Four things are accomplished in this birth session:
A - The handler or
handlers imprint upon the foal just as the mare does. This causes bonding,
trust, and a desire to follow.
B - We can desensitize
the foal to almost every frightening stimulus it will be exposed to later in
life. This can include farriery, veterinary procedures, grooming, saddling,
girthing, bridling, noises, dogs and other animals, electric clippers,
insecticide sprayers and so on.
C - We can teach the foal,
very quickly, to yield. Specifically, we teach it to yield its head and
neck by flexing laterally, and to yield its legs by flexing all of the leg
joints and holding them flexed for a while.
D - We gain respect by not
allowing the foal to arise when it wants. The dominance hierarchy (the
order of leadership) in horses is established by control of movement.
Thus, if we temporarily inhibit the foal from getting to its feet it will
see us as a leader, not as a threat.
The most common mistake made
in this birth session is to rush it. Thus far this mistake has been invariably
made by men. Typically it is on a large farm. There may be multiple foalings
going on, and a majority of them are at night. Male employees, who in my
practice experience, were probably shown one of my videos and told to do
similarly, are too impatient. They rush the job and instead of desensitizing
the foal to everything, they sensitize it. The foal struggles, wishing
to escape, and the handler rewards that by stopping the stimulus prematurely.
Technically we call this a “failure of habituation.” The next day the foal
resists everything, and the handlers conclude that imprint training does
more harm than good.
This is the reason that many
farms are hiring women to do their foals. Most women love to work with
those newborn foals. They do a thorough job. It is better not to do it at all
if you are not going to do it properly.
2: After Day One
I recommend the second and all
subsequent training sessions be done while the foal is standing on its feet, and
beginning the day after it was foaled.
In these sessions, although we
test and repeat all of the previous stimuli, we do them briefly. The emphasis
at these sessions is control of movement. Again, control of movement is how the
equine species establishes its dominance hierarchy. This is how the foal learns
to respect its mother, other herd members, and how it learns to respect humans
who handle them.
These sessions are done to
teach the foal to lead, to stand tied, to back up, to move laterally, to rotate
on the forehand and on the hindquarters. It’s all clearly shown in my books and
especially in my videos. These sessions, which are always brief (not over 15
minutes), increasingly enhance the respect the foal will have for the handlers.
So why have so many women told
me that they imprint trained their foal but now (as a weanling or yearling or
older) it “is afraid of nothing including me?” The horse threatens them, is
disrespectful, and even dangerous.
Why? Because they did
not do the training sessions subsequent to the birth session.
I ask, “why didn’t you do
them?” Occasionally, someone says, “I didn’t know I was supposed to
do them.” Or, “I didn’t think it was necessary.” But the most
“He didn’t like
If you haven’t the heart to
insist that the foal comply with your requests:
1. Don’t have any
children (I jest)
2. Get someone else
to do that part of the training.
Very commonly I have learned
of couples who share the imprint training responsibilities:
1. She does the
initial birth session. She has the sensitivity, the nurturing ability,
the perception to do it correctly. Sometimes he reads the
instructions to her, or even flashes a video scene on a TV monitor for her
2. The next day he
does the first of the standing sessions, teaching the foal to follow, to
move in various directions, and to accept the testing of yesterday’s
desensitizing procedures. Perhaps she reads instructions to him now.
Actually, most people are
perfectly capable of doing it all themselves if they want to do so. All you
have to do is study the method, follow the instructions, and enjoy the results.
Any more, when I see a colt
that won’t lead, or quietly stand tied, or permit its feet or ears to be
handled, or is afraid of water hoses, sprayers, clippers, plastic, paper or
vets, I think, “how unnecessary. What a disservice to the horse and all the
people who must handle it.”
At last, imprint training is
being accepted. One reason for this is that it enhances later performance
training. An ever increasing number of horses winning in all disciplines are
revealed to have been imprint trained, including racing. Of course, there will
always be people who cannot or will not condone it, but that’s their problem.
It’s here for keeps, and both horses and those who handle them benefit, but it
should be done correctly.