Imprinting Foals

Editor’s Note: Nothing is without controversy, especially in the equine world. Some equine behaviorists question certain aspects of Dr. Miller’s theories and practices, and their opinions regarding foal imprint training appear below.“P>Editor’s Note: Nothing is with


No account yet? Register


Editor’s Note: Nothing is without controversy, especially in the equine world. Some equine behaviorists question certain aspects of Dr. Miller’s theories and practices, and their opinions regarding foal “imprint training” appear below.

Most owners have been through it at one point or another in their horse-raising careers. That little foal shows up with the mare one morning in the pasture. You go out and make sure that everything is fine. And isn’t it cute the way the youngster plasters itself tightly to the side of the mare, bonded as though with super glue. You know you should catch it and check it over more closely, but what the heck, it’s too late to put iodine on the naval stump, and besides, it certainly looks healthy, and obviously it has nursed.

The next step in this little scenario might come a few days, a few weeks, or a few months later. You suddenly realize that you have never caught the foal and taught it to lead. You catch the mare and lead her into a box stall, corral, or other small enclosure and seek to catch the little rascal.

To your surprise, you are dealing with a fair-sized package of dynamite. The foal doesn’t want you near it, and the mare becomes agitated as well. Before long, the foal is crashing into the fence or walls of the box stall to avoid you. Suddenly, everyone is at risk of injury — the foal, the mare, and you.

Can this be avoided? Can we have a foal which seeks our companionship instead of avoiding it?

Very definitely, answers Robert Miller, BS, DVM, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., the man who literally wrote the book on foal imprint training.

If you start at the right age and do it right, he maintains, the foal will bond to you in much the same manner as it does to its mother. And that’s not all. If properly imprinted, it will be much less likely to resist such things as shoeing, having a nasogastric tube inserted, its ears clipped, a rectal examination…the list goes on.

However, there are two major “ifs” involved, Miller emphasizes. The first “if” is timing. While there perhaps is a 24-hour window of opportunity, he says, the optimum time for imprint training is very shortly after birth — even before the foal gets to its feet.

The second “if” involves correct procedure. Miller claims to have 100% success when he is the one who does the imprinting with the foal, and he has been doing it for 40 years.

“I have never had a failure,” he states emphatically. Overall the failure rate is very low, even though some people do it incorrectly, he says.

“Very few people do it exactly as I do,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean everyone else is doing it wrong. They just aren’t doing it optimally.”

As much as he believes in the procedure, Miller cautions that a definite danger exists in certain foals if imprinting is carried out incorrectly.

“If you are dealing with an alpha foal or a flighty foal and do it wrong, you can create some serious problems,” he says. “And, if the foal is both an alpha foal and a flighty one, you can create a monster.”

Miller emphasizes that what a horse learns during the imprinting period will stay with it for life. This means if a strong-willed, flighty horse is taught to react negatively rather than positively during imprinting, it often will react that way for the rest of its life.

An example is if you are working on a foal’s ear to desensitize it and the process is stopped when the animal jerks its head away, the foal will have learned to jerk its head away whenever that ear is handled in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

It takes little imagination to create scenarios for the flighty, alpha foal. If, for example, it is allowed to jerk its front leg free and strike out while an effort is being made to desensitize it, you might be creating a horse which will be dangerous to handle when mature. This is because one of its first lines of defense will be to strike. The same is true of the foal which is allowed to kick during the imprinting period and is not completely desensitized.

We’ll take an in-depth look at imprinting and what it can accomplish, but first let’s introduce Miller, the father of the procedure.

The History Of Imprinting

Miller received a BS degree in animal husbandry from the University of Arizona College of Agriculture in 1951 and his DVM from Colorado State University in 1956. He was a general practitioner for all species from 1956 through 1987, and in 1958 became founder and chief of staff of Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic in California. He held that position until his so-called retirement in 1987.

His “retirement” features a schedule that would tax the energies of a much younger man. He has written dozens upon dozens of magazine articles and has given lectures all over the world. He also has created hundreds of cartoons, has written books and developed videos, and is especially fond of mules.

The book many horsemen identify him with was published in 1991 by Western Horseman magazine. The title is “Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal.” In the book, complete with numerous photos, Miller outlines the technique he developed through many years of practice. He provides a step-by-step approach for handling a foal in the first hours after its birth.

His approach was new and innovative to most horse owners at the time, but many of them gave it a try and had positive results. Use of the technique grew and today, at farms across the country, many foals are imprint trained shortly after birth.

It was close observation of clients’ foals that led Miller to his unique imprinting technique.

