For horses, life’s important milestones come quickly. Within the first two hours of a foal’s life, he should be able to stand and nurse on his own. If neither of these actions occurs naturally, you might have a problem – a problem that could affect a horse’s physical health for the rest of his life.
Although many owners don’t realize it, a horse’s future mental and emotional health can be impacted by the experiences he has during his first few hours of life. Positive contact with a human immediately after birth sets a newborn foal up for a lifetime of partnership and training success.
It’s the ideal time to let a horse know that you aren’t going to harm him. Once that’s established, the horse will carry that knowledge for the rest of his life. So that means that the training sessions he has later will probably be a lot easier – both for him and for you.
Human contact with a pre-weanling horse is commonly referred to as “imprinting,” but I’d caution that many people interpret this term incorrectly. Foal imprinting is what happens in the first two hours of a horse’s life, not what happens during the first two hours in which they have human interaction. That’s a very important distinction.
Imprinting requires this very specific timing due to the fact that horses are precocial. They are born in an advanced state of development, as evidenced by the fact that they are able to stand and eat on their own, from birth, along with their ability to rapidly establish relationships with those around them. Right away, a foal has the capacity to bond to his mother and his herd. Knowing that about horses, we can take advantage of the taming aspects of foal imprinting.
The whole point of imprinting is to immediately establish yourself as a genial part of the foal’s universe. The most effective way to do this is through touch. Touch your foal from his nose to his tail, and from his ears to his hooves, with the objective of eliminating any anxiety or fear it may have around you. As you rub the foal, you will trigger a natural taming response, and reinforce the idea that humans are friends, not foes.
A horse that has been imprinted effectively, you could turn him out and bring him back when he’s four years old, and you’d be surprised at how quickly he responds to you. He will retain that first human experience, so make sure it’s a good one!
Contrary to some criticisms, imprinted horses will relate their early experiences to all humans, not just to the people who imprinted them. Even if only one person handles the foal during his first few hours, the foal will have the capacity to view all people as partners, unless it is shown otherwise.
Keeping It Going
If you’ve successfully imprinted your foal by the time he’s two hours old, keep going! During the first seven days (168 hours) of his life, he’s a sponge, soaking up both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of the world. This is what I call the “early training period,” because horses are very easy to work with during that first week.
You’ll want to have several short training sessions with your foal throughout his first seven days. The goal of the training sessions is to establish “feel,” to teach your foal to follow your suggestions and trust you. That can be accomplished by gently pushing your foal in one direction and then in the other, and by touching him in areas that will later be key in his training under saddle, such as the girth area and around the head and ears.
While you’re doing this, keep in mind that you’re establishing your status as the leader in your relationship with your foal. Do not allow him to bite, kick, or run into you. Your foal should respect both you and your space. Never should your training session become so unstructured that he begins to think of you as an equal, which can result in pushy and/or aggressive behavior. Remember, a little attitude may be cute when a foal weighs 100lbs, but it can be dangerous when he’s a 1000lb horse.
Keeping a horse from becoming too “human” is a matter of balance. As you spend time with your foal, make sure he also spends time as a horse with his dam and herd members. A horse needs to be out with other horses, on as much territory as possible, so he can get as much from nature as possible. You want to space the human interaction out over those 168 hours.
When you do bring your foal in for training sessions, keep the activities fun and constructive. Keep in mind that the essential idea behind imprinting and early training is that the foal comes away with a good feeling about humans in general. You want your sessions to be a great experience for you and your goal. You want to make his perception of humans as positive as it can possibly be.
Pat Parelli, coiner of the term “natural horsemanship”, founded his program based on a foundation of love, language and leadership. Parelli Natural Horsemanship allows horse owners at all levels of experience to achieve success with their at-home educational program. Together with his wife Linda, Pat has spread PNH across the globe with campuses in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. Newly launched in 2011, parelliconnect.com provides an online social forum packed with training tools, step-by-step to do lists, video and more. Log on today for your FREE 30-day trial at www.parelliconnect.com.