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Training Your Horse To Be Good For The Farrier

Google “good for the farrier” and you’ll get every “horse for sale/lease” advert ever written.
Sadly these adverts may not all be honest.

OK I am a farrier not a horse trainer but I have spent enough time training horses to feel I can pass on a few tips regarding the aspects of horse training that most affect my day.

First off there are some basic rules to horse training….
Rule Number 1- Look after your own personal safety first, then your horse’s.
Rule Number 2- Build a relationship of mutual trust and respect and everything else works.
Rule Number 3- Make learning fun for both of you.
Rule Number 4- If it doesn’t even begin to work try something else.
Rule Number 5- Be patient persistent and consistent.
Rule Number 6- Always ask yourself “Why is he doing that?”
Rule Number 7- Beware of shortcuts and quick fixes.
Rule Number 8- Always quit when you are both ahead.
Rule Number 9- You don’t always have to win.
Rule Number 10- Get someone to watch you and get feedback on what you are doing.
You need to do this when learning how to time your responses.

There are no end of schools of “natural horsemanship” nowadays and they all have some things in common.

First they do not train using abusive punishment although some of them may involve causing the horse a certain amount of mild discomfort. The emphasis is on gentle but firm non-confrontational handling. Second they all involve a high degree of observation on the part of the trainer both of how the horse is responding physically and of his attitude. The best training methods are based on the trainer either offering a positive reward such as a treat or stopping something that is annoying(not painful) such as tapping with a stick when the horse responds. The skill is in learning to notice the exact moment that the horse responds and instantly responding back. Parelli talks about “the Try” as in noticing when the horse starts to try to do it.

Thirdly they all use some concept of advance and retreat. This concept is extremely important when you are dealing with a nervous animal. It basically involves exposing the horse very briefly to the thing that frightens him-so briefly that by the time he realizes it’s there it’s already gone. Whatever the frightening thing is you start it then you stop before he has time to worry about it or you start and when he shows that he is beginning to feel a little uncomfortable you back away.

Observing the horse’s reaction to your behavior and giving him a reason to believe he can trust you not to do things to him that he can’t deal with are the basis for successful training. Notice I said “things he can’t deal with”. It is the horse’s expectations that matter not yours. Every horse is different with his own makeup and his own history so never think that because most horses can do something all horses should be able to do it. Whatever training method you use you have to observe the responses you are getting and not second-guess your horse.

I’ll briefly introduce some long established methods of training that I’ll be mentioning again later, there are many others and each seems to work better for certain people and certain horses and certain situations. Find what works for you.

Clicker Training(or reinforcement training)

This was originally developed to train marine mammals. Apparently it’s difficult to put a halter on a dolphin so a way had to be found to get the animal to want to perform a desired task.

The theory is simple. You teach the animal that when he hears a certain sound that sound will be followed by a treat. The sound can be anything but the most effective for training is the sharp click from a child’s toy that used to called a cricket- a piece of spring steel set in a box that makes a click when you press it with your thumb. You can pick one up in most dog pet shops rather than tack shops.

Once the animal has made the association between the click and the sound the next step is to teach him that he can control the click. So clicker training is really about if he does the right thing he can get you to give him a treat. In essence the horse is in control which means he never gets frightened or threatened. Two essential elements to this training are finding treats your horse really likes and secondly it takes great physical coordination on the trainers part. Lastly you might have trouble with a disrespectful horse who enjoys being bossy.

Parelli Natural Horsemanship
Parelli training (developed by Pat Parelli) is based on the premise that the horse just wants to be comfortable. If we make him a little uncomfortable he will eventually try to get the discomfort to stop. This training goes to different levels and covers all aspects of horsemanship which is not what we are discussing here. By all means research Parelli at your leisure but here I just want to cover the Porcupine Game(there are lots of games in Parelli training which are based on games horses play with each other).

