Let’s Discuss: Does Imprinting Work?


There’s not a whole lot of things in this world better than a soft, cuddly baby. No matter what species it is, you just want to snuggle, poke, and stroke it all day long. However, new research conducted in France suggests that new foals may not only be unimpressed by early handling, but that the attention actually makes them less approachable than foals that have not been handled. To me, this seems illogical, how can handling your babies make them want to interact less? To understand this issue a little further, I looked further into this new scientific study.

As humans, we assume that stroking and gentle physical touch will have a positive effect on babies and animals of all sorts. After all, that’s how we relate to our dogs and cats, right? Horses, however, have a different relationship with touch. In fact, this applies to most animals that produce only one offspring at a time. Nursing aside, mares only lick their foals occasionally, and really only lick them for 30 minutes or less during the first few hours after birth. Compare this to what you’ve seen of dogs and puppies, it seems a little minimal, no?

“Do all species perceive stroking the same way?” ask lead scientists Severine Henry, M.A. Richard-Yris and M. Hausberger. Even when adult horses groom one another, it only takes up around 3% of a horse’s time, and is only restricted to the neck and withers.


The experiment was conducted on 41 foals, with all of them born with a person in the stall to assist with the birth. However, the experimental foals were divided into three groups, and treated thusly:

  1. Forced contact, in which the foal was restrained against its mother and gently stroked all over its body for 15 minutes a day for the first five days of its life.
  2. Forced contact, in which the foal was brought to the mare’s teat for its first drink. This was done 30 minutes after birth and, in all cases, the first drink was achieved in less than 30 minutes. The dam and foal were then left alone.
  3. Exposure to a motionless person in their stall for 15 minutes a day for the first five days after birth. The mare was tethered in her stall and the person stood with their back to the wall, near the mare. The behaviour of the mare and foal were both recorded, including any agitation on the part of the mare, and the time the foal spent close to the person.

Try to tell me you didn't just "awwwww"


“Forced contact with humans at an early age, and in the dam’s presence, did not improve the ease of handling,” the researchers wrote. “Bringing foals to the teat even seemed to induce a later reluctance for human contact,” they added. It seems that human interference in the nursing process was perceived by the horses as an intrusion on the mare-foal bonding.

[To read a more in-depth account of the study, click here]


As somebody who has encountered more than my fair share of weird home-breds both on the track and in sport horse occupations, I can’t believe that early handling does more harm than good. However, I do wonder about our relationship with touch versus that of a horse. When I was young, a wonderful horseman cautioned me never to vigorously clap a horse on the neck (to say, ‘well done!’) because the horse would not interpret it as a congratulatory pat, but an offensive smack. In horse-world, they would only encounter that type of contact when being kicked by another horse, so who was I to go around smacking them and not respecting their physical language?

How do you see this, Eventing Nation? Did this spark your interest into the study of handling young foals, or do you discount their findings with years of experience the other way?





  • Laura says:

    I was told about the “pat on the neck” thing meaning something different to horses then us by an animal communicator. Talk about a hard habit to break but now I scratch withers instead.

  • RW says:

    i bred a super-alpha mare and knew I was in for a personality-blessed foal (I wanted an upper-level event prospect ). By the time he could stand he was trying to rear, kick and buck off anything that touched him. Early handling was not petting, but a clear explanation of where he ranked versus the human world and involved sitting on him and desinsitizing him to everything that he would encounter as an adult. As a result, he learns willingly and was very easy to back and start under saddle. I believe early intervention was crucial in his ability to learn any sort of submission to humans.

  • lsa says:

    I read the study report by Nick Clarkson, and came away with the idea that foals follow their mothers reactions. It is most important for us to bond with the mothers who will show their young that we are a good part of their lives. When we focus on the foal, and not the mother, the mother shows the foal indifference toward us. This indifference is imprinted by the foal with much greater importance than anything we could do directly with the foal. All of this makes sense if we think of the fast pace of equine foal development as compared to human infant development. I expect that EN readership has a strong mare relationship prior to the foal’s arrival. So when we pay attention to the foal, the mare supports our interaction, and shows her foal that we are a good part of their lives. This results seems far more relevant to the large foaling operations.

  • lsa says:

    “This results seems” should be “The research results seem”

  • MM says:

    In my experience, touching young horses all over has helped make them easy to handle later. Human touch should be positive for horses. Interactions with horses vary widely and can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the handler. IMO

  • Denis Glaccum says:

    thru the years i had several two yr. olds out of the same mare. they all had been handled properly. however, they as a group would always violate my personal space. after a discussion witht mares owner we determined that the mare was not much of a disciplinarian. other mares i have had disciplined their babies and you see a difference in how they respond. “Stroke” the foals simulating the dams licking and nuzzle with your hand and the foal will respond. after galloping a horse one day we were monitoring heart rate. Heart dropped from 84 to 64 after stroking horse on neck. what we don’t know

  • hezzie43 says:

    We had two warmblood foals born the same year. The first time mother of one rejected her foal when she tried to nurse and we had to milk the mare and hand feed the foal. She had a lot of handling and touching. The other foal was born to an experienced brood mare and was not handled nearly so much. When growing up (they are now three) the foal that was handled much more is far friendlier and is always first to the fence, hangs over your shoulder if working around the horses, loves being near humans. The other is not nearly the same way. Could it be the earlier handling experience or just genetics? Who can tell.

  • Kenya says:

    In my experience imprinting had a huge positive impact. For 7 yrs I was the only employee at a Trakhener breeding facility, and was responsible for all handling and training of the horses. Extremely nervous and difficult to approach, the ones that were imprinted were much easier to handle and work with later on. However, my approach to imprinting isn’t simply about stroking a foal, but teaching it something specific and waiting for the right reponse before releasing the pressure, because it’s just as easy to create a horse that is disrespectful and more difficult to handle. For example, who can resist stroking a foal even if he’s nipping at our sleeve? The natural reflex is to smile and keep stroking since this seems adorable, but shouldn’t we stop stroking and give affection when he stops nipping? The same goes for teaching to yield to pressure, releasing at the wrong moment only creates a horse that will push into pressure later on.

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