At the Foot of It All: Hoof Care and Behavior Modification
Over the last couple of years, we have increasingly seen the behavioural side to hoof care featured in videos that have gone viral on social media.
One recent example showed “the duct tape method” of getting a fractious horse to stand still for the farrier. Numerous videos went around showing, firstly, a horse who clearly didn’t want any part in the trimming/shoeing process and then, in the “after” footage, the same horse standing quietly with a piece of duct tape attached to the muzzle, passing down between the nostrils, permitting the farrier to get on with the job. Equine enthusiasts debated long and hard about why this worked (maybe the discomfort of something sticky on the sensitive muzzle was enough to overshadow the distress of hoof-handling?) or whether it was faked, or misinterpreted. And lots of people tried it in response to the videos, with varying degrees of success.
Here’s an example of one of the videos.
Regardless of whether the duct tape worked, people who tried or advocated for it are really missing the point: The horse had a problem with hoof handling and—from the horse’s perspective—the duct tape did not solve any problem. Something likely to be aversive was used to ignore the opinion and feelings of the horse and miss a valuable opportunity to help the horse cope with hoof care in the long term.
It is easy to dismiss farrier visits as one-off events. But if we assume an average age of a horse to be 20 years, and assume that he will receive some form of hoof care every six weeks, then that is around 170 farrier visits during his lifetime. That’s quite a lot of “one-off events,” so it seems a good idea to do things in a way that makes the process progressively better rather than worse. If a horse has a bad experience then he will remember it and potentially be more fearful the next time a similar event takes place. When horses are mildly frightened they behave in ways that reflect this fear: tension, fidgeting, “picky” snatchy eating as a form of displacement, and resistance to handling. When we ignore those low-level signs of fear then the horse becomes increasingly distressed, and more likely to engage in defensive forms of aggressive behaviour such as kicking, rearing, biting, and barging.
Typical attempts to discipline the horse during hoof care might take the form of tying the horse up more tightly, yanking on the head collar, hitting with hand or rasp, “belly-kicking,” or using a twitch or other specialist restraining tack. When these no longer work, the farrier will likely refuse to continue working with that horse and someone else will try. If the horse is lucky then the replacement farrier will help to resolve the horse’s behaviour appropriately. If the horse is unlucky then the punishment just continues to escalate as a succession of farriers attempt to work on the horse.
Sometimes sedation is added into the mix. A horse I took on relatively recently had apparently “needed” sedation coupled with three farriers and a twitch (with just patience and a bit of feed, two visits later he was letting me do a full trim…). But in many cases sedation does not prevent the horse from experiencing the fear and concern that he would experience in the absence of sedation. He does not learn that everything is really okay. He is just powerless to act and is “flooded” (forced to accept a fearful stimulus until he submits). One way we can tell that there is no reduction in the horse’s fear of the procedure is when we see them showing signs of stress when they realize that they are about to be sedated. There are, of course, emergency situations where this may be justified but, for many horses, veterinary sedation is just the norm every time the farrier visits.
I hasten to add that this is not a blanket criticism of farriers. It is not the responsibility of the farrier to train the horse. The farrier should not need to be an expert in behaviour; it is enough of a full-time job being an expert in hooves. The owner needs to work with the farrier and have the horse suitably prepared from a physical and emotional point of view—being merely compliant is not enough. And for many owners, this may need additional professional behavioural help.
Even if we don’t care about equine welfare—and we should—then we could at least consider the safety of the people handling the horse. Farriers receive a huge number of injuries, from large bruises and minor cuts to fractures, lacerations, head injuries, and severed fingers. And despite popular opinion, this is generally not the fault of the horse behaving badly, but the history of experiences that the horse has received throughout his lifetime. The more escalated punishment, the more fear, and the greater the chances of a farrier being injured. Even freak accidents are less likely to happen if the horse has a catalogue of good experiences from which to draw. If only we could start prioritising experiences that the horse considers to be good.
And that is often the crux of it. We tend to consider the horse to have had a good experience if he’s been compliant and allowed us to do the job. But many horses do not show their distress overtly; instead they “shut down,” internalising their concerns until they cannot cope any longer. And then dangerous behaviour suddenly appears “as if from nowhere.” By the time a horse starts to behave in a dangerous manner, the early warning signs have been missed—sometimes for months or years. (For videos highlighting the early warning signs of fear I’d recommend looking at http://www.ebta.co.uk/lof.html) That’s not to say we shouldn’t attempt to complete the hoof care, just because Dobbin finds it a bit inconvenient that day. We still need to do the job—I find that a reasonable medium between keeping the horse happy and “getting the job done” is to persevere unless the horse starts to escalate in his attempts to say “no.” Once you get that escalation then the situation is only going to become dangerous—potentially for the farrier, future farriers, the owner, the owner on future occasions, and the horse. And then be ready with advice for future training for the owner.