Back in the 1960s, he says, he was like most horsemen who felt that it was detrimental to a foal’s welfare and to the bonding procedure with its dam if a human handled it shortly after birth. One of the fears was that the mare would reject her foal because of the foreign human scent left behind after being handled.

Then, Miller began noticing something that puzzled him.

“I noticed in my early practice years,” he says, “that when I had to assist in the delivery of a foal — manipulating his position in the mare, pulling him out, and then toweling him dry and treating him — that such a foal behaved differently when I saw him again.”

The normal procedure, he says, would be for him to visit the foal about three weeks after birth for vaccinations and deworming. The foals which had been handled during and immediately after birth, he discovered, were less afraid of him and put up little resistance during vaccination and de-worming.

He began to think and to study. He read with care the reports of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian scientist who had spent a good deal of time studying newly hatched geese. He found that the goslings were programmed to attach to and follow the first thing that moved after they emerged from the egg. Lorenz used the term “imprinting” in describing the phenomenon.

Normally, the little goslings would imprint with the mother goose that had laid the eggs and sat on them until they hatched. It would be normal for the goose to get up and move from the nest of cracked and broken shells and seek food and water. The goslings were programmed by nature to follow her so that they would be protected and would learn to eat and drink by her example.

Yet, if the mother goose were removed and replaced with something else that moved, the goslings would imprint with it, whether it happened to be a human, a dog, a cat, or even an inanimate object. As long as it moved, it fit into the category of something that should be followed.

At first, it was thought that this peculiar imprinting procedure was reserved only for birds. Later, however, additional research revealed that it could take varying forms with different types of animals.

The researchers also concluded that there is a critical learning period for young birds and animals, during which time their brains are highly receptive to certain types of information. With humans, this occurs much later in life than it does in most animals, because there is no need for it to occur earlier as a means for survival.

In dogs, Miller says, the critical learning period is at five to seven weeks of age. The critical learning period for them is delayed because they are born physically and neurologically immature. Puppies are born deaf, blind, and helpless like their wild cousin the wolf. The critical learning period for a predatory wolf in the wild, he explains, begins about the time it crawls from the den — at five to seven weeks of age.

He says it is totally different for prey animals, the horse included. Those animals must be capable of learning at birth in order to survive. These animals are identified as “precocious” species.

The greatest weapon for most prey animals against predators is flight. In order to survive, foals in the wild must be able to get to their feet and flee when danger is detected, even though they are very young.

Miller recalled a recent incident in which he observed a young mustang being born in the wild. The foal had just struggled to its feet, he says, when an attempt was made to approach the newborn. The approach by humans frightened the mare and she began to run. The foal, which had been staggering about on wobbly legs only moments before, matched her pace as they disappeared over a hill, side by side.

What this all means is that Nature has been generous and kind in equipping the horse in its battle for survival as a prey animal. In addition to unique eyesight and keen hearing, the foal is born neurologically mature.

“Immediately after being born, the foal can see, hear, feel, and smell almost as well as a mature horse,” says Miller.

Why Imprinting Works

Thus, we come to the point that is at the center of Miller’s approach to imprinting — the foal is ready and able to learn, even though it is lying in the straw moments after being delivered. In fact, it is as ready for learning as it will ever be in its lifetime.

Interestingly, Miller adds, the exact same techniques that he has developed for imprint training foals work for other species as well. For example, Miller says, an elephant trainer recently contacted him to report that he had imprint trained a bull elephant at birth. At the time of the report, the elephant had reached 1 years of age and had already been trained to perform all of the tricks that mature elephants normally do.

Another person reported that he had imprint trained camels and was “getting fabulous results.”

A similar report came from a farm that concentrates on raising llamas. In each case, the trainers said they had applied Miller’s imprint training techniques immediately after birth. This, Miller contends, is the foal’s — and apparently other animals’ — critical learning period. What the youngsters learn during this short span of time will stay with them for life. “What a horse learns, he never forgets,” Miller says.

So, we might ask, just what is the window of opportunity for imprinting during this critical learning period?

The earlier, the better, Miller says, but the window might remain open for 24 hours. The reason for that also is traceable to Nature’s approach. Many mares, Miller says, give birth in the night. Sight is important during the critical learning period, so bonding and learning in the wild, for example, likely would be put on hold until a new day dawned and the foal could see what was going on in its surroundings. Visual bonding is essential.

“It could be as long as 10 hours in the wild before the foal would be able to see its mother and bond with her,” Miller says. “I suspect that the brain, until it sees something moving, doesn’t really engage.”

