equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Hoof handling: 12 Tips for success (Part 3)

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

Tip 5: Teach the horse to let you move her leg/foot

Teaching a horse to take her leg forward is a good way to check relaxation and prepare for the hoof stand.

Once the horse accepts hand contact on her leg and I can hold her foot up briefly, it’s time to work on teaching her to hold it up for longer periods of time (duration) and to stay relaxed while I move her foot and/or leg into different positions. This combination of understanding the basic behavior (keep your foot off the ground) while accepting input from the handler is an important component of good hoof handling.

For example, I want my horse to hold her foot still while I clean it out or trim it, but I also want her to allow me to move it around if I want to look at it from a different angle or hold it in a slightly different position. In order to be able to do this, she needs to learn to relax her leg and maintain her balance, even if I am moving her foot into different positions. This takes time and should be done slowly and carefully so the horse always has enough time to get used to new requests. I approach it systematically, starting with easy variations and slowly work toward more challenging variations on the behavior.

However, before I introduce movement, I want to consider whether the horse is ready for it, or if she would benefit from more time spent building duration in a comfortable position. Each horse is different and you may find yourself going back and forth between focusing on stillness vs. movement, but in general, if the horse is lifting a foot easily but tends to move it around or feels like she has trouble balancing, then I am going to focus on building duration without moving the foot around (Tip 6). On the other hand, if the horse holds her leg up with a lot of tension and seems kind of locked into position, then gradually introducing movement can be a great way to encourage relaxation and help her learn to balance while her leg is held in different positions.

When I decide to introduce movement, I start by teaching the horse to let me make small changes in how I am holding her foot, slowly building toward larger changes in position (taking the foot forward or backward). I want to make the movements small enough that I don’t unbalance the horse and I have the opportunity to reinforce her for allowing me to move her leg and staying relaxed. One of the challenges in the beginning can be that the horse will often assume you are going to put the foot down as soon as you start to move the leg. If that happens, then I just ask for less and click sooner, before the horse tries to put her leg down. I can also focus on movement in an upward direction (flexing the foot more) so it’s clear I still want the leg to stay off the ground.

The following points describe my general progression for introducing movement. I start with the front legs as they are usually easier. I usually focus first on practical positions – what I need for cleaning and trimming. But I also mix in some other exercises that are good for improving balance and relaxation. Many of these come from TTEAM and Masterson Method work, since I am familiar with both of them, but I’m sure there are other variations that could also be useful.

  • Small circular movements: The first thing I usually introduce is being able to wiggle the foot and lower leg around. This is a way to encourage and evaluate the horse’s level of relaxation. Making small circles with the foot is a good TTEAM exercise and most horses can learn to do it easily. I start by holding the foot at the fetlock and moving the hoof. Later I can do something similar with the knee and scapula, taking into account the normal range of motion for those joints.
  • Opening and closing the joints: The second thing I teach is vertical movement (opening and closing of any joint). I want to be able to change the amount of flexion in the fetlock, knee and elbow joints.
  • Taking the leg forward: This is important to practice. It’s a good exercise on its own as well as preparation for the farrier. If I have a hoof stand, I will introduce it. If I don’t have a hoof stand, I will teach the horse to allow me to draw the leg forward. I have some tips for introducing hoof stands that I’ll share in a later post.

    Most horses find it easier if I pick up the foot as usual, then turn and draw the leg forward. With my more experienced horses, I can just touch them on their pastern joint and they will lift the leg and allow me to extend it forward. If the horse wants to stretch, that’s ok. I let them do it, put the foot down and ask again.
  • Taking the hind leg back: A lot of horses carry tension in their hind end and will pick up a hind leg and hold it close to their body. I spend some time teaching the horse to relax the leg so that I can draw it forward as if putting it on a stand. I also want to horse to relax and allow me to draw the leg backward. If your horse has difficulty with either of these, you may want to look up some relaxation techniques that are targeted specifically for the hind end. Jim Masterson has a lot of YouTube videos showing how to relax the larger muscles in the hind end to improve a horse’s range of motion and relaxation.

Note: This tip is specifically about introducing variations in foot position and encouraging relaxation – duration is a side effect. But duration can also be addressed directly, as I’ll describe in tip 6.

Tip 6:  Tips to make it easier to build duration

You need duration if you want to pick up the foot and do something to it.

These were separate tips on my original list, but I think it’s easier to present them together because they are all related to building duration. They involve finding ways to make it easy for the horse to learn to hold his leg up for longer, taking into account both physical and mental considerations.

When I am at the point where the horse is comfortable with my requests to pick up a foot, it’s time to start thinking about duration. Duration can be challenging for many horses because they have to learn to balance on three legs and they are now being asked to hold the leg up while the trainer does something to it – something which may or may not be of concern to them. There’s also the potential for the amount of reinforcement to drop as duration increases.

