Teaching a horse to allow his hooves to be handled is often an afterthought, falling well below leading, standing tied and other basic ground manners on the list of training priorities. But it’s not something to overlook. Besides the obvious benefit of making routine hoof care easier, a horse’s cooperation can have a significant impact on treatment and recovery after an injury or ailment occurs.
Good farriery manners are fairly straightforward. A horse needs to stand quietly and allow each of his hooves to be lifted off the ground to be picked out, trimmed or shod or to undergo treatment. It’s in the details that trouble can develop. For one thing, standing on three legs isn’t natural for horses and keeping a hoof elevated for more than a minute or so at a time can become uncomfortable for some. Plus many find the sensations associated with trimming---and shoeing---unpleasant. Finally, past trauma or poor handling can sour horses on having their hooves handled.
But practically any horse can improve and, for the sake of all involved, it’s worth investing some time to make sure yours cooperates with the farrier. Here are tips for teaching good farriery habits in horses of different ages and in different situations.
FOR THE FOAL
• Start early. It’s practically never too soon to get a foal used to having his feet handled. In fact, Tia Nelson, DVM, a veterinarian and farrier in Helena, Montana, recommends having a farrier look at a youngster at 1 or 2 weeks of age, particularly if you are worried about crooked legs or other imperfections that may require corrective trimming. “The earlier, the better,” she says.
• Establish a relationship of respect. Foals and young horses understand the concept of discipline because it’s the foundation of the herd’s pecking order: A bold youngster who tries to have his own way gets put in his place by dominant herd members. Sassy foals also need to learn respect when you are working with them and understand that nipping, biting, kicking or temper tantrums when you pick up a foot are not allowed. “You have to treat them like your own kids. You want them to love you but you also want them to respect you,” says Tommy Boudreau, a certified farrier in Mineral Wells, Texas. “There has to be some firmness along with kindness because you don’t want to spoil a young horse. Sometimes it takes a firm jerk on the lead rope if they are trying to bite or paw at you or go over the top of you. They have to learn their limits of behavior and respect you.”
• Get the foal accustomed to all sorts of handling. Desensitizing a young horse to being touched and handled is the first step in teaching him farriery manners. Once a youngster is halter trained, teach him to accept your touch over his entire body. Go slowly and make it a positive experience---if he begins to become anxious, stop briefly to allow him to calm down, then resume your session. And make handling a consistent part of his care routine. “People also need to realize that it takes more handling than just one day,” says Boudreau. “There is no substitute for spending a lot of time with a horse, starting slowly, with gradual steps, to gain their trust and keep it.”
• Choose a safe space. When you first start picking up his feet, make sure the foal is in a position that allows him to easily balance on the other three legs, and help him shift his weight if necessary. After you get him accustomed to balancing himself as you lift each foot, try holding each up for a little longer each time. If he tries to take it away, gently continue to hold it until he relaxes and then put it down. He needs to learn that you are the one deciding when to put it down, not him, or he will think he can jerk it away whenever he wishes.
Set yourself up for success by positioning the youngster to minimize his opportunity to escape or struggle. “I put the foal against the mare or a wall, and start with a hind foot. It’s easier for the foal to balance himself with a hind foot off the ground,” says Nelson. “Putting him next to his dam or the stall wall gives him support and security on one side.”
• Show him that farrier visits are no big deal. When the farrier comes to the barn to work on other horses, bring out the youngster to expose him to the sights and sounds of hoof trimming and shoeing. If possible, ask your farrier to take a break and introduce himself to the youngster to show him that there is nothing to fear.
Dean Moshier, an accredited pro-fessional farrier in Delaware, Ohio, finds this type of “show and tell” particularly helpful in preparing a foal for his first trimming. “It’s easier to handle their feet for the first few time when they are still with the mare. For the first trim, it helps to have the youngster in the stall watching mommy get done. Then they have a clue about what is going on and it’s not such a foreign idea,” he says. “It’s amazing how easy it is to train horses if they have some idea about what is expected of them. The same thing with the feet. So I trim the mare before I even attempt to do the baby the first time. Then the baby has some idea about what I am doing, what I smell like, the tools, and what the tools sound like. Nothing is scary; they can see that mom is calm about this. But if their first trim doesn’t happen until they are weanlings, we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t have mom as a role model.”
• Don’t ask for too much too soon. Young horses, like young children, have short attention spans and very little patience, so start gradually extending the time you work on hoof handling---and always try to keep your young horse calm and comfortable.
In your first sessions, Nelson advises focusing on getting the foal to let you hold up each foot briefly. Initially don’t hold it more that six or eight inches off the ground---this is less threatening. Avoid making him feel like his leg is “trapped” and he is no longer in control of it, which may cause him to panic and trigger his flight instinct.
“If you are picking a foot up and holding it, you are going against a foal’s hardwired instinctive response, and he becomes anxious,” she says. “I always take plenty of time when working with foals and teach people how to run their hands down the leg and then pick up the foot.”
Once the youngster accepts having his feet lifted for a few minutes at a time, hold up each hoof in a shoeing position---between your legs for a front foot, resting across your thigh for a hind foot. Then use a hoof pick to actually clear off the sole, and tap and scrape the hoof to get the youngster used to the feel of it. If he gets accustomed to having his foot held up for a longer time, he will be less impatient when the farrier trims (and later, shoes) him.