This game teaches the horse to move away from pressure. In the Porcupine game you ask the horse to back by pressing on either side of his nose with your fingers. Be sure your fingers are resting on the bone and not his nasal passages.If you use the stick place it in the centre of his chest. Think of applying pressure on not pushing away. As soon as you feel “the Try” change the pressure to a rub with either hand or stick depending what you were using and add praise and a smile. The rub reminds the horse that your hand or stick doesn’t really hurt and is also the signal to stop. If the horse backs more than you want continue to rub until he stops. Gradually shape the behavior to get as many steps back as you want.

Applying pressure

The “Try”

Rub and praise

After you have used the porcupine game to get the horse to back ask him to step to the side with his front legs away from you. Place one hand on his muzzle and one hand on his shoulder. Hook a finger under his halter so that if he spins too fast you can keep up. It is just as much an evasion for him to spin faster than asked than it is not to move at all. If he starts to move forward, move forward to block him. Watch his feet and look for the slightest movement to the side to reward him. Be sure to rub with both hands when he steps over, both as a reward and as a signal to stop.

If I am making this sound more complicated than it is I’m sorry. Its all about timing your pressure, “the Try” and your praise. It is rewarding to see how quickly a horse can learn to respond to slightest touch. This works extremely well with horses that appear sullen and stubborn.

Tteam (Tellington–Jones Awareness Method)
Tteam is a very unusual training system in some respects. It goes heavily into alternative healing with special massage-type routines to calm parts of the horse. If you’re not into alternative healing some of it may sound like witchcraft. That aside the only thing I wanted to mention from Tteam was their leg exercises that aren’t so unusual.

Tteam leg exercises are to improve flexibility and balance. With each leg pick it up and then instead of putting it straight down or allowing the horse to put it down hold the leg with one hand on the fetlock or pastern and one hand on the hoof and move it in slowly descending circles to the ground. The circles should be small at first and centered over the point where his foot left the ground. You may find the horse will tense up and try to pull the foot away. This is from lack of balance. First try to stay very centered and grounded yourself. If he pulls his foot away and puts it down quietly pick it up again and as you circle it down try to feel tension forming and shake the foot as you would your own to release it. Eventually you should be able you should be able to circle the foot down until the toe is touching, let go and have the horse remain like that for a few seconds before putting the foot all the way down.


My horse refuses to pick up his feet
We’ve all seen a horse who when he decides he isn’t going to give his foot to be cleaned it can be quite a struggle to pick it up. When that foot goes back down it is there to stay.

The horse is telling you he is afraid to give you the foot because
he will lose his balance
It takes practice and skill for a horse to stand on three legs. While most horses learn it fairly easily if a horse has a conformation weakness or has been handled poorly he may become tense about it.

The horse is telling you he has no reason to give you his foot. A big part of developing a good relationship with a horse is so he will want to please you. If no one has made the effort to build a relationship of mutual trust and caring the horse has no reason to cooperate. In addition to this if his early training in this skill was abusive or nonexistent when he grows big enough to resist he will do.

The horse is telling you he feels threatened when handlers get pushy and he wants to keep his feet solidly on the ground in order to get away. A horse’s first response to danger is to run away so they are very protective of their feet. Any sort of aggressiveness awakens the horse’s prey instincts especially if there is already a relationship problem. Even if you have never been abusive to a horse if the horse seems to be lacking trust in you it needs an extra effort to gain it.

What to do about it
Before a horse can pick up a foot he must be standing so that he can take the weight off that foot. Always begin by moving the horse until he is standing reasonably squarely on all four legs. (Tip: whichever foot he moved last will be the easiest to pick up) If he still feels awkward about picking his feet up use exercises that involve moving backward and sideward to develop his coordination. Parelli games help. Backing is particularly important with a horse who has trouble picking up his fronts because he has to learn to shift his weight of them in order to back.

With a big horse he must give the foot willingly. There are several signals that will usually cause the horse to reflexively pick up his foot. Parelli advises pinching the chestnut on the front leg or the cap of the hock on the hind leg. Another way is to pinch the tendon on the back of the leg just below and behind the knee or hock. Most commonly used method is pinching the tendon just above the fetlock joint. If a horse has a resistance to all of those try a blunt hoofpick pressed on the soft back of the heel just above the ground. Otherwise you may have to begin by leading his head off to one side to force a step praising or using the clicker as soon as the foot starts to leave the ground.