There are a number of ways to make building duration easier for the horse (and for the trainer). They involve recognizing and working separately on different aspects, as much as possible, and/or addressing the reasons that duration may be difficult.

These are:

Time: Build duration slowly. It is very tempting to think that holding the foot up is an easy behavior. The horse doesn’t have to do anything, right? But, in reality, the horse may be working hard, learning how to balance and becoming accustomed to having some restrictions placed on how he can stand and/or move his foot. Imagine how you would feel if you were asked to stand on one foot for increasingly longer periods of time? I realize there is a difference between having two feet and having four, but the horse has the additional challenge that someone else is holding up his foot.

The most practical way to build duration is by slowly increasing the count while maintaining some variability. I might start by asking for a duration of 1 second. Once the horse can do this, then my next three repetitions might be for counts of 1, 2, 2. Then 1, 2, 3, 2, 2… and so on, slowly increasing the average count, but varying it enough that each repetition is not always harder than the previous one.

Degree of Difficulty: As soon as the horse can hold his foot up briefly, it is very tempting to try and “do something” because we usually have a specific activity in mind. Instead, I find it works better if you think about building some duration as a separate behavior, or with very easy behaviors, before you ask the horse to hold his foot up AND let you clean it, trim it, etc. i recommend this because I know that as soon as I try to do something specific, I am less aware of the small weight shifts and changes in tension that indicate the horse is no longer comfortable holding up his foot.

To avoid missing these signs, I try to find simple behaviors (things I can do) that are easily interrupted and that won’t distract me from paying attention to how the horse is doing. I might just brush my hand over the foot, wiggle it, stroke the leg, or any simple behavior that helps the horse get used to the idea that I will be doing something to his foot while I hold it up. A good rule of thumb is to train duration with a very easy behavior before you try and do a more complicated one.

I do want to mention that I find it easier to build duration by including these easy behaviors, compared to just holding the foot up and doing nothing. My experience has been that if I just hold the foot up, without providing any information through my own behavior, then the horse will either start to fidget or try to offer behaviors because it’s not clear what he should be doing.

Rate of Reinforcement: As soon as you start to build duration, your rate of reinforcement is going to drop. You can minimize this in different ways. One is to have a helper feed the horse when first building duration. This makes it easier to keep a high rate of reinforcement. In this case, you are teaching the behavior (hold the foot up for longer) before you thin the reinforcement by asking for more behavior between each click and treat. It is an easy way to help the horse get used to the idea of keeping his foot up and it gives him time to practice balancing on three legs. Once he is comfortable with the amount of duration you would like, you can slowly extend the time between clicks and treats.

If you don’t have a helper, then another option is to give more reinforcement for each effort. If I routinely feed two treats after each click, but I start asking the horse to hold his foot up for twice as long, then I might click and reinforce with four treats. I can also add in other reinforcers (scratches, praise, etc.) if they are meaningful. If you do choose to vary the number of treats or reinforcers, be aware that some horses can become frustrated if reinforcement becomes too variable. Another option is to give the horse a break after a particularly good or longer hoof lift.

Comfort: Be mindful of how you are holding the foot relative to the horse’s body. Are you holding it in a position that is comfortable for the horse? Many people inadvertently hold the leg a little further away from the horse than is comfortable. This happens more commonly with the back feet but can be an issue with the front feet too. I try to make sure that I allow the horse to lift his leg and show me where he wants to position it, and then I adjust my stance to accommodate him. In the picture, I am cleaning the back feet of my oldest pony. She’s rather wobbly so I am very careful to let her choose where she wants to hold her foot.

Balance: If a horse seems to have balance issues, I provide some kind of physical contact or support so that he feels more secure. An easy option is to scoot close enough that my leg can be in physical contact with his leg. I think of this as a targeting behavior with the horse’s cannon bone touching my shin or calf. The horse learns to keep his leg in contact with, but not leaning on, mine until I click. Some horses will find it easier to balance if you position them near a wall. They don’t need to lean on it, but it seems to act as a reference point, and they will find it easier to stay upright.

Predictability: Try adding a terminal behavior. A terminal behavior is the last behavior that happens before the click. Adding a terminal behavior is one of my favorite ways to extend duration because it adds a level of predictability and most horses relax more when they know what is coming.

In this case, I pick a specific behavior, that is the last thing I do before I put the foot down. It should be something simple; a behavior like running my hand over the sole, or brushing it, or wiggling the foot. The horse learns that I will not be clicking or putting the foot down until after I do the terminal behavior.

This adds some predictability because even if I slowly increase the number of behaviors between the lift and the terminal behavior, the terminal behavior always predicts the click. Without a terminal behavior, I have a horse that is anxiously waiting for the click. I don’t know why there is a difference between waiting for a click and waiting for a specific behavior, but they seem to require a different kind of focus and I find that horses stay more relaxed when they know what behavior precedes the click.

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