Because of potential harm through the creation of states of flooding and learned helplessness in foals, imprint training represents a serious equine welfare issue and is not a recommended practice. Hands-off methods, like gentle handling of the dam and exposure to a motionless person, are minimally invasive and more widely accepted from a welfare perspective.
Exposure to a motionless person
Experiments have been conducted to test whether consistent exposure to a motionless person will have any impact of the foal-human bond (Henry et al., 2006; Henry et al., 2007). In such experiments, the mare is normally tethered to the wall while a person stands motionless in the stall for a period of time, approximately 15 minutes, while the behaviour and spatial arrangements of both mare and foal in relation to each other and to the experimenter is recorded. The first session normally occurs within 12 to 20 hours of birth and is repeated for 5 days. In their experiments, Henry et al. (2006) did not notice any large differences between the group of foals exposed to a motionless person and the control group. Although, in cases where there was a higher degree of interest in the experimenter exhibited by the mare, there was a correlation of closer proximity of the foal to the handler, and they had a lower flight distance from an approaching human when compared to handled foals, suggesting that regular visual contact may be more beneficial than direct physical contact.
Gentle handling of dam
“In horses as in all mammals, the mother constitutes in an early postnatal period the main environment of her young which is dependent on her for sustenance, protection and behavioral stimulation” (Henry et al., 2007, p.515). The bond between a foal and its dam has an important role in the foal’s development, with the dam modelling behaviours in relation to the physical and social environments, including feeding preferences and reactions to humans (Henry, S., Hemery, D. Richard, M.A., & Hausberger, M., 2005). Multiple studies (see Henry et al., 2007) have demonstrated that direct postnatal handling of foals provides, if any, limited short-term advantages in the tractability and trainability of foals later in life. Gentle handling, brushing and hand-feeding of the dam, however, enhances the trainability of the foal, as it models a positive horse-human relationship.
Experiments conducted with neonatal foals (Henry et al., 2005) and 6-month old foals (Henry et al., 2007) produced similar results, exhibiting in both cases that “handling of foals is not necessary to improve their reactions to humans and that… the natural tendency of foals to learn from their dams is an effective way to establish positive relationships with naive foals” (Henry et al., 2007, p.518). In the study of neonatal foals, the beneficial effects were still evident at 1 year of age, as observed by the experimental foals’ receptivity to being approached and stroked by unfamiliar humans (Henry et al., 2005). In the experiments carried out with 6-month old foals (Henry et al., 2007) it was observed that the foals’ interest in the mares’ handler increased significantly over the 5 days of the process, exhibited by the foals directly engaging with the handler through “sniffing, nibbling and chewing” (p.516). In comparison to the foals in the control group, which appeared fearful of humans, the experimental foals were more willing to interact with the experimenter and accept human contact.
McGreevy (2012) suggests that when the handler is interacting with the dam, it is appropriate to gently and consistently interact with the foal too, as long as extra caution is taken to avoid inducing a flight response in the foal or disrupting the mare-foal bond. As long as these precautions are taken, “regular training activities that fully align with learning theory and, in particular, pressure release contingencies, can be learned at an early age” (p.87).
More research is needed to determine whether there is a critical learning period for foals and if there are any long-term benefits of imprint training on the tractability of horses. If, as McGreevy (2012) indicates, most of the recent literature suggests that foals appear to be in a state of distress and show strong signs of resistance to the process of imprint training, and given the inconsistent findings presented here, then perhaps the practice as advocated by Miller and the like should be, if not altogether discontinued, at the very least altered significantly. If such procedures are to be beneficial, specific, minimally invasive, standardized processes should be established, guided by learning theory and developed with the highest degree of equine welfare in mind, for both foal and dam.
The most beneficial approach may be to eliminate all instances of neonatal handling and focus instead on the mare-human relationship, with the exception of any necessary medical interventions. What may be received as positive reinforcement in older horses, handling and stroking, is completely foreign to neonatal foals, and not a part of the equine ethogram (McGreevy, 2012). Therefore, handling at such an early stage is not necessarily a rewarding experience for foals. Regular, positive visual contact with humans and observation of the dam-human bond may be more beneficial to the foal than direct physical contact with a human. As demonstrated by studies done on the social modelling that occurs between the dam and foal, it is not necessary for humans to handle foals to improve tractability and trainability at later stages (Henry et al., 2006; Henry et al., 2007).
The most important activities within the first hours, days, and weeks of a foal’s life are those it engages in instinctually and learns from its dam. There is plenty of time to develop the foal-human bond. In the meantime, interacting with the dam and allowing for natural social, species-appropriate learning, whereby the foal can observe a positive dam-human relationship is the recommended approach.
Henry, S., Hemery, D., Richard, M.A., & Hausberger, M. (2005). “Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93, p. 341-362.
Henry, S., Richard-Yris, M.A., & Hausberger, M. (2006). “Influence of Various Early Human-Foal Interferences on Subsequent Human-Foal Relationship.” Developmental Psychobiology, 48, p. 712-718.
Henry, S., Briefer, S., Richard-Yris, M.A., & Hausberger, M. (2007). “Are 6-Month-Old Foals Sensitive to a Dam’s Influence?” Developmental Psychobiology, 49, p. 514-521.
Lansade, L. Bertrand, M., Bouissou, M.F. (2005). “Effects of neonatal handling on subsequent manageability, reactivity and learning ability of foals.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 92, p. 143-158.
McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.
Simpson, B.S. (2002). “Neonatal Foal Handling.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 78, p. 303-317.