Many years ago I was lucky enough to attend a seminar that Dr. Robert M. Miller, DMV put on in Palmerston North, New Zealand. His presentation was on his ‘Imprint Training’ with new born foals and mules. (He has a penchant for breeding, training, and riding mules.) He discovered, through his many years as working as a large animal vet (specializing in horses) that there was a significant difference between horses who he met and had to treat as adults, and the behaviours of the horses who he had assisted in their births or been attending and handling soon thereafter. He realized that the horses who he’d handled at birth treated him as if he was part of the herd instead of an outsider. Often, when he showed up on the farm he’d been called out to, any of the horses that he’d treated at birth would come running over the fields to greet him. After much reflection as to why some horses were treating him so differently (like a family member), Dr. Miller put the pieces of this puzzle together and realized that what they all had in common was that he’d been present at their births. At the dawning of that discovery, he decided to begin experimenting with newborn foals in a purposeful way. He began to manipulate the newborns foals as he would while working with them as a vet: sticking his fingers in the ears, nasal passage, under the tail and in the anus as if taking a temperature, and so on. With a track record of success behind him, he developed his ‘imprinting’ technique and applied it to his own breeding program.
He showed us videos of the animals he had worked with since birth and the connection he shared with them was palpable. If you are interested in horses (or handling any animals for that matter) I would recommend you get his book, Imprint Training of New Born Foals published by Western Horseman (1991). Although it is a book about horses, I have used many of his techniques with my dogs and am now using it with my goats! I can tell you that after only knowing my newborn goat kids for 24 hours, they are already imprinted on me and will happily come up to me when I enter the barn and are relaxed about me handling them all over.
Immediate Postpartum Procedure
1. Beginning: To begin the imprint training, wait until the goat has finished giving birth and is licking the kids. Because Dr. Miller works with horses, not to mention is a very experienced vet, he is much more confident than I am about when to begin the imprint training. In his book, he suggests beginning right away before the mare has even had a chance to lick and clean off the foal. I would rather let nature take its course a bit and wait until the goat has cleaned the kids up on her own.
2. Dry rubbing: Once the kids are more or less licked clean (at least the head and neck) you can begin to dry their bodies with a towel. You want to then start touching the head and neck area and get them familiar with your scent. Don’t push the mother away if she too wants to attend to the kid. When you are doing this, the kid might kick and fuss, but be gentle and persistent.
3. Stimulate them into habituation: You cannot overdo the amount of stimuli through gentle touch but you can under-do it. If you let the animal avoid your contact and let them escape your touch, you will fix that behaviour in their minds. Keep touching them until they relax and allow the contact. The idea is for the animal to learn about frustration and then submission in a soft, safe manner. This will make them easier to handle when they are full grown adults. The relaxed acceptance of your touch shows what Dr. Miller calls ‘habituation’, and many would call ‘submission’.
NOTE: This is particularly important with horses as they grow into much larger animals that goats and your relationship is more dependent upon their behaviour!
4. Desensitizing: Do not rush the imprint training! Rub their head, nose, ears, down their whole bodies, and under their tails. Touch and massage each part of them-ears, nose, tail, etc–until they relax and accept your touch. Miller advises that this will usually require from 30-100 repetitions in foals, I found it to be quite a bit easier with my goat kids. It did take persistence, but it only took about 10-20 repetitions and the ears were the most difficult body part to desensitize. Now I can sit, absentmindedly rubbing their ears, while they easily accept my touch and even fall asleep while I’m doing it; they don’t even flinch when I hold their tails or touch underneath them (goats hate having their tails touched!).
5. The particulars: One of the key points underpinning the imprint training is to make the animal easier to handle as an adult. You have to imagine that one day you may need to give it a needle, or the vet may need to clean out its ear canal, or insert a thermometer in its rectum. In order to make the ‘Vet’s dream animal’ you have to work on it. Once the animal is used to being touched all over, then you can start inserting your finger in its mouth, nasal passages, ear canal, and rectum. Do not do the rectum first and then move to the mouth or ear! Instead, be sure to work form the head down.
6. The extremities: Now you can work on the less sensitive areas. Make sure you handle the feet, legs, groin and belly areas. As above, you want to massage and manipulate the areas until the animal relaxes and receives your touch easily. With goats, it is important that they are accustomed to you handling their feet because they will need regular hoof trimming (not unlike horses’ hooves).
NOTE: Let the mother bond with the baby while you also work with her baby. Do the above work in segments leaving the family time in between bouts of your touching so they can relax together and let the babies feed. This doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be rushed. You can pick up where you left off hours or even days later.
The next day:
Only 26 hours old and they already know me and accept my handling with ease and aplomb. I will continue to manipulate and touch them on a daily basis as they grow over the next few weeks in order to reinforce the learning.
His work with the foals is much more comprehensive than I’ve outlined above and for very good reasons. Horse handling is an art unto itself and requires much more diligence than my needs with my goats are. Please consult his book and lifetime’s work if you are interested in this imprint training idea, or wish to try it with your horse or other animals. I am not claiming to be an expert on this subject; I have simply adapted some of his techniques to suit my farm work and the animals I work with. Miller will take you through complete horse training from the foal to the adult, well-mannered horse!