While the window of opportunity for imprint training closes rather quickly, it does not mean that the foal can’t learn after 24 hours, Miller is quick to explain. It merely means that after that time, one is training the horse rather than imprinting it.

“Don’t confuse imprinting with training,” he says. “A horse can be trained throughout its life, but it can only be truly imprinted during the first hours…imprint training gets its messages to the brain before other stimuli can have an effect.” In fact, Miller carries it a step further, based on his earlier mentioned observations about foals which were manipulated within the mare’s body before being born.

“I believe they can become imprinted, or at least desensitized to the touch of the human hand, before birth,” he states.

Research with humans involving the “Mozart Effect” proves his point, Miller believes. He says it has been proven that playing music before a baby is born can have an influence. When that same music — not rap or hard rock — is played after the baby is born, it has a calming effect. It also was found, Miller says, that music by Mozart had the most calming influence, thus the term “Mozart Effect.”

A key approach or belief in formulating Miller’s theories was this: “What’s good in one species has to apply to others.”

A key word in dealing with imprint training foals is desensitizing, which is what imprinting accomplishes — desensitization of the foal to certain stimuli. Following closely in the wake of desensitizing through both imprinting and followup training is sensitizing. More about that later.

The goals of proper imprinting are as follows:

  • Bonding with humans.
  • Desensitization to certain stimuli.
  • Sensitization to other stimuli.
  • Submission to humans.

Bonding is listed first because it is of prime importance. “If imprint training is done within the first hour following birth, the foal will develop a powerful bond with the person doing the imprinting,” says Miller. “This occurs because contact has been made within the imprinting period and the foal will want to follow and respect the human involved.

“Some people mistakenly think they are imprinting when they apply the imprint technique on foals who are one or more days of age. You can certainly train a foal at any age, and the younger he is, the faster he will learn. You can also obtain bonding from horses at any age, but actual imprinting can only occur right after birth.

“Some people also feel that if they’re unable to imprint train a foal right after he is born, there is no point in applying the techniques later. This is not true. As I just mentioned, the younger a foal is when he is handled and trained, the easier it is. So do not hesitate to apply the imprint training techniques in the first few days after a foal’s birth, just do not call it imprint training.”

How early is early?

Miller sometimes begins working with the foal while the umbilical cord is still attached to the mare.

“The horse’s ability to learn,” Miller says, “is at its peak immediately after birth and is never that high again.”

For example, Miller says he was at a clinic conducted by Pat Parelli, the trainer who espouses a natural approach to training. Parelli was working with a foal which had been imprinted at birth and was now five hours old.

“Pat Parelli taught that foal to lead in 40 seconds,” he said. “He merely put a cord around the foal’s girth area and applied gentle pressure. In 40 seconds that colt was responding. It would have been impossible to get that same response if the foal had been five days or a week of age.”

There is more at stake in imprint training than merely teaching a youngster to lead and allow its feet to be handled. “The horse develops a positive attitude as the result of imprint training that, unless you spoil it, will last a lifetime,” Miller says.

Miller’s Imprinting Technique

He, of course, has a definite procedure that he has developed through the years and doesn’t deviate from it. Ideally, he says, three people should be involved in the process — one to hold the mare so that she doesn’t injure the handlers or the foal, and two to work with the foal.

Some of the horse trainers and owners who have adopted his techniques through the years take gentle issue with his stated requirement for three handlers, especially when dealing with mares which were imprint trained when they were born.

Some of these owners and trainers have contacted Miller, and have told him that they firmly believe that young fillies which have been imprint trained at birth will be totally docile when they themselves give birth and someone enters the stall to imprint train their offspring. As a result, they tell him, there is no need to have someone hold the mare. She will not attempt to intervene in any way and will not be jealous of having others lavish attention on her foal.

“I think they might be right,” Miller says, “but I am very cautious and will continue to stand on my belief that someone should halter and hold the mare. There is always the danger that she might accidentally step on a fetlock and injure the foal even though she isn’t agitated.”

While one person holds the mare, he says, the other two work with the foal.

The preferred position for foal and mare, he says, is nose to nose. In that way, the mare is able to keep the foal within touch, sight, and smell, and bonding can occur between them as she sniffs and begins licking it.

It is at this point that oldtime horsemen thought they would do harm and perhaps even be responsible for the mare rejecting the foal if they handled it before it had bonded with the mare. Miller discovered that the direct opposite is true.

“It is usually young mares that reject their foals, and they do it out of fear,” he says. “They are afraid of this strange creature (the foal) that is in their stall.” If a human is present and is working with the foal right after birth, he explains, it gives the mare confidence. Her fear vanishes and she accepts the foal.

