equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Hoof Handling: 12 Tips for success (Part 2)

This is the second blog in a six part series on teaching your horse to cooperate and participate in hoof handling.

The next two tips are most useful when the horse has learned to lift the foot up and when you are just building duration, or when there is some extra behavior happening between the click and treat. In both cases, I am focusing on building a clean behavior chain of pick the foot up -> hold the foot up -> put the foot back down. Taking the time to clearly define and teach each component of the chain will make it easier to add more behaviors as needed.

Tip 3:  Feed while the foot is still up

I am feeding with my right hand while reminding Buster to keep his foot on the stand with my left hand.

When teaching a horse to lift his foot up, my general strategy is to click while the horse’s foot is up and feed after the horse places his foot back down. This is one of the benefits of a marker signal, the ability to provide clarity even if the reinforcer is delivered after the behavior is done. However, in hoof handling, it’s possible for some unwanted behavior to creep into that interval between click and treat and some horses seem to learn a lot faster if both the click and the food delivery occur while the horse is doing the same behavior.

I keep this in mind and if my progress on training a solid lift or in building duration seems slow, then it’s always worth experimenting a little to see if I can use the timing of the food delivery to further reinforce the behavior that I just clicked. In the case of hoof care, the most obvious adjustment is to deliver the reinforcers (food) while the horse is still holding his foot up. I may do this for several sessions to get past a sticky point in training, and then go back to feeding after I put the foot down. Or I may do it for longer if it continues to be beneficial.

Here are some ways to feed while the foot is up:

  • Use a helper: The best option is to get another person to be in charge of food delivery. In this scenario, I click, my helper feeds, and then I place the foot back down. I think it’s important to put the foot back down, even if I have a helper – at least in the beginning of the training.  Many horses become anxious and/or uncomfortable if asked to hold a foot up for longer periods of time and I don’t want to ask for too much too soon. Another advantage to putting the foot down after the reinforcer is delivered is that it gives me an opportunity to see how quickly the horse offers the behavior again, or how he responds if I ask again.  

  • When training alone: If I am working with the front feet, it’s quite easy to deliver the food by myself while holding the foot up. If I am holding the foot as if for cleaning, I click and turn so I am facing the horse’s shoulder, which allows me to extend my hand toward his nose. If I am planning on doing this, I either hold the hoof with the hand farther away from the horse (right hand on left side and vice versa) or quickly swap hands as I feed. It seems awkward at first, but most horses quickly realize they can just stay in position and the food will be delivered to them, even though I haven’t moved very much.

  • When training alone and using a hoof stand: Using a hoof stand makes it easier to support the hoof while I deliver the food. I can do this from both positions; forward where the hoof is supported from the bottom, and rearward where the hoof is resting in the cradle.  The mechanics of the feeding hand are the same whether I am using a stand or not, but in one case my other hand is holding up the hoof compared to resting on the leg to indicate I’d like the horse to stay in position.

    If I have the foot forward on a stand, I just click, place a hand on the foot (that’s my cue to keep it in place), and feed. In the forward position, I want to feed so that my hand is away from my body and in a location where the horse can reach it without compromising his balance. A lot of horses have trouble taking their front legs forward and relaxing while the foot is on the stand. Feeding a few times for keeping the foot on the stand can make a big difference.

Note: I tend to be cautious about moving away and leaving a horse with his foot resting on a hoof stand completely independently. I do train my horses to stay on the stand without any contact from me, but this is mostly to teach them that it’s their responsibility to keep their foot on the stand, not my job to hold it there. When I do this, I am always close enough that if something happens, I can jump in and help. Unexpected things can happen and a horse that is startled could hurt himself if he suddenly moves and the stand falls or bangs into him.

Tip 4: Teach the horse to let you put her foot back down.

I am placing Rosie’s front foot back down very carefully. I usually face backward but that was awkward for the camera.

Whenever I teach a behavior, I always think about what I want the horse to do when she hears the click. Do I want her to stop what she is doing? Do I want her to stay in position? Or do I want her to do some other behavior? In Tip 3, I suggested that it can be helpful to teach the horse that I will be delivering the food reinforcer while the foot is still up (staying in position). In this tip, I am going to suggest that you teach the horse to let you carefully place the foot back down after the click. This is different than just clicking and allowing the horse to place her foot down in any manner she chooses. 

Why do I teach this? For two reasons. First, it makes it easier to avoid reinforcing unwanted behavior between the click and treat. Second, it’s very useful.

This tip comes from my early work with Aurora, who had only received minimal hoof care when I got her at 10 months of age. I don’t know exactly how her previous hoof handling was done, but I ran into the problem that I would click for a leg lift and she would immediately strike out with her front leg before putting it down. Even though she had done a behavior that met my criteria (picking the leg up), I knew that feeding after the strike could end up reinforcing both the lift and the strike. After experimenting a bit, I found that if I kept the lift small and carefully placed her foot back down after the click, it was easy to build a nice calm behavior of lifting the leg up, holding it up briefly, and putting it back down. I liked the resulting behavior so much that I now teach placing the foot back down as part of any hoof handling.

If your horse is used to the click “ending the behavior,” meaning you take your hand off and he can do whatever he wants, then you’ll have to carefully introduce the idea that the click is followed by your guidance putting the foot back down. You can do this in small increments. With some of my horses (I went back and retrained a few after my experience with Aurora), I clicked, moved the foot slightly and then let go. Over a period of days, they slowly got accustomed to me asking for another small behavior after the click. I kept doing this until the “small behavior” grew into placing the foot back down.

If your horse seems to get confused and tries to “help” you put the foot back down, then you can click and feed a few times while the foot is up before clicking and putting the foot down. If you start to lose the lift, then go back to clicking and releasing as normal a few times before trying again.

Sometimes it’s easier to teach a horse to allow you to put her leg back down after the horse has learned to let you move the leg. This is Tip 5, which is coming next. Keep in mind that these tips are being presented in a logical, but not necessarily linear, order. You will need to assess how your horse is doing and choose which tip may be helpful for your current stage of training.

Before we leave the subject of putting the foot back down, I wanted to mention a few additional benefits to training this behavior:

  • Developing better balance or standing square: Because I can choose where I place the foot, I have the opportunity to place it so that the cannon bone is vertical. By the time I am done with the fourth foot, my horse is now standing square. This makes it easier to pick up each successive foot as you are putting each leg in a good supporting position. It is also an easy way to introduce the idea of standing square. And, if you square up the horse and then go on to asking for other stationary behaviors (brushing, tacking up, …), you will be clicking for standing in good balance along with everything else.  
  • Precise foot placement: If you practice foot placement with some variations (a leg slightly forward or back), you can teach your horse to allow you to place each hoof in any position you choose. I’ve taught Rosie that if I place her foot down on the toe, I would like her to keep her foot in the same spot as she transfers weight to it. This is handy for any kind of specific placement like x-ray boxes or if you need the horse to stand with slightly offset front feet for a medical or husbandry procedure.

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