Foal imprinting

An important practice, foal imprinting introduces a newborn foal to everything he’ll encounter in life as if it’s normal and regular and nothing to fear.

After eleven months of patience, excitement, planning, concern, and several sleepless nights, your new foal arrives. Now what? The practice of foal imprinting is becoming very common. Simply put, foal imprinting is subjecting a newborn foal to everything he would encounter in life as if it was normal and regular and there was nothing to fear.

There are many books on the subject of foal imprinting and most go overboard on what you should do. There is a tendency for some to imprint within the first two to three hours of a foal’s birth. I believe foal imprinting is most successful at 12 to 24 hours post birth, after the welfare of both mom and baby are taken care of, and the foal is stronger and more alert.

Foal imprinting requires that you introduce yourself to him in a safe, calm, quiet manner. By doing so, you make a positive impression on him so he learns to trust and accept human intervention without fear. A foal is naturally curious. With calm and thoughtful handling, you can turn his curiosity and nervousness into willingness and respect. Remember that a foal’s confidence and respect can be destroyed by rough and thoughtless handling.

The first moments

Before you can even think about foal imprinting you must make sure both mom and baby are looked after health wise. It makes no sense to move on to foal handling if the birth was troublesome, or the health of the mare and/or foal is compromised.

Once the foal is on the ground and mom and baby are both resting, we immediately apply iodine to the navel stump and check the foal over to make sure all the parts are where they should be. Remember to do this in a calm and stress-free manner. I then like to rub the foal down with towels and touch him in many places, such as the ears, genitals, legs and hooves. I help the foal become recumbent, then continually touch him and talk to him softly. I allow the mom to be in on the action as well. She is allowed to touch, smell, lick, and “talk” to the foal. After all, he is hers!

Once the foal is recumbent, we bottle feed him colostrum from the mare to make sure he gets ICG’s and energy. We do not leave anything to chance. By bottle feeding the foal you are impressing on him that you are safe and can be trusted to provide. Next, the foal is touched all over and helped to get to his feet. After the post foaling procedures are completed, the mare and foal are allowed quiet bonding time in privacy. This satisfies her maternal instincts without stress. As mentioned earlier, if you create stress you are defeating the purpose of imparting a positive situation on the foal.

Beginning the process

By next morning, the foal and mom have bonded and you can continue where you left off. The foal will now have more energy and be stronger, but is still small enough to be restrained confidently by an experienced handler.

He will be naturally inquisitive and should be allowed to investigate what you are doing. Move slowly and calmly. I like to start by grooming mom and checking her over in a relaxed manner. This allows the foal to watch me and see that his mother is confident and trusts me. The foal will be more cooperative with his mom nearby.

Next I move on to the foal. There are two possible situations:

1. The foal is resting on the ground.
2. The foal is up, walking around his mother.

If the foal is up, gently push him into his mom and place one arm around his chest and another around his hind. This will steady him. If he resists, hold on and do not let go. Once the foal relaxes, bring the hand that was on the hind end forward and start stroking him. If he gets excited at any point, hold him again until he calms down. You can bring in another person to help you while you hold the foal; have them stroke the foal all over using hands, towels, and brushes.

Ask your helper to pick up the foal’s leg and tap on the hoof while you balance the foal. Make sure the foal is touched everywhere. Have your helper bring in a halter, let the foal investigate it, and once the foal is calm slip it over the nose and on the head. Slip it on and off several times, and leave it at that. Go slowly and back off if the foal gets stressed – once he is calm, try again.

If the foal is lying down when you enter the stall, move slowly so as to not provoke him into getting up. While he is on the ground, start touching him everywhere with hands and a towel. Go slow so as not to startle him. It is much the same as if he was standing up.

While you are with the foal, try asking someone outside the stall to start making spraying sounds, turn clippers on, start the tractor, or bang buckets. This will get the foal accustomed to the sounds of barn routine. While this is going on, keep rubbing him down.

Final notes

Keep foal imprinting lessons short. You can go back during the day to check the foal and repeat what you have already done. He will learn through calm, confident, stress-free repetition. The goal of imprinting is to prepare him for future training by reducing his stress level and instilling his confidence in you. If you are not doing this then you are going overboard and creating extra work later on. Make working with your foal enjoyable, and your long wait for this exciting bundle of joy will be more than rewarding!

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Robert Fera is the manager of Deerpath Breeding and Development and is the Equine Specialist for Grober Nutrition. He has many years of experience managing the reproductive needs of mares and stallions, as well as foaling and foal development. With his education and experience in animal health, Robert provides professional equine services and works with many veterinarians who both refer to and rely on him for experienced stallion management and foal development. Robert is also the manager of the Rayne Memorial Colostrum bank.