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Foal imprinting is a technique used by humans and horses alike to introduce a new foal into his environment. For the mare (or dam), she is establishing herself as his mother and securing his safety by showing him she is his primary caregiver. Foal imprinting also allows you, his person, the ability to create your own unique bond with him. The advantage of imprinting allows you to familiarize your foal with a wide variety of experiences, which would be more difficult to present at a later time when he has become more active.
Immediately after birth the dam will blow into her foal’s nostrils which will familiarize her baby with her scent. Next she will nicker to him in a particular tone so the foal will be able to recognize her sound. Foal imprinting continues as the dam nuzzles him all over his body, while continuing a soft, low nicker. As this process continues, the foal will attempt to stand and nurse. It is important to allow these steps to be completed before interrupting their bonding process.
If you are present at the birth, or upon your arrival, the same foal imprinting techniques may be used by you to make your introduction. The first rule is to approach your mare and get permission to interact with her baby. Even the gentlest of mares might be protective at this time, especially if she is a maiden mare (first birth). Once you are comfortable that your mare feels secure with your presence, you may begin the imprinting of your foal.
Begin by giving your foal your scent. Gently breath into his nostrils and allow him to breath into yours. This simple technique will create an instant bond and he will recognize you for the rest of his life, regardless of how much time passes between meetings.
If you would like to give your foal a special sound that he will identify you with, this would be the time. Many have used human forms of nickering or trilling or some hum that your foal will associate with you.
Next you begin with a soft, slow and gentle rubbing of the foal from head to tail. Begin with the head, face, ears, mouth and proceed down the neck and to the rest of the body. Be sure to include his genitals and legs.
The final step is introducing a foal halter. Begin by rubbing it gently over his body. It is best to put it on as gently, yet quickly, as possible so your foal does not feel constricted. Once the halter is in place, it can be left on 15 to 30 minutes. It is important to note that your foal should never be left alone while wearing the halter.
All these steps should be repeated a few times daily. Within a few days, when your foal is secure on his feet, you can begin picking them up and patting the bottoms. Never make abrupt or sharp movements, but rather make all foal imprinting a pleasant experience.
The goal of foal imprinting is to introduce as many experiences as possible in a safe, easy and enjoyable way. If foal imprinting is accomplished successfully, your foal will be willing to accept new things with interest rather than suspicion. This is the beginning of your relationship with your new foal and you want him to feel safe, secure and enthusiastic about whatever requests you ask of him.