Imprinting is an evolutionary phenomenon in precocial species such as the horse and certain waterbirds, those species born with a nearly fully intact and functioning nervous system.
To imprint is to permanently learn from the immediate environment immediately after birth, for an unknown period of time, a day or two or three, say.
The foal imprints on everything in her environment in the first few days of life, especially moving beings, her dam primarily, and any others in close proximity, moving things, animals, horses, humans, the like. This experience is more or less permanent, so horsefolk need to take care to make sure the foal properly imprints primarily upon her mother, her teacher, as this is the phase in which the mother teaches the foal to be a horse. The foal is best imprinted in a natural environment when possible, a pasture, that is, with an intact social herd, or alone with the mare.
Imprint training is quite another issue involving aversive handling, restraint, physical manipulation, repeatedly putting fingers in and out of all orifices, etc. Molestation or terrorization are more accurate descriptions than imprint training, which is scientifically considered a misnomer.
We are grateful that Dr Miller brought forth the biological phenomenon of an imprint phase shortly after birth, where the foal is quickly expected to learn to be a horse from her mother, and pronto, so as to survive. We are not so sure that his idea to train a newborn foal is a good idea, as humans really do not have the knowledge or capacity to teach a foal what she needs to know to survive, and then later in life pass on to her foal. After the foal has appropriately imprinted upon her mother during the first week of life, then the human horse training can begin.
Foals that are imprint trained are often deprived of proper imprinting, and many are improperly imprinted, rendering them difficult to train later in life. Many of these foals do not know how to learn, as their ability to learn was interfered with by uneducated horsefolk.
Humans can best serve the horse by avoiding any training of the foal until the foal is past the imprint phase.
So yes, differentiation between the term imprinting and imprint training is necessary.
The foal imprints to her world based on her neonatal experience and environment with her mother. The newborn foal imprints to her environment and the horses in the environment, the mare in particular, of course. If humans are in the environment, the foal will imprint upon those humans to some degree, but it is preferred that the foal primarily imprints on the dam, more than anyone else, initially. If you must handle a horse in the post-partum phase, please avoid handling the healthy foal and handle the mare. Of course, if the foal needs help or treatment, handling is necessary, but it should be as brief and un-invasive and kind as possible, please.
To attempt to train a foal in the imprint phase carries the potential to cause a great deal of permanent harm to the foal, so unless you know more than a mare about foals, I suggest you First, Do No Harm, and let the mare take care of teaching the foal. The mare has 60 million years of evolutionary experience at this, while you have none.
Dr Gustafson is a practicing veterinarian, equine behavior educator, and novelist. The application of behavior science enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Behavioral and nutritional strategies enrich the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses who are willing to learn and perform.