MULE CROSSING: Imprinting Beyond Birth

By Meredith Hodges

Imprinting is defined as “rapid learning that occurs during a brief receptive period, typically soon after birth or hatching, and establishes a long-lasting behavioral response to a person or object as attachment to a parent or offspring.” 1 When we speak of “imprinting” in the scientific sense, it is a reference to the way the brain accepts input. The brain compartmentalizes impressions and images, and the animal reacts to the stimulus that the image produces. A collection of “imprints and images” produces memories. Imprinting training with a foal of any breed will give him a jump-start on his life with human beings.

Imprinting is more than getting your foal used to people. He’s going to spend the rest of his life with human beings, so he should get used to your touch, your voice, your smell and, especially, your handling of him. Handling your foal the minute he is born is a wonderful way to bond with him, and you will learn how he likes to be touched in order to produce a positive response. This early imprinting lays a foundation of trust for the training to follow.

Although it is commonly accepted that initial imprinting on the foal’s brain occurs only during a brief receptive period when initial contact is made during the first few days of life, it does provide a foundation on which to expand exposure to a human being through your foal’s five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight that leave impressions on the equine brain and will affect the way he interacts with a handler beyond what his dam may teach him. If the initial contact with humans leaves a positive impression, a foal will be more likely to be curious about humans than afraid of them. Because of this early contact, continuing imprinting then becomes an ongoing process that builds on the initial imprinting that is introduced at birth.

A calm, well-mannered mother helps produce a well-mannered foal, so if your mare or jennet is not easy to handle, she needs imprint training before the foal is born. Mares, and particularly jennets, can become very aggressive in defense of their offspring, so it is advisable to imprint even a mature mare or jennet so she will be safe to be around when she finally foals.

When imprinting your foal, think about the kind of adult you want him to be. A foal is very similar to a human baby regarding emotional needs—both need attention, love, guidance and praise to become loving, cooperative adults. Start your relationship with a positive attitude and approach your foal with love, patience, kindness and respect. Be sure to set reasonable boundaries for his behavior through the way you touch him and speak to him, the facial expressions you use, and even how you smell when you are around him so he can learn to trust and respect you and be happy at the sight of you.

It doesn’t matter if your equine is a young foal or an older animal—he needs imprint training. It will set the stage for the way he relates to humans for the rest of his life. Imprinting stimulates all of his five senses: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. This leaves an indelible impression on your equine’s brain as to how you expect him to behave, which—over time and with repetition—becomes his new natural way of responding.

The most important sensation to which you can expose your equine is touch. If your touch is gentle and considerate, it will feel good to him and he will be interested in your attention. When you run your fingers over his body, being careful not to press too hard on sensitive areas, he will experience pleasure and begin to look forward to your visits. Learning how your equine likes to be touched will also help things go more smoothly when you begin grooming him and tacking him up and during his training lessons, when he must learn to take his cues from your hands, legs and other aids. Even how you mount and sit down in the saddle—for instance, how your seat is placed on his back—denotes your consideration of him through touch. The wrong kind of touch, no matter how slight, can be a trigger for adverse behaviors. However, the right kind of touch—done correctly—produces pleasure in your equine and instills a willingness to perform in a positive way each time you interact with him.

To begin imprinting training, run your hands all over your equine’s body and down his legs, and put your hands in his mouth and in his ears. His reactions will help you learn how he likes to be touched. Getting your equine used to touch in this way eventually evolves into exposing him to grooming and working with tack and equipment. You are continuing to build on the initial imprinting work, but now, when you are grooming, the grooming tools will become extensions of your hands, and when you introduce various tack and equipment like clippers, they will also become an extension of your hands. Allow your equine to use his sense of touch (usually with his nose) when introducing any new object. Work toward getting your equine’s response to your touch as highly sensitive as possible, so that he can use his own body language to communicate with you. NOTE: Many owners pat their equine on the top of the head with the flat of their hand as a sign of affection, without realizing that, as a rule, most equines don’t take kindly to people patting their foreheads or faces. A pat on the forehead works if you want to distract your equine, but save it for that purpose only. It is much better to show affection by stroking your equine (always in the direction in which his hair lies), in a soothing and reassuring manner.

The tone of your voice is another important element of imprinting. If your general tone is soothing and encouraging, he is more likely to comply. Then, when he needs to be disciplined, the change in your tone of voice will convey your disapproval before you even have to touch him to make a correction—giving him the opportunity to straighten up before you actually need to apply the physical backup of negative reinforcement. If, no matter what the situation, you always speak in low tones, he will not be able to differentiate between what’s acceptable and what is not, but if you modulate your voice to clearly express what you want to convey, your equine will be much better able to understand and react appropriately.

Equines have an excellent sense of smell—for instance, they can smell danger from miles away. They can also smell people, and they are much more likely to warm up to a person who smells “good” to them. Smelling good to an equine has nothing to do with soaps or perfumes or deodorants. Oats and hay are smells that all equines immediately recognize and love, so if you dole out oats rewards correctly and you actively participate in the feeding and care of your equine, you will mostly smell like crimped oats throughout lessons, making you VERY attractive to your equine!

The next sense to which you should appeal is your equine’s sense of taste (a no-brainer). When you dispense the oats reward for all of his new positive behaviors, he associates that wonderful taste with you and will follow you to the ends of the earth to get more oats.

When the equine’s five senses are truly pleased, the very sight of you will prompt the memories and impressions on his brain that you have instilled in him during imprinting. The impression you have left with him is positive, encouraging, kind, considerate and respectful, and his reactions to you will also be positive and willing.

As you begin your equine’s imprinting, make sure you include an equal measure of fun. As with children, if you make learning fun, it comes more easily. By encouraging your young foal or older equine’s enthusiasm for learning, you’ll cultivate and enhance your equine’s desire to please and to serve.

Imprinting training is truly an ongoing learning experience. When touching a newborn foal, keep in mind that the foal is coming out of the protected environment of the womb, where he’s had pressure from the amniotic fluid over his entire body. Suddenly, he’s born into an entirely foreign environment and, soon after, a human appears out of nowhere and begins touching him. Initially, this is like being tickled all over, so at this point, imprinting serves as a desensitization technique to human touch. Desensitization doesn’t mean you want your equine to become totally desensitized to you—just that you don’t want him to jump out of his skin every time you touch him. Always strive for a positive interaction between you and your equine.

Pay attention to the way your equine’s hair lays and stroke his coat in that direction only. There is more fatty tissue down the neck and over the back, so you can press a little harder when touching these areas. Going with the hair and using the flat of your hand, learn to gauge how much pressure you can apply to the fatty areas. Then, as you work your way down to where the fatty tissue becomes thinner, be sure to ease up on the pressure over the bony areas.

Always keep an eye on your equine and watch his face—he’ll let you know if he is experiencing pleasure or displeasure. If you observe wrinkling around his mouth, if his ears are laid back flat or if he stomps a foot, he is showing displeasure. A soft eye, a relaxed, contentedly chewing mouth and an absence of tension in his body denotes pleasure. So when you are engaged in training, pay special attention to your equine’s body language and adjust your own touch accordingly.

Work on evolving your own body language as a natural and truly wonderful way to “talk” with your equine. You can also use verbal language, but body language should be your primary form of communication.

Making use of your equine’s five senses to expand the meaning and benefit of imprinting can really work in your favor and will leave an indelible impression on your equine’s brain that will engage his attention and expedite the learning process. The result will be a deep and meaningful relationship with your equine not just now, but for the rest of his life.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

© 2013, 2016 Lucky Three Ranch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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