Foal imprinting is a popular concept frequently discussed in books, magazines, and equine literature. There are variations of imprinting, but all lead back to human contact with a foal as soon as possible once born. Some believe you need to be there when the foal is born so you can put your hands all over it to begin the bonding process. Frankly, that’s the mother’s job to bond with the baby. The foal needs uninterrupted time with the mother just like any other mammal for proper social development. You can probably tell imprinting at birth is not something I find to be that beneficial.
The objective behind imprinting is to desensitize the foal and make it easier to handle. Some breeders feel early contact makes the foal easier to train and more accepting of humans. While there may be some slight benefit to early contact including light haltering and leading from about two months of age, the over use of imprinting actually makes a horse harder to train, not easier. If there is too much contact, petting, brushing, and desensitization, then as a grown horse, the natural tools given to us have been removed. You end up with a giant pet dog instead of a horse to ride.
From a trainer’s perspective, the natural instincts are the basic and primary tools to teach the fundamentals of riding, cues, and ground manners. Think about it, a horse learns to move forward by pressure from the rear or the sides. A horse that is content with pressure from over-stimulation is much harder to train. It requires more pressure to encourage the desired action. Instead of a slight nudge with the heel, you may have to use more pressure to cue or direct the horse.
The horse that has been touched too much will often resent training. Having grown accustom to being petted, caressed, and essentially spoiled, the horse dislikes the idea of having to work. Instead, the horse expects and associates touch with doing nothing other than standing. Like most things in life, balance is important and too much of even something good sours the experience. Personally, I prefer to train a horse never worked before two years old than one that has been imprinted and handled extensively. The untouched horse will learn faster and do better with less handling than the one that was imprinted.
If you want a responsive, respectful horse, don’t spoil it as a baby. Just like people, once spoiled, it is far more difficult to teach the lessons that will be needed to produce a horse ready and willing to do a job. Just the thoughts of a trainer to think over.