So what do we need to be doing?
As an equine behaviourist and barefoot trimmer I see a lot of horses who have been rejected by farriers on behavioural grounds, or who have injured previous farriers or vets who have attempted to handle their feet. Sometimes the owner has rejected the farrier after his attempts to discipline the horse have become “excessive.” In the majority of cases I can make some progress in the first visit. I might not leave the feet looking finished, I might not even be able to touch the feet, but I will always aim for the horse to end the session with a more positive opinion of hoof care then he started. I am thinking in terms of the long-term progress; if I force the issue today then I might not get another chance next time. Some people might have the perception that if I “let the horse get away with it” then it will be harder next time. I don’t think that has ever been my experience, and I continue to prioritise the experience of the horse; that has generally led to the next time being easier and safer for all concerned.
I find that many horses are borderline okay for hoof handling to within certain criteria. They don’t necessarily need to restart training from the beginning; although it might help if they did receive extra training, it is not urgently required before the next trim. They just need lots of patience and some key concerns to be addressed:
- Consider whether there are any pain issues that mean the horse cannot cope. These need to be taken into account and ensure that vet and/or other professionals (physiotherapist or osteopath, etc.) are involved. The trim may need to wait if not urgent. Small or elderly horses may need the foot kept very low.
- Company—horses are herd animals and they can really struggle to have their feet trimmed if they are being expected to stand by themselves. The companion should not be moved elsewhere part-way through the trim as then the horse being handled may no longer stand happily.
- Forage—horses need to eat forage for 16 to 18 hours a day. If they have gone without for a long time prior to the farrier visit then they will need it. They might need it anyway. A hay net might get in the way a bit but I’d rather work around that. Bear in mind that in the summer a horse with full-time access to grass might not be very motivated by haying and may need an alternative. Don’t run out of forage…
- Consideration of which techniques, tools, or equipment are too scary for each individual and should be saved for another time —in exploring where a horse’s concerns about hoof care lie, I have found some who can’t handle having their feet rasped but are okay with nipper work, some who can’t handle having their feet nippered but are okay with rasping, some who can’t handle being touched by someone wearing farrier chaps but can have a full trim if I manage without the chaps, some who can’t cope with extending a front leg forwards under the head but are fine with the rest of the trim.
- Handler—some horses are very attached to and/or are confident only in the presence of a particular person. If that person is not there then you may need to significantly lower your expectations of how much you can achieve that day.
- Location—my favourite place to trim, unsurprisingly, is clean, hard-standing, and out of the rain. But if the horse is not happy standing there then there’s no point trying. If the horse is happier in the field or in the stable or anywhere else that is safe enough to work then that will make my life easier as well as his. If that means standing in the mud then tactical placement of some rubber matting or equivalent would also help to make the job much easier.
High-value treat food—some owners like to give their horses treats conditionally on the horse holding up a foot. In most cases I find that their timing is “insufficient” for this to be effective. The horse fixates on getting treats and is not thinking about the contingency, or “the two sides of the bargain.” Instead, I find non-contingent food rewards—just keeping them coming—at particularly difficult parts of the trim can really help. Or just a bucket of feed, held up at chest height and to one side so that the horse can shift the weight to the side of the supporting leg. The feed acts more as a distraction and source of positive association with the trimming, rather than a specific reward for holding up the foot. Again, don’t run out…
- Scratches–scratches are often much better as a reward than food as they don’t have that “fixating” effect. Instead they can be simultaneously rewarding and calming. This can really help to keep the session a positive experience for the horse. They are more likely to be successful in the summer when fly bites or moulting causes the horse to be itchy and when food is less motivating.
- I will ask a heavily “planting” horse to step forwards so that I can catch the foot as the horse lifts it through, rather than trying to forcibly lift the foot. Be aware of which feet are supporting most weight. This is good for horses who have no particular fears about standing on three legs, it’s just the act of lifting the foot on cue that they struggle with.
- Give horses breaks, especially horses who are older and more likely to be stiff or in pain. Swap legs part way. Change the subject—if a horse is refusing to lift a foot for “no apparent reason” then trying a different foot and returning to the problematic one a few minutes later may be all it takes. Do two feet and come back a week later for the other two—chances are this will only be a short-term, interim need before the horse is happy to do all four the same day. Sometimes it may become more of an issue if you fixate on fixing the problem. Sometimes a week or two off from any hoof handling at all will help improve compliance.
