equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Hoof handling: 12 Tips for success (Part 5)

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

Tip 9:  Prepare and train for farrier visits

If you hire someone else to trim or shoe your horse, you’ll need to teach your horse the behaviors he needs for your farrier. In most cases, these will be variations on the behaviors you have already trained, but you will need to train for more duration, different sensations (rasping, nailing), and you may have to teach your horse to accept the hooves being held in slightly different positions.

The first step (if your horse has not been handled by your farrier) is to have a conversation with her about what she expects so that you can train for it. She may not have definitive answers to your questions, but she should be able to give you general answers, and just having the conversation will help you decide where you need to do additional training.

This also gives you an opportunity to tell her that you are training your horse with clicker training or positive reinforcement and ask her how she feels about using food reinforcers while she is working on the horse. If she’s not familiar with reward-based training, then you will want to explain a little about how it works and the advantages for everyone on the team (you, the horse, and her). I think it’s very important to have an honest discussion about this, before you let her handle your horse. If this conversation goes well, then some good questions to ask are:

  1. How long does it take her to trim a foot?
  2. Does she pick it up and put it down multiple times? If so, what is the longest she might keep it up? How many times might she pick up and put down a foot?
  3. What does she do if the horse tries to take his foot away?
  4. Does she use a hoof stand? On all four feet? In both positions (forward and back)?
  5. If, or when, she doesn’t use a hoof stand, how does she hold the foot? Many farriers hold the foot between their legs. Horses need to get used to this because it is more restrictive than using a stand and the leg is often held farther away from the horse’s body.
  6. What kinds of tools does she use? You may not have the tools, but you can often find substitutes that produce the same sensations. Many farriers will also give customers used rasps if they want to train with them.
  7. If the horse is going to be shod, then you’ll need to find out how long each step takes. Shoeing can be more challenging as there are times when the farrier will not be able to promptly put the foot back down if the horse asks.

The more clearly you know how your farrier works, the easier it will be to prepare your horse. There are a number of different strategies that can be used, from feeding while the farrier is working (open bar/closed bar) to reinforcing specific behaviors. The more you know about how the farrier works, the easier it will be to plan how you are going to use your reinforcers. I’ve also found that if I’ve asked questions and my farrier knows I am doing my best to train the necessary behaviors, then she will be more flexible about adjusting her own routine to keep the experience positive for everyone.

Tip 10: Introducing hoof stands

As part of your preparation for the farrier, it’s a good idea to teach the horse how to balance with his hoof on a hoof stand. If you don’t have a hoof stand, you can substitute something else, but be mindful of safety. A bale of hay or a small stool can be used for some positions. Just choose an object that won’t become dangerous if the horse knocks it over.

I teach my horses to let me place their foot on the stand, not do it on their own, because I think it’s safer. However, I do teach the horse about front foot targeting so that she learns about keeping her front foot extended forward on an object. I start with a flat object (colored square or lid) and then switch to a raised object like a block. If your horse has done mat work, she may want to step on to the mat, so you’ll have to shape an extended leg that rests on the object without stepping on to it.

On our farm, we have a variety of horses – everything from a mini to a shire, as well as horses with various physical challenges. They have done a nice job of teaching me how to use hoof stands in a way that allows the horse to be comfortable, while placing the foot in a position that also works for my purposes. The most important thing I’ve learned from them is that if the horse is not comfortable, she’s not going to be able to keep her foot on the stand. It’s worth taking the time to find out what works for each horse (and each foot in both positions). Usually this means adjusting either the height of the stand, or its position relative to the horse – both forward-backward and laterally-medially.

Here are some general tips on finding the “sweet spot” for the stand for each foot:

  • Front feet (flexed): When using the cradle (hoof placed sole up), you want the horse to rest his leg without flexing his joints excessively (height too high) or having to lean over to reach it (height too low).
  • Front feet (extended): When the front foot is extended forward, the cradle needs to be high enough too allow the horse to remain upright (no leaning forward), but not so high that he has to flex his shoulder/elbow joints more than is comfortable.

    Front feet (extended): Find the right distance:  With the front feet, I place the stand so that the horse has a slight bend in the knee. Most horses seem to be more comfortable this way. If the stand is too far forward and the leg is straight, the horse will tend to lean and slide off the front.
  • Back feet (flexed with sole up): As with the front feet, the stand needs to be high enough to support the leg in a relaxed position without overflexing it. Back feet can be trickier than front feet. Some horses tend to tuck their feet up too high and have to be taught to relax and lower their leg on to the cradle. Others find it difficult to flex their legs and need to learn to lift the leg up and on to the cradle.
  • Back feet (extended forward): If a horse has trouble staying on the stand when I bring his hind foot forward, the solution is almost always to move the stand more toward the front feet. This gives the horse a little more room and if there’s a joint that is uncomfortable being flexed, he can adjust to make himself more comfortable.

The next tip will cover some specific strategies for teaching the horse to rest his leg on the hoof stand and build duration.

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