Some people see pictures like this...And go Awwwww. Others cringe! The first thought through their mind is just how dangerous this will be when baby weighs 1200lbs and wants to plunk himself in your lap. Shooter was just a couple hours old in this picture and he just laid himself in Megan's lap. It was a pretty good indication of what his temperament was going to be like. Both a good sign and a sign that we would have to be especially watchful that Mr Friendly maintained a healthy respect for human space.
Now, in my opinion, it isn't imprinting foals that causes problems. Technically, imprinting is just regular handling the first few days after a foal is born. The goal is get into baby's mind that people handling him is okay. Some foals are docile about this. Some have pretty violent reactions. Nothing can scare you worse than having sweet, cute baby scream in terror and throw themselves around in total panic the second you wrap your arms around them. You may wonder what you got yourself into when a foal who is only a few hours old tries to bite and strike at you as soon as it is restrained.
Up until this year, my imprinting methods were very basic. I handled baby every day, sometimes a couple times a day, for just a few minutes. Really all I did was wrap my arms around them, move them around a few steps, touch them in all of their sensitive little places, handle their feet and I let it go at that. This usually only lasted for the first week to ten days. About that time, baby decides that they don't want to be handled anymore and are pretty darn good at avoiding getting cornered. After the first month, momma and baby went to the pasture. Other than to make sure everyone was okie-dokie, baby wasn't handled again until weaning time. Then they would get loaded up, hauled to town allowed to get settled for a few days, we would pull momma and take her back to pasture. Baby usually settled within a few days and became very friendly. That was the whole point of imprinting.
This year, things were a little different. Since big momma needed to have extra care, momma and baby stayed in town, in close quarters. We did the usual imprinting and then waited out Shooter's period of don't touch. But really...I don't know how some people can have daily contact with a foal and NOT want to love on it. And here arises the problem...
It's not imprinting that causes foals to become disrespectful of human space...it's all the handling after that first month. I can honestly say, that I have spend more effort keeping this foal disciplined than I have loving on him. Friendly foals want to be close to you, they want to chew on you, they want to play with you as if you were another horse. This is not acceptable behavior in an adult horse...why would you let a foal get away with it?
Playing with Rip...A lot of foals that are raised in close quarters are only children. For foals, this leads to boredom and the desire to play with anything or anyone who comes around. It is never okay to play games with your foal. Nasty habits arise from allowing your foal to instigate what would be normal games for him to play with other foals or horses-the fly-by kick, the charge, the rear and paw, backing up to you or allowing them to chew on your clothes or hair. In these instances you cannot even wait to react like momma would, cause momma will let him get away with it a time or two before she gets after him. As humans, we have to stop it immediately. A buggy whip is the most effective tool you can carry for awhile. The only time your foal should be allowed to approach you is if they are facing you, calm and focused on you. Getting after your foal with a buggy whip is not going to make him fearful of you...it teaches him that if he doesn't approach you correctly, he is going to get reprimanded. Usually all it takes is one pop on the butt or the shoulder each time they need to be reminded not to treat you like another foal. The worst Shooter ever got was two solid pops on his buttocks-one to stop him from backing up to me and the second to let him know that kicking out in response to the first pop was unacceptable.
Another factor you really have to pay attention too...momma!! A poorly mannered mare usually raises a poorly mannered foal. Extra care needs to be taken that you reaffirm acceptable behavior from momma too. In this case, big momma's only bad habit shows up at feeding time. She is particularly annoying because when it is feeding time, she walks in front of me, zig-zagging back and forth and stopping repeatedly to make sure I am coming. Guess what Jr. started doing? While I have never worried about my old mare kicking out, I do worry about Shooter. Again, a quick pop of the buggy whip on the butt and both of them learned to move out of the way.
There is no doubt in my mind that raising a gentle foal is going to give them a head start in life. But there is gentle and then there is spoiled. Imprinting doesn't spoil foals...improper handling and lack of proper discipline does.