Is Imprinting Foals Necessary?
Is your mare due to give birth, and you're wondering if you need to 'imprint' the foal?
Imprinting - in this context - is a process of intense and specific handling of a foal immediately after birth. It is believed by proponents to create less reactive horses, who are more manageable and accepting of handling. However, research has shown this to not necessarily be true. There have been variable results on whether or not imprinted foals show less reactivity later on in life; additionally, no discernible differences are noted in manageability between imprinted and non-imprinted foals.
Given that the evidence shows no discernible differences, we should also consider any potential harm that may result from imprinting. Of primary concern is that intense handling of newborn foals can interfere with attachment between mare and foal. Immediately postpartum is when the bond to stay close to one another is created, and imprinting may interfere with this. A recent French study found that foals who were separated physically from their dams for a period of one hour after birth showed insecure attachment to their dams, even as they aged. While this may not seem to be of importance in our modern world - devoid of cougars and other hazards to a stray foal - the creation of an insecure attachment to an one's mother can have proven negative long-term effects on an animal's behavior.
Interference postpartum can also result in a delay of the foal's investigative behavior that leads to a successful first feeding, creating a risk that the foal may not acquire much needed antibodies from the mare's colostrum. These side-effects do not justify performing a procedure with questionable benefits.
Concerns With Imprinting Foals
A concerning part of the imprinting procedure is that it requires handlers to repeatedly expose the newborn foal to novel objects or procedures, such as clippers, spray bottles, crinkling plastic, or repeated oral and rectal probing. During this exposure, trainers are advised to restrain the foal until all struggling ceases and the foal is completely still. Such physical restraint resulting in passivity is viewed by proponents as 'acceptance'. However, this passive behavior could instead be tonic immobility (TI) - an involuntary, last-ditch attempt at survival when an animal is in a situation where death is perceived to be imminent. You may have seen TI on TV shows, when a lion takes down a gazelle, and the gazelle ceases to struggle even though still very much alive.
Additionally, exposing an animal to things which frighten it at full intensity is a procedure called flooding. Inducing TI or using flooding during training are NOT advocated by animal behavior professionals, due to the very real risk of creating unwanted behavior problems that are difficult to change.
What Can You Do Instead of Imprinting Foals?
Equine behavior professionals do not advise the imprinting of foals.
If you are soon to be blessed with the pitter-patter of tiny hooves allow your mare to bond with her new foal, with minimal interference whenever possible. If you would like your foal to be easy to handle, research has shown that the relationship you have with the dam has a strong impact on foal manageability. Foals who were in the presence of their dams while the mares were brushed gently and hand-fed treats were shown to be easier to approach, investigated handlers more frequently, and later accepted a saddle pad more readily. They also showed a reduced number of avoidance and flight responses than foals whose dams were not brushed and hand-fed treats. The brushing and hand-feeding treatment of the mares lasted only five days, yet the positive effects on the foals lasted up to a year. This behavior also generalized to unfamiliar handlers the foals had never met.
So grab some treats and a soft brush, and help your foal learn about humans by observing his dam's response to your interactions. Imprinting foals is neither necessary, nor advised.