A Good Start: With Foals, Timing is Everything
With Pat Parelli
For horses, life’s important milestones come quickly. Within the first two hours after birth a foal 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 the 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 also be impacted by the experiences he has during his first few hours of life. Pat Parelli strongly believes that positive contact with a human immediately after birth sets a newborn foal up for a lifetime of partnership and training success.
“That is the ideal time to let a horse know that you are not going to harm him,” says Pat. “Once that is established, that horse will carry that knowledge with him for the rest of his life. So that means the training sessions he has later will probably be a lot easier—both on him and on you.”
Human contact with a pre-weanling horse is commonly referred to as imprinting, but Pat warns that many people interpret this term incorrectly.
“Foal imprinting is what happens in the first two hours of a horse’s life,” Pat explains, “not what happens the first two hours they have human interaction.”
Imprinting requires this very specific timing due to the fact that horses are precocious. They are born in an advanced stage of development — as evidenced by standing and eating on their own right from birth — and will rapidly establish relationships with those around them.
“A foal will, right away, have the capacity to bond to its mother and to its herd,” Pat says. “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 its nose to its tail and from its ears to its 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.
“Foal imprinting basically helps foals perceive humans as partners or other members of the herd,” says Pat. “This perception of partnership needs to start early on like this. A horse that has been imprinted, 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.”
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 of life, 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 168 hours — or seven days — of a foal’s life he is still a sponge, soaking up both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of his world.
“This is what I call an early training period,” Pat says. “Horses are very easy to work with during that first week.”
According to Pat, “You want your sessions to be a great experience for you and for your foal. You want to make his perception of humans as positive as possible.” Photos by Coco
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 to 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 behaviour. Remember, a little attitude may be cute when a foal weighs 100 pounds, but it can be dangerous when he’s a 1000-pound horse.
“You have to be careful not to overdo the gentling process,” Pat says. “Horses can become barnyard pets. We want them to be confident, curious and responsive, but a lot of times we get them so confident that they cease to be curious and responsive. The horse then becomes like an overdone vegetable — pretty hard to uncook.”
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,” says Pat, “so he can get as much from nature as possible. You want to space their human interactions out over those 168 hours.”
When you do bring your foal in for training sessions, keep your 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 for your foal,” Pat says. “You want to make his perception of humans as positive as possible.”