Nearly every working horse I know has its hooves manicured more often than their owner’s toes get any attention.
So making foot work a happy and relaxed time with the farrier will improve your quality of horse-life immensely.
Some horses will pick up their feet well, but misbehave when the farrier needs to hold them up for a longer period of time to trim the hooves. If the horse is being shod, the pressure of nails being hammered in can also cause issues for ‘hammer shy’ horses.
Every rider should pick out their horse’s hooves each day – even for barefoot horses. This essential grooming habit is easy to overlook in a rush, but quite often riders actively avoid picking out hooves if the horse behaves badly each time.
Vets also appreciate checking hooves that can be calmly picked up and held. Some horses need a needle to handle their feet, which is expensive and unwelcome and could have been avoided by having better training, consistent practice and positive experiences early.
Starting your foal early on the road to good hoof manners can set up a great life habit, but there is plenty you can do to older horses to make leg work safer for you and more comfortable for the horse.
Pressure, release and treats: First of all, choose which of the following two methods you are going to use to train your horse to pick up its feet and stand still, or you might want to use both:
Negative reinforcement is the removal of pressure following the desired response. If you choose this method make sure not to remove the pressure from the horse’s leg or halter when it starts to misbehave because that rewards the undesirable behavior.
Positive reinforcement is the addition of either food or a wither scratch following the desired response.
Equipment: It’s usually best to use a rope halter for this training work. It is also handy to have a towel nearby and a hammer to practice tapping.
Having an extra person can be very helpful. Make sure they always stand on the same side as you. Your helper might hold the horse, or your horse may be tied up, but if it’s a very young horse being in a small yard or box is helpful.
There is no need to be a weightlifter but a little bit of strength is helpful for making this process easier. If you aren’t confident, then ask your coach or someone more experienced to help establish good habits that are safer for all involved.
Getting started: Ideally, start with some ground-work with your horse. Make sure you bring the horse forward and back from the halter pressure. Then ask the horse to yield the hind-quarters in both directions. Will they stand still or are they fidgeting? If you haven’t established these basics focus on them and it will make the next job a lot easier.
We want the horse to say ‘yes’ as often as possible. To do this you have to reward correct behaviour. If the horse fidgets and you drop the leg, they can decide this is a good way to avoid holding the leg up. This is very frustrating and stems from not standing still in the first place.
Front legs: Start by rubbing the horse on the shoulder and slowly running your hand down to the top of the front leg. The main thing is rewarding the horse when they are still and calm. Move your hand down in small increments rewarding the stillness by removing the hand.
Keep repeating this process until you can run your hand down the whole leg without the horse moving away from you. Eventually you can reach down and lift up the leg. Hold it up for a short period before gently placing it back down. Give the horse a big scratch on the wither to reward them.
Work towards holding the leg up for longer periods rewarding in between.
It’s better to ask for a small amount in the beginning. Little and often is the secret. If the horse fidgets with the leg, try to hold it up, if you can hold it until the leg relaxes then put it down and you will be able to train them that holding their leg up will bring the release much more quickly.
While the leg is up you can use the hammer to gently tap the hoof or shoe. If the farrier mentions the horse is ‘hammer shy’ you may have to work on this more often.
Ideally the horse will have learned to stand quite still and be relaxed while you pick up the front feet before you move onto the back legs.
Hind legs: Rub the horse all around the girth area and on top of the rump before moving down to the back legs. Personally, I run my hand down the inside of the leg rather than going down the outside/rear of the leg. This helps to prevent you being kicked if they lash out.
Repeat the same process that you used for the front legs. This time picking up the leg and grabbing under the toe of the hoof pulling it forward. Once the horse is calm while you pull the hoof forward, you can start taking the leg back a little at a time.
It is really important not to reward undesirable behaviour, so make sure that you are very clear on the process before you start.
If the horse kicks out and you can’t hold the leg, ask your helper to immediately back the horse up. Do not hit your horse to punish them for kicking. Back them up to override that reaction. Maintain trust and confidence while making it slightly uncomfortable when they misbehave. Start again at the rump and work your way down again.
Backing the horse up if necessary: If the horse is still lashing out get a mid–sized towel and rub it over the rump and down the hind leg. Then put the towel around the back leg and run it down to the fetlock and pull the leg up. This allows you to stay slightly safer while habituating the horse to touching in that area. Do not hesitate to contact your local horse professional to help with this. It’s much easier if it’s done well in the beginning rather than trying to fix it later.
If you can conquer these basics, you can start to teach the horse to keep its foot on the stand.
I’ve never seen a farrier lose his patience with a calm, well-educated horse. So if your horse is well behaved for his manicure, maybe the farrier will be the one to give you a case of beer this Christmas rather than the other way around!
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.