- Don’t suddenly expect a horse to change the arrangements, for example allowing feed for part of the time and then deciding—arbitrarily from the horse’s perspective—that he’s “had enough.” Unsurprisingly the horse’s cooperation just breaks down from that moment onwards.
While these steps may improve the situation for many horses who struggle with hoof handling, for others we need to start again and teach the horse from the beginning. The process necessarily starts slowly and it can take a long time to lay the foundations. Some people will claim not to have time; however, it is a few hours invested now to save many more hours fighting with behavioural problems in the future. And sometimes this means absolutely no attempts to trim hooves until the horse is emotionally ready for it—unless some sort of emergency work under sedation is necessary. Barefoot horses have the advantage here as they can self-trim, thereby giving you potentially longer than a six-week shoeing cycle to address the handling and fear issues.
Starting from the beginning means a single trusted person, probably the owner, giving the horse a scratch on the back or neck and stroking down the shoulder. Some horses won’t even tolerate that, so don’t try doing more until they can relax and cope. Ideally the horse will enjoy the scratches and even start to encourage you to continue. Gradually, over multiple sessions spaced over multiple days, the owner will be able to stroke all the way to the hoof and start to apply light pressure to below the pastern. This will need to be repeated for all feet, ideally using scratches as a source of reward. If the horse is showing signs of concern then the training should not be progressed and may need to regress temporarily in order for the horse to remain truly relaxed.
Once the hooves can be touched and gentle pressure applied they can be lifted, briefly. The release should come before the horse struggles and snatches the foot back. Duration can be built gradually but some horses will need repetitions of short lifts before they can cope with longer lifts. The hooves can gradually be held long enough to pick out quickly, to pick out slowly, to pick out and inspect for thrush and just generally be checked over. An owner can acquire an old rasp from a farrier so that she can accustom the horse to the sounds and sensation of rasping. Simulate the positions and actions that the farrier will need to perform, including stretching forwards under the neck and belly.
Alongside this preparation, the horse can be reintroduced to the farrier, can be present on the yard while other horses are being shod, habituating to the noise of hammering and tools accidentally being dropped on the ground—accidents happen, so prepare for them. If all is okay on a quiet day then try on a busy day, on a windy day, in the rain. Bear in mind that some horses who are very distressed about their hoof care seem more worried about the approach of the professional, rather than the actual handling. Learning to cope with attention from strangers, ideally developing positive associations with strangers via scratches (or treats if it’s safe to do so), can also be a crucial step of the process.
By moving in tiny steps like this the horse never risks being over-faced by a handler who assumes “everything’s fine”—we give the horse the benefit of the doubt and opportunity to progress at his pace. If you include a step that, with hindsight, turns out to be unnecessary then you have merely spent a few minutes reinforcing a criterion and boosting the horse’s confidence. If you skip a step that, with hindsight, turns out to have been crucial then you may need to regress a long way to regain the confidence and trust lost.
For more formally defined steps in the process I’d really recommend Ben Hart’s Shaping Plan for Safely Handling of Feet and for Farrier, available here.
Gradually the steps can be put together so that the owner can simulate a full trim, the farrier can handle the feet, and eventually the farrier can actually perform a full trim. Being realistic, not all horses will reach a point where they actively enjoy having their feet trimmed. But with patience and consideration of the horse’s concerns, most horses can reach a point where they can cooperate fully and without coercion. They can benefit from a variety of positive reinforcement to mitigate the restriction of being expected to stand on three legs for a little while. And there can be no excuse for anyone leaving a horse potentially more frightened at the end of a trim than at the beginning.
In some feedback to me, a client said, “You’ve worked wonders on my four horses and you are so patient with them. I’d never use anyone else to trim my horses’ feet so I hope you never retire! It’s so rare to find someone who lets the horse express themselves and gives them time to relax. ” While it was lovely of her to say this, it concerns me that this is considered anything other than normal. Being patient should be a fundamental requirement of anyone doing the job, not a reason to think your hoof professional is better than the rest. “You’re so patient!” is probably one of the most frequent compliments I receive from clients, but I look forward to the day when no one says this to me because it is just the mark of anyone doing the job. Likewise, I look forward to the day when social media is not full of videos, photos, and anecdotes about what people do to their horses to force them to comply with hoof care. We have plenty of proper solutions available now.
Catherine is a CHBC in the South-East of England. In between home-educating her two children, she works as an equine behaviorist and independent barefoot hoof trimmer. She hosts the Thinking Horsemanship Forum and is a co-founder of the Equine Behavior and Training Association.