Being able to safely handle and take care of our horse’s feet is an essential part of good horsemanship. But it’s not always easy. Horses usually have a natural reluctance to allow their feet to be handled and restrained and can show their anxiety by moving around or kicking out. Or, the horse may have learned the opposite approach, which is to pretend he is made of concrete and keep his feet firmly planted. The good news is that, whatever your problem, clicker training is a great way to teach and resolve hoof handling issues
In this series of 6 blogs, I am going to share some tips for successful foot handling. I have organized the tips into what I feel is a logical order, but they are not intended to be followed as if they were instructions for how to teach your horse to pick up and allow you to handle his feet. Depending upon where you are in the process, you may find some of them more useful than others, regardless of the order in which I present them. Each blog contains two tips so Part 1 contains tips 1 & 2, Part 2 contains tips 3 & 4 and so on.
The series includes:
- Tip 1: Reinforce for successive weight shifts
- Tip 2: Plan when and how you are going to introduce contact.
- Tip 3: Feed while the foot is still up
- Tip 4: Teach the horse to let you put her foot back down.
- Tip 5: Teach the horse to let you move her leg/foot
- Tip 6: Tips to make it easier to build duration.
- Tip 7: Take Breaks
- Tip 8: Use a startbutton behavior
- Tip 9: Take breaks
- Tip 10: Prepare and train for the farrier
- Tip 11: Building duration on hoof stands plus some troubleshooting tips
- Tip 12: Plan when and how to add the cue for the hoof lift
Note: These blogs were originally published on my Facebook page, Equine Clicker Training – Katie Bartlett. You may want to follow it if you are interested in similar material. If you would like to learn more about clicker training, my book “Teaching Horses with Positive Reinforcement,” provides all the information you need to get started.
Tip 1: Reinforce for successive weight shifts.
The first step in hoof handling is usually to teach the horse to pick up a foot. Before deciding which foot lift to teach first, it’s worth observing the horse to see how she is standing. Most horses do not load all four feet equally and there will be one foot that is going to be easier to pick up than others. If possible, I start with that one. If there’s a reason why it’s not a good choice, then I will move the horse so that a different foot is more available.
I prefer to shape the horse to lift up her own foot using successive approximations, starting with a tiny weight shift, and working toward picking the foot up off the ground. If this is not possible, I can capture the action of lifting the leg by asking the horse to step over or on to an object. It is important to raise criteria slowly so the horse can be successful. Building criteria slowly also makes it easier to shape the behavior in a calm and thoughtful manner.
Extra tip: With the hind feet, it can be helpful to teach the horse to pick up his foot and place it with the hoof balanced on its toe, as a horse does when he is resting a hind leg. This encourages relaxation and makes it easy for you to start asking for small lifts off the ground.
Tip 2: Plan when and how you are going to introduce contact.
Regardless of how you choose to shape the foot lift, the final behavior is going to include your hand in contact with the horse’s leg. Contact can be introduced at many different points, but my preference is to introduce the contact early, either as a prompt or by casually slipping it into the behavior.
I find that introducing contact early, in a non-restrictive way, leads to an easier transition when I start to ask the horse to hold his leg up longer or to allow me to move it around. I should add that I don’t even think about starting to ask a horse to lift up his leg until he is comfortable with me brushing and running my hands all over it.
Here are a few of the ways I can introduce contact:
- I start with contact, using my hand on the horse’s leg as a prompt for offering behavior. I am not trying to lift the leg, just resting my hand on it and waiting for the horse to offer some behavior in response.
- I introduce contact once the horse is lifting his hoof off the ground. When I am at the point where I am getting a consistent sequence of horse lifts leg -> click -> treat, I insert another behavior (a hand touch) between the lift and the click to create the new sequence: horse lifts leg -> I touch the leg -> click -> treat. I am somewhat opportunistic about this and add the contact when the horse is calmly and easily lifting his foot, even if it’s not as high as I want in the final behavior.
- I wait until the horse has some duration in the lift. Once the horse has some reinforcement history for holding his leg up for a few seconds, I introduce hand contact. An easy way to do this is to place my hand under his hoof or fetlock and click as soon as my hand makes contact. The horse learns he will be reinforced for contact between my hand and his hoof and I can continue to shape the behavior until he learns to relax his leg and let his hoof rest in my hand.
Extra tip: When I first introduce contact, I am not trying to hold the leg, so there’s a lot of flexibility in where I choose to place my hand. Some horses are very reactive to any contact on the cannon bone and I may find it easier to introduce contact by touching the knee or fetlock joint. Over time, I can introduce other more practical hand positions.