“Use your hoof pick and tap on the feet each time you clean them out. Sometimes the young horse does very well for his first shoeing until the farrier starts to nail the shoes on,” says Boudreau. “The horse isn’t used to that sensation and may resist. So use your hoof pick to tap on the feet.” It also helps to lay an old shoe on the foot and tap on it, because this is a different sensation/sound than simply tapping on the hoof. You want the youngster to be at ease with and accustomed to everything the farrier will do.
FOR THE MATURE HORSE
• Make sure the horse is not hurting. Injury, arthritis, stiff muscles or other sources of soreness may make it difficult for a horse to shift his weight to three legs or to raise his hooves off the ground. If your horse seems to be having trouble, talk to your veterinarian about a possible physical cause. If one is found, let your farrier know so he can adapt shoeing sessions---perhaps by allowing more frequent breaks---to make them easier on your horse.
• Choose a safe setting and take precautions to protect yourself from harm. “Work with the horse in a relatively open area but with good fences around it so the horse can’t get away,” says Boudreau, noting that the ideal place would be a round pen or arena with good footing. “Anytime they are working on a spooky horse, I advise clients to always give themselves plenty of room, and always have a place to move away from the horse (not in a confined space), and work on a nice flat surface with no obstacles to run into if the horse spooks or jumps sideways,” Boudreau says. “You don’t want the horse to run over you or run into an obstacle or smash you into a fence or wall. Always think ahead to what might happen and don’t be in the way.”
• Use desensitization techniques. For the inexperienced horse or one who is developing bad habits, do some simple leading and standing exercises before gradually focusing on handling his legs and feet. “You can start desensitizing his feet and legs by bathing him with water from a hose,” says Boudreau. “He may kick at the water at first, but you are not close enough to be kicked. After he’s used to water touching his legs, try touching his legs with a broom or a livestock stick or cane. This gives you a longer arm and you can be standing up near his front instead of his hind legs if he kicks. Eventually the horse realizes he’s not being hurt and is less ticklish about his legs.”
The idea is to help the horse realize that having his hooves handled is part of normal grooming/handling. “Learning to pick up the feet and have them held up, to be cleaned out with a hoof pick, should be part of the daily routine,” explains Boudreau. “Then you can get the horse accustomed to having the front leg put between your legs, or the hind leg laid across your leg, in the position a farrier would use for trimming or shoeing.”
• Put him in the right frame of mind. You are probably the best judge of what will make your horse most comfortable for a farriery session. Some horses are more cooperative after mealtime; others might be better after working off excess energy with a good session in the riding ring. See which works best for your horse.
• Make hoof handling part of your regular routine. If you pick out and otherwise handle your horse’s feet frequently, farriery work won’t seem too novel to him. It pays to just make this a part of the daily grooming routine. “If it’s a horse that’s old enough to be ridden, make a habit of picking the feet up and tapping on them every time you groom and saddle him to ride. This can make a big difference, even if you are only riding the horse a couple times a week. This will make the farrier’s job easier,” says Boudreau.
It takes patient handling and consistency to help a horse develop good habits. “The owners might work with the horse and get it trained to where they can pick up the feet, and tap on the feet, and tap on a shoe that’s laid on the foot. Then they turn the horse out for a month or for all winter. When they try to work with that horse again it might seem like he forgot everything they taught him!” says Boudreau. “It helps to keep working with the feet, at least once a week or every other week.” The horse becomes comfortable with things that you do all the time, that they know won’t hurt them.
FOR THE TOUGHEST CASES
Horses who aggressively resist having their feet handled pose a serious challenge, one that goes beyond simple retraining exercises. This behavior may result from a previous bad exper-ience, inadequate training or, simply, a disagreeable temperament. Whatever the cause, the solution more often than not requires the help of one or more professionals.
A trainer, for example, may be able to work through certain issues with a horse to safely change his attitude about having his feet picked up, trimmed and shod. But along the way, communication with all of the other professionals in a horse’s life is key.
Moshier appreciates learning as much about a horse’s background and behavior as possible so that he can properly prepare himself. “Nothing bothers me more as a farrier than getting out from underneath a horse and the owner says, ‘Wow! He’s never stood that well before,’” he says. “It’s nice to get some background information before I am potentially killed!”
The other professional you’ll want to call on is your veterinarian. “There are times when as a last resort a veterinarian may have to sedate the horse. This may be the safest, most humane way to handle that horse---rather than fighting with him. This is sometimes the case when it’s a horse who’s not broke and the owner hasn’t been able to get the horse broke and the farrier has used all his/her techniques to try to work on the feet,” says Boudreau. “Maybe the horse needs to be trimmed badly, or maybe he has an abscess in his foot or something that really needs to be tended to. This might be a situation where you need to have a veterinarian sedate the horse enough so we can get the feet picked up safely.”
When working with your horse, don’t forget one other important part of the equation: your own demeanor. Even if you have a good technique for handling his feet, if you are nervous or afraid of what might happen, this makes him anxious as well.
Sometimes the biggest challenge in handling a foot-phobic horse is managing your own emotions. Try to relax, take deep breaths, and lower your blood pressure. If you can stay calm, your horse is much more likely to do the same. If you are confident and at ease, he’ll follow your lead. And you’ll be on the way to establishing a pattern of desirable farriery behavior.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #464, May 2016.