Horses, by their very nature, are a prey animal.
They depend on being fleet of foot in order to survive encounters with potentially deadly creatures—like that fire-breathing, horse eating, bone-crunching plastic bag that drifted into the arena with the breeze.
Thus, asking the horse to willingly give you a hoof for cleaning, care, or examination is a pretty big exercise in trust on his part. Look at it from your horse’s view for a moment – is there ever any actual guarantee that the dreaded plastic bag will not really morph into a fire-breathing creature, that thinks horses are wonderfully crunchy and taste good with ketchup? No, not really.
Not unless YOU, their brave and fearless leader, have earned their trust. Your horse needs to believe that you will vanquish the enemy, and save his shiny hide. (This happens of course, with dedicated, consistent practice on the handlers part, with the intention of being a calm, confident leader of the herd. The wonderful side benefit of this is a horse who is well mannered and a joy to work around.)
Once earned, it is a delicate balance to make sure that trust is not abused, for once it turns from a willing trust and simple exercise, that same horse may decide that the person asking for that hoof presents more of a danger than the imagined dragon with his bottle of ketchup, awaiting an easy lunch. All that to say, a well mannered and well-educated horse can turn into a rude, pushy and unpredictable moving target for various providers.
Let’s skip ahead to the ketchup-bearing dragon being safely vanquished, and a calm and mannerly horse is awaiting direction. Today, your goal is to lift and clean all 4 hooves. For our pretend purposes in this post, the horse in question is relatively unhandled and is learning new skills daily. He is accepting of being brushed and standing calmly attached to the handler via a lead rope. (Initially, I do not advocate working with legs and hooves on a tied horse. I have witnessed too many incidents that began simple enough wind up with a frustrated and angry horse, who is fighting the handler and being tied at the same time.) The tools you need are simple- a well fitting halter in good repair, and a longer lead rope, preferably a softer cotton variety, and a clear and calm game plan on the handler’s part.
Begin by running your hand, firmly and with intention, down the horse’s neck, to the wither, to the elbow of a front leg. Retreat back to the wither area and give a rub, and step back to let the horse breathe a tad. Repeat several times, each time working a bit farther down the leg. As you go lower, understand that the horse may decide that this is not such a good idea, and he may move his feet. This is fine- remember, you control the direction of the movement and you control the speed of the movement. Once you and your horse have reached an agreement to try again, start right back up with a firm stroke and retreat. Continue with this plan until you can touch the entire length of the leg, down to the hoof.
There are several areas where a suggestion of pressure can be applied, to encourage the horse to begin to lift his hoof. One is the chestnut on the inside of the leg. There are many folks out there who teach the horse to lift as a squeeze is applied to the chestnut- Thoroughbreds come to mind here, as I have met very few OTTB’s who have not responded to this method. One of my personal favorites is to tickle the back of the pastern with my index finger and lift the hoof as the heel comes off the ground. It is an easy motion to gently scoop the hoof up, without requiring any re-positioning on my part.
Don’t give up- persistence is key here. Start with a small request, such as a small amount of pressure on the chestnut, and gradually increase the pressure until you feel the leg shift and the weight in the heel transfers forward. Reward with *carefully* replacing the hoof to the ground, pause for a moment, and repeat. Some horses catch on quick, and some, like my Tater, take a bit of extra time to process and decide that it is not worth the effort on his part to argue.
The process is similar with the hind hooves. Start at the top of the rump, run your hand down in stages, and work your way to the hoof. Be aware that some hind limbs are a bit stiffer in the hock, even in younger horses, so pausing an extra second to allow that joint and the stifle joint to reposition is a kindness to your horse. Keep the leg in line with the horse’s body, and avoid lifting it overly high and risking shifting the balance of your horse. Younger horses and older ones with arthritic issues do tend to have more balance issues than younger horses who may have a higher fitness level.
Please always be aware of your horse’s eyes, ears, and movement. Take a moment or have a friend with you, who can let you know if the horse is contemplating bad behavior. When you are working on the front legs, stay next to the body, facing the rear. Please avoid placing any part of you directly in front of the leg, in case the horse snatches his leg from your hand and snaps it forward. When handling hind limbs, stay close to the horse’s body, facing the rear. An attempt at a kick with you lined up close to the horse will push you out of the way, avoiding the brunt of the kick. Horses, no matter the size, are opinionated, quick moving, and can cause harm if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Remember a few simple rules:
*Have a plan and bring patience *You must stay safe at all times *Your horse must stay safe at all times *Move with intention and belief in the end result *When the horse says enough, find something else to do and go back to your initial lesson in a few minutes.
Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box a bit, and improvise to suit your situation. There is no textbook answer for every horse, just a few suggested guidelines to follow. The only hard and fast rule in my barn is safety—both myself and the horse must be safe at all times.
Be safe and Happy Horsing!
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