It’s not important which method you use. What is important is to notice the slightest impulse from the horse to lift the foot and reward with praise smiles and treats. This is a good place to use the clicker as you can clearly mark the lifting movement so that the horse quickly understands what is required of him. Once he is lifting the foot easily you can shape the behavior by withholding the click for a tiny bit longer until he will wait for you to take the foot in your hand. The important thing is that the horse is in control of holding up his own foot so not only is it easier for you but less threatening for him.

What NOT to do about it
Impatience anger and hurrying will all create tension in both you and the horse making him less willing to learn. Always leave training to when you are in the correct mood for it. My horse refuses to hold up his feet We all know the scenario. The horse allows you to pick up his front feet and pick them out without difficulty but then when it comes to the hinds he will only hold them up for a few seconds and then pull them away making an easy task lengthy and demanding. It can just as easily be the fronts he pulls away and allows the hinds. All horses are different.

My horse refuses to hold up his feet
We all know the scenario. The horse allows you to pick up his front feet and pick them out without difficulty but then when it comes to the hinds he will only hold them up for a few seconds and then pull them away making an easy task lengthy and demanding. It can just as easily be the fronts he pulls away and allows the hinds. All horses are different.

The horse is telling you he’s afraid that he’s going to lose his balance.
If a horse has not been introduced carefully to standing on three kegs it can often get tense about it. Being tense makes the balancing even more difficult so the horse gets more unsure and feels compelled to get all four feet on the ground.

The horse is telling you to stop putting him in that position.
Sometimes a horse finds it difficult to hold his leg in a position which suits a handler to easily pick out his feet. The horse may have a muscular or neurological problem or the handler may be holding the leg in an awkward way that puts strain on the horse.

The horse is telling you he’s scared it’s going to hurt.
A horse may have had treatment on occasion with a medication that was painful. This can be true in the case of thrush (it’s also referred to as white line disease, seedy toe) a fungal disease that destroys soft tissue at the frog or the white line eventually eating its way down to sensitive areas. Some medications sold to treat thrush have a cauterizing effect based on the concept that thrush originates in the hard outer layer of the hoof which is not so sensitive to pain.

What to do about it.
Work the horse on exercises to help his balance such as backing up and stepping sideways with front and hind legs. Try the Parelli Porcupine game(see above).

Use the clicker method discussed above in “picking up” to teach the horse to hold the foot for extended periods first rewarding for a few seconds the gradually withholding the click for longer and longer intervals. When the horse will hold his foot up for a reasonable length of time by himself begin holding the foot in your hand. Then add the action of cleaning shortening the time period in the beginning if that seems necessary.

When you first take hold of a foot allow the horse a little movement in case he needs to adjust his balance in the beginning. With the hind legs especially be sure not to stretch the leg out too far at first that the horse is too uncomfortable. With practice the horse will be able to give more of the leg.

If the horse is not seriously upset about holding his foot up when working on the hind leg place the foot so it rests on the inside of your knee. So if you are working on the right hind you are facing the horse’s tail with your knees bent and the hoof is resting on the left side(inside) of your right knee.

In this position the horse has to push you out of the way to put his foot down which requires a big effort. This is also a very solid position for the horse’s foot which makes him feel more secure. Farriers like horses to be able to take this position as with the leg extended the horse cannot kick out at them which is always a safer thing for everyone. Even the most gentle horse can be startled or surprised by something at the worst moment. Treat every horse with respect as something potentially dangerous and everyone stays safe.

If the horse seems to behaving a problem relaxing his leg after picking it up use Tteam leg exercises to improve his balance and freedom of movement. Be lavish with praise or click and treat when he improves in any of these exercises.

If painful previous treatments seems to be the cause of the problem use an advance and retreat approach. After picking the foot up at first just put it down again without attempting to clean it at all. Then progress very gradually through brushing the superficial dirt off with your fingers to gently using the hoofpick just on the sole to eventually complete thorough cleaning. Clicking and treating or just praise and treats will teach the horse the desirability of holding his foot up and also take his mind off the feared pain.

