Foal Imprinting; A Different Perspective

October 3, 2013

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.

Rehabilitating A Horse Isn’t The Same As Training

May 22, 2013

There’s a real misconception in the public about rescuing horses to be rehabilitated. I have done both rehabilitation of horses as well as training. It is vastly different and much akin to high school algebra. Simple mathematics when you stop and add it all up.

If you take the typical 9th grader and set out to teach him or her algebra, it’s not too hard. Assuming they come from an average family, completed the normal course work in grades 1 -8, you shouldn’t have any difficulties generally speaking. Contrast this child with a kid from an abusive situation, who rarely attended classes, and paid no attention when he was there. He has no training, no confidence, and has been beat down in life by the circumstances in which he has lived the past 13 – 14 years of his life.

Anyone can understand and accept the second child will probably encounter a lot more difficulty learning algebra. If I said you might even have to teach some completely non-math living skills before you moved to basic math, no one would question why it might be needed. If I said it might take two or three years to teach the abused child algebra because the background and foundation wasn’t there, probably  no one would question what I was trying to say.

But when I try to say that rehabilitating a horse is not the same as training, some people don’t follow what I tried to explain. You see a shattered horse is like an abused child. It may take years to build trust, confidence, and acceptance before you can go to work on what I would call training. Sure the rehabilitation is “training”, but it’s not the training I would give a horse that is a “clean slate”.

If you haven’t worked with an abused horse and understand what I am trying to say, then please be careful when you go to “training” the rescue horse you just saved. I always hate it when I hear the horse someone just saved stomped on their face and knocked out their teeth. Like people, a troubled horse is a lot more complicated than one that has received proper care. It as simple as high school algebra!

Effective Horse Training Involves Split Second Decisions And Timing

April 6, 2013

The proper training of a horse requires split second decisions and action. Horses, unlike people, don’t have the cognitive ability to associate past actions with the present consequences. Generally speaking, if you want to correct something with a horse, there are two components; timing and appropriate correction. If you get either one wrong, the horse learns nothing. At least, he doesn’t learn what you wanted to teach him.

If you delay taking action more than a second or possibly two seconds at most, the horse has mentally moved past the point you wanted to correct. Now when you take action, he thinks you are concerned about what is currently underway. Horses have great memories, but again not the ability to look backwards while learning. For a lot of people, this creates a dilemma. They want to train their horse, have read books, watched videos, and been to some clinics. They try to do what they were taught and fail miserably. Why, because they didn’t have the timing.

Let me give a recent example. One of our horses got frustrated in a training session the other day and reared up. He didn’t rear very high, but he was demonstrating he wasn’t happy with the training. Some folks  react way to slow to these situations. It requires immediate attention. Otherwise, the horse’s feet are back on the ground before anything is done. Now the horse connects the discipline with an event unrelated to the situation. In this case, the horse was immediately turned to the right and spurred forward. A couple of fast circles making his feet move and then stopped. He was told firmly to just Whoa!

Several things happened in less than 30 seconds. First, the horse exhibited an inappropriate behavior and communicated he didn’t like the exercise he was being asked to perform. Second, he was corrected AS IT HAPPENED before his front feet touched the ground. Third, the discipline was suited for the disposition of the horse as well as the misbehavior. Last, he was given 20 seconds to think, reflect, and realize it was all over. Time to move to the next project. Yes, back to the same thing he had just been asked to do, but it wasn’t connected anymore to him rearing up.

The reaction of many riders would often violate both of the rules above. First, the reaction would be too slow. Many riders want to “get the horse under control” before figuring out the action to take. It may make good human sense, but not good “horse sense”. The second mistake would be to over-react to what happened.

Trust me, I don’t like a horse to rear up, buck, or act up in any way. However, riders wanting to break a bad habit from ever happening again  go way too far. They want to “make sure the horse never does it again”. When this occurs, the horse loses respect and starts to resent the training. Thirty days in jail for doing 31 mph in 30 mph zone is outrageous to most of us. The horse can feel the same way if you over-react.

The horse was ridden the rest of the day without incident. He did what was asked of him and without complaint. He is a really good horse that did need a quick reminder. He didn’t need to be “taught a lesson”. Teaching horses is all about timing and appropriate correction. It is not about revenge, getting even, or making more out of an event than needed. It takes a lot of practice to do it the right way.