We've all been there – your equine chum stands with all four feet firmly rooted to the ground and nothing you can do will persuade him to lift a foot for you. It's frustrating and sometimes little short of dangerous but there are good reasons why your horse won't co-operate and simple solutions to the problem.
Why won't he pick up his foot for me?
A horse's feet are his means of escape from predators and also his weaponry. When you take control of his leg by lifting it up, you are effectively removing his ability to protect himself. Your horse must learn to trust and respect you before you can expect his full co-operation.
One of the main causes of the problems we have is that the horse doesn't understand what we expect of him and because of this he becomes fearful. He may have had a bad experience previously which left him confused and frightened. Of course some horses do understand perfectly well what we're asking of them but just choose to be awkward and this is where clearer and more positive leadership is required from the handler.
Whenever you work with your horse whether it's in the stable, on the yard or in the arena under saddle or on the lunge, always make sure it's the horse who moves his feet when you ask him to and not the other way around. Be calm, consistent and decisive and your message will soon get across.
A horse should learn to be touched all over by his human handler, to be led and to pick his feet up when requested virtually from the day he is born. This is called 'imprinting' and sets the ground rules for the rest of his life.
Picking up your horse's feet
Before you tackle his feet you must desensitise your horse. This basically means teaching him to face his fears rather than running away from them. You do this by exposing him to something that he might fear and removing it once he stops trying to run from it. This is a huge test of trust as the horse will have to overcome his instinctive flight response and understand that whilst you are there with him, he will come to no harm. A scary plastic bag on a short stick is a useful tool for this exercise. Keep his head turned towards you and hold the scary object at the distance it provoked his initial reaction. As soon as he stops trying to move away from the object, bring it down and make a fuss of him. Repeat the process until he's comfortable with you moving it around him and touching him with it without provoking flight.
Now move on to desensitising your horse's legs. Use a schooling whip or lightweight plastic pipe for this exercise. Be sure to wear a securely fastened hard hat for this work. Proceed as before but concentrate on your horse's legs, running the whip gently and slowly over the contours of the legs from top to knee, one leg at a time. When he stands quietly, substitute the whip for your hand. Do this little and often over a few days, although if your horse is particularly sensitive this process could take longer. Don't try to rush him though and if things go wrong, take a step back and start again.
When you're happy that your horse is relaxed and settled, try picking up a front leg. Apply pressure to the front of the pastern and if that's ineffective apply pressure with your thumb to the coronet band. As soon as he lifts his foot, cup it in your hand for a few seconds only then place it gently on the ground. Eventually, he will learn to lift his foot for you when you run your hand down his pastern.
With the hind legs, face the horse's bottom and place the hand closest to him on his hip. Run your hand over his quarters, down over the hind leg to the fetlock joint. Apply pressure to the back of the fetlock but be careful as he could kick you from here. As soon as he moves his foot forward, relieve the pressure on the fetlock and move to the other leg. Once you can move the foot forward, try to put your hand under his hoof, lift his leg up and slightly out to the side which effectively removes the power. Now you can run your hand over his leg to continue desensitising him. Once again, little and often is the best way to go.
Keep an eye on the horse's expression and body language for signs that he is becoming upset and likely to panic. Make sure the horse is standing square and balanced before you try picking up his feet. If the horse leans on you when you've picked his foot up, flex the fetlock joint; this will become uncomfortable and he should shift his weight again. Prepare your horse for the farrier by standing him up next to a quiet companion to watch him being shod. When it's his turn, he'll know there's nothing to fear.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.
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