Studying horses in the wild helped Miller flesh out his theories concerning why a foal can bond to a human as well as its dam and almost at the same time.

“I believe that the foal is programmed to attach to and follow whatever is moving and looms above him during the first postpartum hour. Normally this is the mare, which is good because when a foal in the wild is on his feet, he will be imprinted to follow, bond with, and stay close to his mother. This helps to ensure his survival.

“In a herd of wild horses, the newborn foal is also exposed to other horses in the herd, and he soon bonds with the herd. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the newborn foal can, as he bonds with the dam, simultaneously bond with other individuals around him, whether they be horses, human beings, dogs, or ducks. This is exactly what can and does occur if a human works with a foal as soon as he is born.

“Allowing the mare to lick and care for the foal is important, but if a human is looming above the prone foal just as the mare does, rubs and strokes the foal, and handles his nose and mouth, that foal will be bonded with the human just as he is with his mother.

“This bonding is independent of feeding. The foal quickly learns where the source of milk is, whether it is the mare’s udder, or, in the case of an agalactic (no milk) mare, from a bottle or bucket. Bonding involves an attachment to the individual, whether it be horse or human, that signifies trust, security, and companionship.

“Imprinted foals will often leave their mothers in pasture and come to the person who did the imprinting. This factor alone greatly facilitates subsequent procedures because the fear factor is removed at birth and the foal wants to be directed by the trainer.”

A prime example of the positive benefits of imprint training, says Miller, involves the dude string at The Home Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo. The ranch raises and trains the horses ridden by guests.

“They have the most incredible, bomb-proof horses that I have ever seen,” says Miller.

He says that he visits the ranch with some frequency, and during a visit this summer, rode out among a group of 2-year-olds in the pasture. None of the horses seemed at all concerned or agitated by the presence of humans, he says. Horses which were lying down, for example, didn’t even get up as the riders passed by. Later, he says, he visited a pasture that housed a group of weanlings.

“They just sort of drifted up (to examine the visitors),” he says, adding that they showed no signs of fear.

The bonding with humans continues at The Home Ranch beyond imprint training at birth, he says. At times, Miller explains, the ranch will put 15 to 20 foals in a particular corral, then invite the children of guests to play with them.

“These kids just swarm them,” Miller says. “The foals welcome the attention.”

However, Miller adds, this does not mean that imprinting removes all fears from the foal. It remains a prey animal and still will be stimulated to take flight from frightening stimuli that it sees, hears, touches, or smells. Im-printing, he emphasizes, simply removes fear of the person involved, placing that individual in the same category as the foal’s mother.

Miller begins the imprinting by kneeling in the straw, or on the ground, with the foal’s back against his knees and the head flexed so that the foal is unable to get to its feet. He controls the head by grasping the youngster’s muzzle, careful not to obstruct breathing in either nostril, and tipping the nose back toward the withers. It is important to keep the foal’s back to you, says Miller, in order to prevent being struck if the youngster should lash out with either front or rear feet.

With the foal in that helpless position, Miller towels it dry, all the while allowing the mare to sniff and lick her offspring. As this goes on, the foal, remaining in a helpless position, is learning an important lesson that will stay with it for life — submission to a human handler. The handler has assumed the position of head of the pecking order in the foal’s life.

Again, Miller is simply applying knowledge that he learned from observing horses in a group setting. Each horse knows its place in the herd’s pecking order and maintains it unless a new member is added. At that point, there will be a period of testing, complete with pinned ears and threatening attitude, until the newcomer is assimilated and has taken its position somewhere in the pecking order. In some cases, the newcomer even becomes the dominant horse in the group.

A dominant horse in a group, Miller explains, establishes that dominance by controlling the movements of other members. This can mean forcing the other horses to move or prohibiting movement. If, for example, a horse which is lower in the pecking order is at the water tank or a choice bit of grass, it immediately will move away when the dominant horse approaches.

“When we control movement,” says Miller, “we establish our leadership in the foal’s mind. When we control motion, we control the horse’s mind.”

Thus, when the foal is restricted from moving because of the handler’s grasp, it instantly learns that it’s on a lower rung in the pecking order than the handler.

However, Miller is quick to explain, the foal is not afraid. Instead, it feels submission and respect. “Nothing I do to the foal,” he elaborates, “causes it pain.” No pain equates with no fear just as submission equates with respect.

Once the foal has been thoroughly rubbed dry, desensitizing begins in earnest.

Step-By-Step Desensitizing

Miller begins with the head, rubbing his hands gently over the entire head and face. A new term for those not familiar with Miller’s approach is flooding. The foal literally is being flooded with tactile stimuli.

