equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Hoof handling: 12 Tips for success (Part 6)

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

Tip 11: Building duration on hoof stands plus some troubleshooting tips

I use my hoof stand for all four positions: front feet sole up in cradle, front feet extended on post, hind feet flexed (sole up) in cradle, and hind feet flexed forward sole down on stand. When I introduce a hoof stand, I almost always start with the front feet sole up on the cradle as that seems easiest for most horses. Then I introduce the others, in whatever order the horse seems to find easiest.

Here are some tips on the process and how to address some specific problems: 

  • I start by clicking and reinforcing if the horse allows me to place his foot on the stand. My goal is to build an association (foot on stand = lots of reinforcement) and find where the horse is comfortable. Sometimes the place where the horse is comfortable is not practical for me – this is common with horses that are tight or have conformational challenges. That’s ok. If I find a good starting position and build some reinforcement history, I can slowly shift the stand position toward what works for me. 
  • As an intermediate step, I often keep my hand under the foot when I first introduce the hoof stand for the sole up positions. I think of this as the “sleeping baby” technique because it reminds me of placing a child in a crib or bed and slowly easing my hands out from under so that the baby stays asleep and I can leave. With a horse, it’s done by picking up the foot as normal and then placing my hand (holding the foot) on the stand. I get a little support from the stand, it feels more like what the horse is used to, and I can phase out my hand over time. I find this is very helpful for the back feet, especially on tight horses.
  • Once the horse will allow me to place his foot on the stand, I start building duration. As with other aspects of hoof handling, I start by doing simple things (stroke the leg, brush the hoof capsule, etc..) before I try to do anything that requires more concentration.
  • If the horse has trouble placing his foot on the stand, I can use placing the foot on the stand as the terminal behavior. I pick the foot up as if for cleaning, do a little, place it on the stand, click/treat, and then put it back down. Over time I can do more while the foot is on the stand. I often have to do this with a horse that draws his hind feet up and won’t relax enough to lower the leg to the stand.
  • If a horse allows me to place his foot on the stand but seems to require a lot of support from me to keep it there, I will spend some time teaching him that he is responsible for keeping his foot on the stand. I’m not going to hold it there. I don’t to this until I have built up a strong reinforcement history of having the foot on the stand and I do it in small increments as I work, mostly by recognizing moments when the horse could balance on his own, removing my hands, clicking and treating. 
  • If the horse stiffens or falls forward off the front of the stand when I am bringing a front leg forward, then I will lift the leg, bend the knee, and draw it forward again to place it on the stand. I may adjust the position of the stand if that seems like it may be a contributing factor. I find that if I place the stand so the horse has some bend in the knee, he will be able to balance better.
  • It can help to be very deliberate about how I take the leg off the stand after I click. I lift the leg, flex it, and put it down. I do this regularly with the front leg extended position, but it can be helpful for any leg or position.
  • If the horse wants to stretch his front leg forward when I try to place it on the stand, I allow it, put the foot back down, and ask again. I used to allow the stretch and then place the foot on the stand and continue, but I found some horses thought the stretch was part of the behavior I wanted. 
  • If I’ve found what seems to be the best position for the stand, but I am still having trouble building duration, then I am probably asking for too much. Sometimes it’s just a matter of going more slowly and clicking and treating before the horse takes his foot away. If a problem persists, then I will want to consider if there is a physical reason that the horse is having trouble. I have some horses that are ok with the stand for some positions, but not others.

Tip 12:  Plan when and how to add the cue for the foot lift

This series would not be complete without pointing out that there will be times when I want my horse to keep his foot on the ground so that I can brush, clean, bandage, inspect, or perform some other husbandry behavior that is more easily done with the horse standing on his leg. This means I need to have the behavior (the foot lift) on cue so that the horse offers it when I ask but doesn’t offer it at other times. Or, in other words, I need to work on stimulus control for the foot lift behavior.

That’s the end goal, but how I get there will depend upon a number of factors including:

  • Is it safe if the horse offers the behavior without being cued?
  • Is the horse likely to get frustrated if he offers the behavior and it’s not reinforced?
  • What will benefit the horse? If a horse is shutdown and I am trying to draw him out, I usually relax any stimulus control rules. If a horse is too busy and tends to throw too much behavior at me, then I may choose to focus on stimulus control earlier, or right from the start. 
  • Does the horse understand about cues? I will take a different approach with a novice clicker horse than with a more experienced one.
  • Can I set up the environment so that the horse only offers the behavior under certain conditions?
  • What do I want to use for a cue? – Different kinds of cues are easier to add at different stages in the learning process.
  • Do I need to maintain the opposite behavior (keeping the foot down) while the horse is learning the new behavior?
  • Are other people going to be working with the horse?

Depending upon how I answer these questions, I can choose the level of stimulus control that is appropriate for me, the horse, and the conditions under which I am working. There’s no right or wrong answer here. I could start with minimal stimulus control and add more later or I could start with a more structured approach, so that offered behavior is kept to a minimum.

Here are some possible scenarios for when and how I add stimulus control:

  • Start by using context cues: I train the foot lift under consistent environmental conditions (location, set-up for the session, object I am holding) so that the horse learns that when we are in that environment, he will be reinforced for picking up his foot. In most cases, I want the horse to offer the behavior immediately after eating his treat, without any guidance from me. I can add a cue at any point in the process, but I often wait until the lift meets my final criteria. If the horse offers a leg lift at other times (outside of my chosen environmental set-up), I do not reinforce it.  
  • Start with a working cue: I could prompt the behavior by touching the horse’s leg (or some other behavior I choose) and use that as my working cue during the learning process. Once the horse reliably lifts his foot on my working cue, and the behavior meets my criteria, then I can add a final cue – perhaps a verbal one. If the horse offers the behavior when I have not asked with my working cue, I do not reinforce it.

    But… I need to be aware that the working cue I think I am using may not be the same one that the horse is using. Horses tend to anticipate and they may select out a more relevant cue and start using it instead of my intended one. If the horse consistently picks up a foot when I don’t want that behavior, I need to do a little analysis to see what where the confusion is coming from and find a way to make my cue more unique.
  • Use contrast by staring with two behaviors, each with working cues: In this approach, I introduce stimulus control early by training both behaviors (the foot lift and the foot on the ground) at the same time. I start by reinforcing the behavior that is the natural “default.” In this case, it would be standing with the foot on the ground. Once the horse is standing quietly with his full weight on his leg, then I introduce a working cue for the foot lift. I will click and treat a few times for any approximation of a foot lift and then go back to clicking and treating for the foot on the ground. Over several sessions, I will continue to work on both behaviors, focusing on building the quality of each as well as being mindful that the horse is doing the appropriate behavior when cued.

    If you want to read more about this approach:  I wrote a blog on the subject: https://equineclickertraining.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/training-with-base-position-using-this-technique-to-train-hoof-handling/

Note: In this tip, I have not said much about adding a cue for standing on the foot. This is because I find that it’s usually not necessary as long as I regularly reinforce the horse for allowing me to handle his leg while keeping his foot on the ground. With my horses, keeping the foot on the ground is the default behavior unless I ask for a foot lift. If they do pick a foot up when I don’t want it, I just wait a moment and the horse puts it back down. Of course, you could add a cue for standing and I’ve been known to say “stand on it” but I can’t honestly say that they recognize it as a cue. It could just be superstitious behavior on my part.

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