What NOT to do about it.
Don’t try to hang on to the foot. The horse has to learn to hold it for you rather than making you struggle to hold on to it. If he pulls it away just let it go without comment then ask him to give it to you again.

Be careful not to grab too tightly with your hand on the wall of the hoof. A horse with shoes can have sharp clinches(the turned under horseshoe nail ends) that will tear your hands open if the horse pulls away.

Don’t punish him for pulling away. As soon as you do you become a predator and the horse will want to put all four feet on the ground so he can escape.

Don’t get too involved in trying to calm his fears to the point where he thinks that pulling away is desirable behavior. Just be as businesslike as possible and quietly but firmly start again.to circle the foot down until the toe is touching, let go and have the horse remain like that for a few seconds before putting the foot all the way down. If the horse has a lot of difficulty with this exercise it is a sure sign he is having trouble with his balance when he has to hold his foot up for long periods.

DO find the horse’s comfortable
position for holding his feet up

DON”T pull the horse’s foot out to make it easier for you. Let him get comfortable
and balanced then work with him.

My horse refuses to stand for the farrier

Then there is the horse that the owner has spent a lot of time with carefully ground training including teaching him to pick up his feet and hold them up for her. When the farrier comes to work on him he becomes fidgety and fussy pulling his feet away and generally making trimming and shoeing very difficult.

The horse is telling you he’s not comfortable with this person handling his feet.
It could be a previous farrier was impatient with the horse or maybe its something the present farrier is doing. Or it could be that although the horse is comfortable with routinely having his feet picked up the additional activities involved in shoeing or trimming are threatening.

What to do about it

First thing is to watch the farrier very carefully. Just because someone went to farrier school or has been shoeing for years or own their own horses doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at handling horses. If your horse is used to being treated intelligently and sympathetically he will be less accepting of the “STAND STILL!” school of handling that is still found around.

As you are watching the farrier things to observe are:

1/ Does the farrier make sure the horse is standing squarely before picking up a foot? Is the horse on the best ground for his balance? If a horse is out of balance to begin with picking up a foot will make him even more insecure.

2/ Does the farrier follow the movements of the horse’s leg allowing the horse to move and adjust his balance? A good farrier should do this without letting go of the horse. The farrier needs to adjust to the horse rather than make the horse adjust to him. The latter never works well.

3/ If the horse pulls away does the farrier get angry or does he just quietly pick up the foot again and get on with it? There is a fine line between babying a horse so he never learns to accept being shod and bullying him into it. Ask your farrier to work with you on the problem and if he/she is not interested follow your gut feelings and look into other competent farriers with a more sympathetic attitude. They are out there.

Any owner should have a hoof rasp and, if the horse has shoes, a shoe puller in their tack box. Use the rasp and a small light hammer on his hooves to accustom the horse to those actions.

Do some Tteam leg exercises to improve his flexibility and balance. Continuing to work on it will help as will any exercises that ask him to manipulate his feet in unusual ways. Backing, stepping sideways, walking over rails and through mazes are all exercises that increase balance skills.
When he can place his foot back in the same spot without losing balance try very gently stretching it out in front, behind and a little off to the sides and asking him to place it on the ground in those positions. This helps increase his flexibility as well as his balance.

What NOT to do about it.
Don’t tie or crosstie a horse who is having problems balancing. Be there to hold him yourself or see that someone experienced does so.

Don’t use a farrier who gets rough with your horse.

When working with the horse yourself don’t get too aggressive about holding on to the hoof. If he is really losing his balance you will only make him more tense and less able to balance.

Don’t assume that a taller horse is flexible and that a shorter one is not. Many horses have range-of-motion issues that will not allow them to achieve the position you would like. These horses will stand comfortably in a lesser position, but can react violently if pushed beyond their ability. Learn the range of the front and hind limbs considering age and soundness.

These are just some training suggestions. I don’t solely endorse these methods. There are lots of other training techniques that can help you and your horse have a pleasant shoeing or trimming experience. It really shouldn’t be something you both dread.

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