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Grooming Lesson: Handling Your Horse's Feet

Many owners are frustrated (and embarrassed!) that their horses don’t behave well for the farrier. This lack of manners may be due to the horse’s nerves, but is often simply because he hasn’t been taught how to stand and hold his feet up properly.

Just because your horse is good when you pick out his feet, this doesn't mean he will stand quietly when the farrier show up. For practical advice, we turned to performance trainer Richard Winters, longtime clinician and 2009 champion of the popular colt-starting competition, Road to the Horse.

Packed and shoed horse hoof

A certified farrier, Winters once made his living shoeing horses, and still does all his own horses. He says a good farrier will often help you work with your horse's feet. “When I was shoeing, I used to charge an hourly fee on top of the shoeing fee if an owner wanted me to work on the horse to help with handling,” he notes.

A word of caution: if your farrier is rough or impatient with your horse, or you can't communicate with him or her, these are signs you need a different hoof care professional. Good farriers have horsemanship skills, not just technical ability to trim feet and nail on shoes.

Simulate Farrier’s Handling

There are simple steps you can take to remedy the situation when a horse is impatient or unsure about having his foot and leg held for the farrier. For starters, take more time than necessary to hold each foot when cleaning the hooves. Ask your farrier to show you how to safely hold a leg the way he/she does. Then hold the leg that way every time you clean your horse’s feet.

“You want to give the horse the experience of having his leg held the way the horseshoer will hold it,” explains Winters. “This includes holding the leg longer, squeezing it a little, holding it between your legs, pulling it forward, and propping the hind hoof on your thigh as you stand somewhat underneath the horse.”

Another concern for the horse getting shod may be the sensation of having nails pounded into the hoof. Although there’s no pain when this is done properly, it’s still something he has to get used to. Think of yourself at the dentist office getting a cavity filled: the drill doesn’t hurt, but you can still feel pressure and vibration.

“Simulate the sensation of nailing by simply tapping along the shoe with your hoof pick or with a small hammer. Start softly, use rhythmic tapping, and do a series of tapping whenever you clean out the feet," says Winters, adding that doing this several times a week will definitely help the horse get used to it.

Start from the Beginning

What if you have a horse who is totally unfamiliar with having his feet handled? Winters recommends “going back to square one,” no matter the horse’s age. Safety is paramount because the horse can hurt you unintentionally.

Put a halter and lead rope on the horse, but don’t tie him up. Stand in a round pen or corral where the horse has a little room to move and won’t feel trapped. (A stall is too small.)

Until you know how the horse will react, don't put yourself in a dangerous position by bending down. Instead, Winters recommends using a stick or whip to rub the horse in easy, rhythmic motions, starting in a spot where the horse can accept it, such as his shoulder or hip. Hold the lead rope in your other hand while you use the stick/whip.

For front legs, start touching with the stick/whip on the shoulder and work down the front leg all the way to the foot and back up. For the hind legs, start on the hindquarters or hip and work down the leg to the foot and back up.

“Rubbing with rhythm is really important,” Winters explains. “Slide the stick up and down before he gets nervous (or stressed) by having it too long in one spot. Do this again and again on all four feet until the horse can stand still.”

there is no single "correct" technique to pick up a horse's foot, but there is a wrong way.

Once the horse accepts being touched all up and down his legs and around his feet, then you can start picking up his hooves with your hand.

“If the horse moves away from you or jerks his foot away, don’t discipline him. Just make him work, such as moving him in a circle a few times, then stop, rub him again and start over,” says Winters. “It’s the old ‘make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard’ theory. You want him to realize that the best and easiest thing is to do what you’re asking.”

Picking up the Feet

There is no single “correct” technique to pick up a horse’s foot, but there is a wrong way. For example, never just zero in and grab the hoof or ankle.

Always start high (on the shoulder for the front legs and on the hip for the hind legs), and maintain contact as you slide your hand down the leg to the foot. This prepares the horse and encourages him to shift his weight so you can pick up the foot. If the horse hesitates, you can lean on him gently as you slide your hand down.

As a cue to lift the foot, you can gently squeeze the cannon bone or the “chestnut” (the small, callous-like area inside the leg just above the knee and just below the hock). Whatever method you use, keep your routine the same so the horse knows what you’re asking and what to expect.

Even after you’ve spent time teaching your horse to pick up his feet and let you hold them, keep in mind that horses are much like kindergarten-aged children: they have a lot of energy and short attention spans. If your horse hasn’t been out of his stall or corral all day, you can’t very well expect him to drop his head and stand quietly for an hour while the farrier works on him.

“Work your horse first and then do his feet,” suggests Winters. “You want to get him in a receptive frame of mind and willing to stand still.”

Devote time to working with your horse’s feet and you’ll be proud of him next time your farrier shows up.

By Cynthia McFarland


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