Still another term to understand is habituation. Technically, says Miller, desensitization and habituation are not synonymous, although he does use them interchangeably in discussing imprinting. The goal is to use the same stimulus until there is no longer a response.

“I use the terms interchangeably,” Miller says. “If we can eliminate a horse’s normal fearful reaction to frightening sounds, sights, and tactile sensations, the end result is the same — and it is a desirable result.”

Miller turns again to humans to make his point concerning habituation. If, he says, a person sleeps in a room with a clock that ticks loudly, the individual gradually will become habituated to the sound so that it is no longer noticed. The person would only take notice if the ticking stopped.

Once Miller begins the habituating or desensitizing, he doesn’t stop until he feels a definite relaxation on the part of the foal. It is at that point, he says, where mistakes often are made. Too often the stimuli being applied are abandoned before the desired result is achieved. When that is the case, Miller warns, you can be teaching a negative reaction rather than a positive one.

“You cannot overdo the stimuli,” Miller emphasizes, “but you can underdo them.”

The danger by underdoing the stimuli is that the foal, instead of being desensitized, will be sensitized — the direct opposite of what is sought during the imprinting process. This, of course, means that time and patience are involved. It might take some time with each stimulus before the foal no longer resists and lies submissively in the trainer’s arms.

After completing his work with the face and head, Miller moves to the ears. He rubs and massages each one until the foal is desensitized to having them touched.

The nostrils and mouth come next. Miller inserts a finger in each nostril and wiggles it about until the foal has become desensitized. This step will make it easier in the future if a nasal tube must be inserted.

Next comes the mouth. Miller rubs a finger back and forth on the gums and lip corners, along the underside of the upper lip and over the tongue — preparation for one day carrying a bit and having its teeth worked on.

From the mouth, Miller moves to the neck, rubbing and massaging both sides, including the mane. He moves from there to the withers and back, moving all the way to the base of the tail. Next, he works on the tail and the perineum — the area directly under the base of the tail.

From there he moves to the shoulders and legs. It is when the legs are worked on that the foal will most likely struggle. For that reason, it is important that the handler be at the foal’s back.

Miller bends and straightens the leg repeatedly until the foal accepts the handling and the leg becomes flaccid, totally devoid of tension. The end result, if the imprinting has been done correctly, will be a horse which will allow each of its feet to be picked up throughout its life without struggling.

An added bit of stimuli involves tapping the bottom of the foot with the palm, preparing the youngster for the day when its first set of shoes is applied.

Also desensitized is the groin area. In the case of mares, this will help them accept a foal’s nursing later in life, and in the case of males, the cleansing of the sheath.

The rectal area is not overlooked as Miller dons a surgical glove, places lubricant on it, and inserts a finger into the anus and wiggles it about. This will prepare it for future temperature taking and rectal palpations.

When Miller has finished with one side of the foal, he rolls it over and begins anew on the other side.

In the final act of desensitizing, Miller rubs the foal’s body with newspaper and plastic; runs electric clippers around its face and legs, although he doesn’t actually clip; sprays the body with warm water; and fluffs the hair with a blow dryer. All of this will pave the way for calm reactions in the future when serious grooming is introduced.

The amount of time required to complete the desensitizing varies, but normally it takes Miller about one hour.

After the initial imprinting, there will be follow-up sessions on ensuing days. Miller will go through the whole process again, but it will be abbreviated. He will only work on desensitizing a particular area again if the horse shows fear of certain stimuli. Otherwise, the follow-up sessions are devoted to positive stimuli, such as getting the foal to respond to pressure so that, among other things, it can be haltered and led.

All in all, Miller declares, imprint training at birth can yield a horse with a good attitude — one that is a pleasure to handle and train as it matures

Create a free account with to view this content. is home to thousands of free articles about horse health care. In order to access some of our exclusive free content, you must be signed into

Start your free account today!

Already have an account?
and continue reading.


Written by:

Les Sellnow was a prolific freelance writer based near Riverton, Wyoming. He specialized in articles on equine research, and operated a ranch where he raised horses and livestock. He authored several fiction and nonfiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse. He died in 2023.

Related Articles

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with

FREE weekly newsletters from

Sponsored Content

Weekly Poll

sponsored by:

How do you try to promote healthy joints in your horse? Select all that apply.
114 votes · 218 answers

Readers’ Most Popular

Sign In

Don’t have an account? Register for a FREE account here.

Need to update your account?

You need to be logged in to fill out this form

Create a free account with!