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Imprinting training for foals: if you know it, you avoid it

  • Ethology

(6th November 2012)

The imprinting as described by Konrad Lorenz with ducklings in his book “King Solomon’s ring”, doesn’t exists in mammals because mammals’ progeny has a phylogenetic evolution and development completely different from birds. A development that doesn’t need that typology of learning called imprinting (as easily demonstrated by the fact that in all the experiments of this training tried on mammals, the newborns didn’t follow the human beings as the ducklings did with Lorenz)1.

The imprinting proposed for foals, ideated years ago by an US veterinarian in his book, has nothing to do with the imprinting described by Lorenz.
The technique proposed by the promoters of the imprinting training in foals, if considered by an applied-ethology point of view, is in reality a “floading” variant.

Floading is an extremely coercive training technique, in which the animal, kept still with various means of containment, is obliged to bear being touched in every part of its body, until its reaction capacity is drastically reduced.
The classic example in adult horse are the many techniques used to break wild horses (the saddle or halter positioned to make the horse unable to move, blocking it in a corridor or in other close spaces), which are exhaustive examples of “floading”.

The imprinting training proposed for foals has even more invasive characteristics, if we consider it is executed on newborn babies, sometime even before they nurse maternal colostrums for the first time (a thing that not only is ethically inacceptable, but can also cause health problems to the foal, since with the colostrums the baby gets its first antibodies and that this extremely stressful technique lowers the immune defences of the foal), then keeping it on the ground, preventing the foal from having the first contact with its mother (which is essential for the balanced development of all newborns) and obliging it to bear a series of touches, constrictive and invasive, even physically. This technique has only temporary effects, due only to the extreme coercion used2.

All of this has nothing to do with the improvement of the future relationship between the foal and the human being, as scientifically demonstrated. While great benefits could come from a peaceful and relaxed interaction of the human being with the foal’s mother (grooming, petting etc…), leaving the baby free to decide if, how and when interact with the human being3.

We invite all of you to ponder these lines to further document about this topic.


1. Houpt K.A. (2007) Imprinting training and conditioned taste aversion. Behavioural Processes, 76:14-16.
2. Lansade L., Bertrand M., Bouissou M.-F.(2005) Effects of neonatal handlingon subsequent manageability, reactivity and learning ability of foals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 92:143-158.
3. Henry S., Hemery D., Richard M.-A. Hausberger M.(2005) Human–marerelationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science93:341-352.

Dott. Paolo Baragli (Department of Veterinary Science, University of Pisa)
Scientific Director of the Italian Horse Protection association