Since we have covered touching, catching and leading we are now ready to move on to preparing your young horse to have his feet picked up. The earlier we can prepare a horse to have his feet handled the better. Your horse and your farrier will both appreciate this lesson. If you take the time to teach your horse to be well mannered with his feet, it will stand by him later in life (bad pun). Your horse will be much less stressed at trimming/shoeing time and it will save the shoer potential injury. If you are not comfortable handling his feet for the first time call a farrier and be up front about how much handling your young horse has had. Some farriers are not interested in training your horse to pick up his feet but many are willing to help. Do not spring it on the shoer after he has arrived. This will earn you no favours. Expect to pay your farrier for the extra work he will have to do.
Some horses are very uncomfortable having their feet handled. Even the gentlest horse can kick, rear up or bolt when we try to touch their legs and feet. This exercise can be traumatic to horse and handler if things go wrong. If you get off on the wrong foot (another bad pun) stop and put him away. Do not try to force this lesson on him. Handling his feet should never be a bad experience. This is when a horse is taught to be good to shoe or become the farrier’s nightmare. Always try to quit on a positive note. It is always better to stop when things are going well. If you only get to his elbow on day one that is ok. Each time you will get a little farther. If you keep at it until he gets frustrated and starts to get worse, you have gone too long.
It is important for your horse to understand earlier lesson of touching and leading before he is ready to have his feet picked up. For equipment you will need a halter and lead, a short whip 4’ or 5’ long. Having someone to hold the horse is optional. Do not tie the horse when you are working on his feet for the first time.
Face the rear of the horse so it is easier to see what the horse is doing. You are in a better position to get out of the way if needed and you have more control once you are holding the foot. When working on touching a horse’s foot use the hand that is closest to the horse when you are facing the rear of the horse (inside hand). If you use your outside hand your body is facing his. If you need to get away from him for any reason you have to turn before you can escape. If you are using the wrong hand, you are more likely to get hit should he try to kick at you.
If you have a handler holding the horse, they should be on the same side as you when you are touching his legs or feet. That way if your horse jumps or moves forward the handler can turn him in a circle away from you and you are less likely to be knocked down. If they are on the opposite side and he jumps they will pull him into a circle around them and you will be in danger of being knocked over or kicked as the horses hind quarters come around. If you are alone hold the lead rope in the hand you are not using to touch your horse. Let the lead rope come behind your back to your hand so a pull forward with your hand will pull his head toward you and his body away from you.
To get started find a safe place away from other horses with good footing. If you have an older horse, it will help to tie it near by. Face the horse’s hind quarters with a relatively loose hold on the horse. If you have a handler they are facing the same direction. Using your inside hand start rubbing the horse from the neck to the shoulder. As you continue to do this, your hand will travel farther each time down the leg. If he picks up his foot when you are touching any part of his leg stop and pet him. Every time he picks it up on his own he should be rewarded. Do not try yet to pick up the foot. We want him to pick it up for us. When your hand gets below the knee, run your thumb along the tendon squeezing gently. At this point, if you want to add a verbal cue it would be a good time. If he picks his foot up you should immediately stop and pet him. If he does not pick it up continue to rub and handle the foot. This will only increase his comfort level having his feet touched. Repeat the process repeatedly until he consistently picks his foot up. You have not yet tried to hold the foot.
When you are ready to try to hold the foot it is extremely important to give it back to him BEFORE he takes it back. If he gets it away from you he will continue to try and take it from you and it will get harder and harder to hang on. If he never gets away from you, in the first place he will learn that it is ok for you to hold his foot because he knows you will give it back and he will not get hurt. If he gets away from you do not panic. You will need to be prepared the next time because he will try again. Do not get in a pulling match with him; hold on only as hard as you need to. Any excess pressure from you will cause him to resist even more. This needs to be a comfortable exercise for him or he will anticipate a fight every time you try to work with his feet.
If he does try to pull it from you or he tries to slam it down where you are holding the foot may make the difference in your favour. Hold to toe of the foot with your fingers on the front of the hoof wall and your palm on the sole of his foot. Keep his fetlock joint bent and he will not have as much power to take it from you. If he tries to move off on three feet just walk with him and keep him in a small circle around you. The instant he stops moving and relaxes his leg give it back and pet him. Do not expect to hold the foot for more than a couple of seconds before letting him have it back.
Repeat the process on the hind foot on the same side. If he is prone to kick, use the short whip instead of your hand to rub his leg as you work closer to his hind foot. When he is comfortable with the flag or whip replace it with your hand.
An alternative to using a flag to touch his hind feet is to hold his front foot with your inside hand while you work your way down his hind leg with your outside hand. He can not kick unless he pulls his front foot away from you. This in itself is warning that he may kick. So be ready to escape at all times. Otherwise, the process is the same for the back feet as it was for the front.
The first time you handle his feet, do not try to put his foot between your legs the way the farrier will when his feet get trimmed. The squeezing pressure on his leg is almost always too much for them to handle and he will try to get away. Rather you can kneel down and rest his foot on your knee.
Go through this process on all four feet; always remember to use caution as even little horses can kick hard. It may take several sessions before he accepts you picking up his feet. Do not rush it. It is fundamental training that should not be taken lightly.
© 2004 Will Clinging