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Foal Imprinting: What You Need to Know

Foal Imprinting: What You Need to Know

By Pat Parelli

One of my best friends and true mentors, Dr. R.M. Miller—Bob, as I call him—introduced this concept of foal imprinting to the world. He talked about it the very first time I met him, and I just nodded and said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea.’ But it wasn't until he came to the little ranch I had in Clements, California, that the concept came alive to me, because during his visit we had a newborn foal.

Now, the story doesn’t start here. The story starts with a mare named Mayday: a wild-raised Quarter Horse that was always snorty and hard to catch. But even though she didn't really like humans, I trained her to a high level of reining and cow horse work. This was in my early days before I had really gotten into natural horsemanship and didn’t realize the importance of the relationship with the horse.

The first foal that Mayday had was as snorty—if not snortier and harder to catch—than she was, because as soon as a human walked into their 10-acre pasture, she would snort and blow and run to the other end of the pasture. So naturally, the foal followed that pattern, and pretty soon, that foal would get ahead of Mayday and snort and blow at us.

With Mayday’s second foal, we imprinted her and did the early training work. For the next five years or so in that mare’s life, when I'd walk out into the 65-acre pasture with 20 or 30 other horses, that foal would see me coming and would leave the other horses, trot over, and want my attention. Wow, was I blown away! But it had taken me quite a while to come around to the notion of foal imprinting. I had a pretty thick head about things like this, thinking “that's just the way ‘carrot people’ are with their horses.” Did I ever learn my lesson!

Here’s the thing: when that foal had her foal (when Dr. Miller visited), we foal imprinted again, and the experience was completely different. Since she was a mare that loved people, every time humans would come, she would nicker, as though she was saying “Oh boy. Here come the humans.” So naturally, her foal saw people and responded, “Oh boy, here come the humans!” This simple act of imprinting affected generations of horses. After that experience, I began to foal imprint with every opportunity that I got. Now over the last four decades, I’ve had several mares that have become grandmothers because I’ve bred their babies!

Foal imprinting, as I've learned, happens in the first couple hours of a horse’s life—not in the first couple of hours that you happen to step into their life. For example: if a foal is born at 6:00 AM and you show up at 9:00 AM, you’ll find that the imprinting period has mostly passed already. A week has 168 hours, so the 166 hours following the imprinting period is the early learning period. This is different than imprinting.

What is the Imprinting Period for Foals?

Imprinting is anything that a precocial species—like a horse—sees, smells, and experiences during that window. Their DNA tells them, “This is your mom. And this is your herd.” If you are there and interactive in those times, that foal has a propensity to think of you as part of the herd. The rest of the week that follows is also highly important for you to be there as much as possible. As much as mama thinks that you are part of the herd, that will be the truth that the foal lives with for a lifetime.

I have experimented with many foals. As you know, every horse has its own Horsenality—even little babies—based on innate characteristics, environmental influences, learned behavior, and spirit. The learned behavior is the first two-hour foal imprinting period. The next 166 hours is when they receive their strong environmental influence.

If you’ve been following the Parelli Method, you know that horses will run faster and jump higher out of heart and desire. Because of that, I really try to get my horse to have a heart to be with me and desire my leadership. On that note, I'd like to share two little stories with you that might help you understand how something is so old, that it’s new again.

The Bedouin Herdsmen

There have always been legendary stories of the Bedouin in Arabia that would live in tents, and their horses would live with them. The horses and the humans were all in the same herd, and they depended on one another. The humans in that scenario were the ones who provided the water and food sources out in the middle of the desert.

Out of this situation, this symbiotic and synergistic relationship was born. They were herdsmen, and whether it was with their horses, their goats, or their camels, there was a dependency on each other. And so, these age-old legendary relationships started with these beautiful Arabian horses. Yet today, a lot of people think Arabian horses are crazy. They probably wouldn't be nearly as crazy if they wanted to be with you—if they put all that extra energy that they have into the relationship rather than trying to get away from the relationship.

“Fly Away Home” — Geese Imprinting

The second story that I want to share is a great movie called “Fly Away Home.” This story is about a little girl up in Canada whose dad was a pilot, and she was there when these little goslings were born. The first thing that these geese saw was this little girl, so they started following her around like she was their mama (since their actual mama wasn’t in the picture anymore).  

Meanwhile, the geese’s migratory path was somewhere down in South Carolina. She ended up learning how to fly an Ultralight and shaped it like a goose. And she flew that whole flock of goslings all the way down to South Carolina. Because the geese are precocial species, like horses, the imprinting period is how nature teaches newborns to identify their mother and their herd or flock.

Humans, on the other hand, are altricial species (as are dogs), so our imprinting period goes way beyond those first moments of birth. There are many wonderful things that happen prenatally and at birth for both precocial altricial species. But horses, being prey animals, and being a precocial species, are full-faculty learners at birth. So, we can invest a couple of hours in these important moments when they're first born to create that special relationship that we're all dreaming of. So, my hats off to you, Dr. Miller. Thank you for all your efforts that you have put in to convincing the world that foal imprinting—if done correctly—is a wonderful way to start a horse's life.

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