There are many factors that may limit your time with your horse, and many of us get frustrated and feel like we can’t actively DO anything with them. Whether it be a time crunch or bad weather conditions that keep you grounded, there are still small exercises we can do to improve our relationship with our horses. One of my favorites, that stems from being a hoof care provider, is mannerly hoof handling.
Many times clients would ask for tips on teaching their horses and ponies how to pick up their hooves nicely and calmly. Often times, this question was asked while the horse in question was exhibiting fairly rude behavior, pushing and shoving on the handler, or wiggling around, just in general being fussy and impatient.
My answer generally shocked them, when I would suggest that they DON’T teach the horse to pick up his feet.
Now, coming from someone who would eventually need to be under that animal providing hoof care, that answer got a lot of questions about my sanity among other things. But when you stop and think about it, and observe the horses a bit, it makes sense.
The horse in question needed general training, not just hoof handling training. Focusing solely on the hooves would leave too many holes in the horse’s education, that in time would come back to haunt not just the owner, but any other service provider they encounter, such as a visit from the vet, equine dentist, etc.
Where To Start:
- First, the handler needs to understand that there is a distinct lack of control on their part, and the horse is the one calling the shots. Taking a moment to honestly analyze the situation, does make it easier to make a firm decision that a change needs to happen, and a plan can be created and implemented to improve the level of training.
- Second, identify your overall intention with that horse. An end goal, such as standing still while being held, is a great place to start.
For example, does the horse want to wiggle, move and be restless while you are holding him? OK, this is good- you can use that desire to move in a positive way. Allow movement, but you are the one who will dictate direction your horse moves in and at what speed.
This is not to say to enter a round pen or arena and encourage your horse to move in endless circles at a high rate of speed. Instead, incorporate controlled amounts of movement, pace changes and direction changes. Even small exercises, such as walking straight, halting, backing five steps, walking again, halting, asking for a direction change, halting, backing again, (you get the idea) will engage the horse’s brain and get him focused on what you are asking. These are excellent tasks to concentrate on when the weather is against you and you have limited space to work in.
- Third, watch your horse. Actively observe his eyes, ears, and whether or not there is tension in his jaw or body. Look for those soft, subtle signs that he is listening, such as a lower headset, licking of the lips and movements with his mouth, big, deep sighs, and a general relaxation in his entire body.
- Fourth, as you see the above-mentioned changes, ask him to stand for a short duration. When he is still, give praise- for myself, I have always been fond of verbal praising and scratching them in their favorite spots. (This works great with one of my geldings, Tater. When I tell him he is a good boy, I swear he grows an inch and smiles.)
- Fifth, simply lather, rinse, repeat. Expand- slowly- on your skill base. Introduce new exercises and movements as indicated by your horse's behavior, and before you know it your horse will be a gem for all of your equine service providers.
Control the Brain, Control the Hooves
By taking the time to introduce your intention for your horse to behave with proper manners, you are establishing a great foundation to introduce many things, one of which is hoof handling with politeness. Being consistent in your practice, handling your horse with intention, believing in the fact that you can teach your horse, and being calm as you work, will bring about amazing changes in your partnership and make your horse calmer and safer for service providers.
Were you to only concentrate on picking up the hooves, and ignore the other behaviors, you are setting you and your horse up for frustration and failure. In the grand scheme of things, unless there is a critical emergency requiring immediate intervention, picking up the hooves (versus not being stomped on or being bitten while you are attempting to pick up the hooves,) is fairly low on the priority list. Speaking in the most general terms, establishing what is acceptable and what is not is easily accomplished, when you consistently and intentionally complete your chosen set of exercises over a few days or weeks.
One quick addition, you as the handler have a big responsibility in hoof handling too- please set the hooves down rather than rapidly dropping them when you are done.
It is worth noting- the above suggestions are mainly directed at horses who do not have extenuating circumstances to overcome, such as poor health or a background of extreme abuse. These suggestions were mainly directed towards horses who have been handled routinely and perhaps have slipped a bit in their manners and behaviors over time. There is no reason, however, that the ideas suggested above cannot be modified and adapted to suit the needs of many more horses.
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