Teach a horse to accept farriery work

With a few simple exercises a horse can learn to accept having his hooves handled.
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With a few simple exercises a horse can learn to accept having his hooves handled.

My 12-year-old rescue gelding is very sensitive to having work done on his feet. I don’t know if he was hurt at some point in his life, but he appears to be particularly fearful about having work done on his back feet. I’m able to lift, handle and pick all four hooves, and I do this with him on a daily basis. But when the farrier arrives, it’s a different story. 

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My gelding allows his front feet to be trimmed with a bit of coaxing and patience. But when it comes to his back feet, he fights so fiercely that I’m forced to sedate him for the farrier’s safety and his own. He’s barefoot for now, because the thought of shoeing him seems a little daunting until we’ve gotten past his aversion to having his hooves worked on. Eventually, I’d prefer to not have to sedate him, use a twitch or any other form of restraint when his feet are being tended to. What can I do to work toward this?

Great question---and I particularly like the fact that you do as much as you can between trims to help your farrier. You’re definitely right about the steps involved. Don’t try for shoes until this horse accepts handling and trimming. I assume you have had your veterinarian examine this horse to make sure he does not have a physical or neurological problem that makes work on his rear hooves uncomfortable or painful.

There is no quick fix when it comes to teaching a horse to allow handling of his legs. After all, legs have everything to do with flight and survival. That means it takes a lot of trust for a prey animal to accept a person confining one, even though we don’t mean any harm and we will give the leg back in a minute or so. Horses who have had a tough past are especially wary.

At a clinic a few years ago I was asked to help with a gelding who had a similar problem. He was a 5-year-old buckskin, and when people tried to handle his hind legs he was explosively dangerous. When the lady asked me to help her, she didn’t give me much history. She just said her horse had “hind leg issues.” I approached the horse, let him sniff me, and then began rubbing my way down his body. He was standing dead quiet. Rather then go for the hind legs directly I picked up his forelegs, which he allowed with no problem. Noticing he had hind shoes, I figured his “hind leg issues” couldn’t be too bad. Standing as close to the shoulder as I could, to stay out of the kick zone, I gave a rub down his side. I could feel his belly muscles tighten, and as I
approached his flank he let out three lighting-fast kicks as if to say, “Don’t even try it, Cowboy!”

At that point, I got the whole story about how three guys fought with this horse for four hours to get those hind shoes on. The woman told me the men had tied up the gelding’s legs, laid him down and beat him to get the job done. It was a horrible experience, and he wasn’t about to let it happen again. In the end it took me three days to build up his trust to the point where I could easily pick up his hind feet, simulate rasp strokes and tap lightly to prepare for nailing on shoes. The lady kept it up and he has since had hind shoes on without a struggle.

Fortunately, most horses don’t have that level of aversion to hind-leg handling, but many make the process more difficult than it needs to be for all concerned. And the steps involved in helping them improve are pretty much the same.

Safety is the main concern. Be realistic about your skill level and don’t overface yourself and get hurt. If the horse you are dealing with is even close to the level of difficulty posed by the buckskin gelding I described, get some professional, hands-on help.

When working with any horse, you must be able to read the subtle signs. When I worked my way down the belly of that buckskin with my hand, he was already telling me, “I do not like what is going on.” If I had ignored his message and headed straight for the hind legs, I could have been caught by those kicks he had ready for me.

So, reading the horse is key, and spotting tension is your main focus. Make sure he gets in the right state of mind before you go to handle his legs. The slightest signs of tension can show up with a skin twitch, fidgeting, irritation or general resistance. Pay attention to any signs of trouble through the whole process.

If, as you work with a horse, you start to feel him get agitated, ask him to move. The goal is to direct his energy through controlled movement. If he won’t stand still to relax, then move him more. Keep in mind, it is a horseman’s feel and timing that will get a horse through this. You determine when you are going to move him or go back to the leg handling based on his state of mind. If he feels trapped or forced he has to fight. By moving him you cause him to make this choice: He can stand still and relax while you quietly handle his legs or he can do a lot of moving. 

Never miss a chance to prepare your horse for leg handling. Whenever the farrier comes to my barn I like to bring my young horses around to experience all the sights and sounds. This way they become OK with it while nothing is happening with them. My farrier will often take a short break and come over and give them a friendly rub so they think she is OK, too. Then, by the time she needs to work on them, they already know her.

In the end my goal is for horses to allow anyone, in any area, to pick up and handle their hooves for cleaning, doctoring, trimming, rasping, nailing and even hot shoeing. With my young horses I focus on these basics and include them in every session. If I’m riding, for example, each time I dismount I walk around and pick up all four hooves and hold them for a bit. When possible, I simulate rasp strokes and even the pounding of the nails by tapping their hooves with my hands.

All of this helps to make farrier work and other handling easier for them down the road.

About the author: Jonathan Field is a trainer and clinician from Abbotsford, British Columbia. His program, Jonathan Field Horsemanship: Inspired by Horses, teaches the skills necessary to build a relationship with horses. Field grew up riding both English and Western and worked as a cowboy on one of the largest cattle ranches in Canada. Field regularly does presentations at events like the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, California. His first book, The Art of Liberty Training for Horses, was published in 2014. 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #459, December 2015.