Hoof Handling and Forgetful Training

I have been working on picking up Sebastian’s feet. Teaching a horse to let you pick up their feet is an important skill so that you can pick out their hooves and so that the farrier can trim their feet. When teaching this, I like to start with one front foot, then once that is good move to the other front foot and later do each of the back feet.

During our first day working on this, which consisted of several mini-sessions, Sebastian and I worked on him letting me pick up one of his front feet. First I did something he already knew, I clicked and reinforced him for letting me touch around the bottom of his leg and on his hoof. Then, I started asking him to pick up the foot and I rewarded him for any tiny shifts in weight. He caught on pretty quick, although he did go through a short phase where he just wanted to shake the foot and paw. By the end of the day, though, all I had to do was slide my hand down his leg and he would pick up the foot and let me hold it for 1-2 seconds. I was pretty confident that we had mastered the first foot, all we had to do now was build some duration!

Usually, I find when training that if I start something new, then come back to it a few days later, the horse is better at the task than when we last left off. So, I was hoping my second session on picking up feet would lead to more rapid progress. I started by rubbing and petting his shoulder and leg, making sure that he was calm and relaxed. Then, I repeated what I had done in the previous session, sliding my hand down his left leg and gently asking him to pick up the foot. No response. Repeated this a couple more times. Still no response. On the next try, he shifted his weight and picked up the heel slightly. I clicked and rewarded him for effort, but was slightly miffed and annoyed that he seemed to have completely forgotten about our previous session.

The next few gentle requests led to no response on his part. Clearly, my horse had forgotten all of his training! This wasn’t working, and I needed a new plan of action. Time to retrain the behavior, which would hopefully be easier since we had already worked on it once. I leaned down again, running my hand down his left leg, waiting for a weight shift. He slowly and deliberately picked up his right leg and held it in the air. Again, I ran my hand down his left leg and he held up the right one. Twice in a row couldn’t be an accident….was I on the wrong side?!?

I had confused myself and started the second day on the wrong side. No wonder the poor horse didn’t have a clue what I was asking. But he was kind enough to pick up and offer the hoof that I had taught him to lift on the previous day. So, I switched to the right side and he was a super star. We did about ten times on the right side, Sebastian willingly picking up the foot as soon as I asked, sometimes even before. Several times, he picked up the foot and held it up patiently by himself, waiting for me to bend over and pick it up. We also worked more on increasing duration, until I could hold the hoof for up to a count of 5.

When an animal responds incorrectly during training, the trainer is often tempted to blame the animal. However, an incorrect response often indicates holes or deficits in the animals training. Sebastian had no idea what I was asking when I asked for his left foot because I hadn’t trained this yet. If we haven’t trained a behavior, we can’t expect the animal to be able to perform it!

When things don’t go as planned, instead of blaming the animal, we should consider it an opportunity to reflect on what the animal is doing and what direction the training needs to go. No matter how the animal responds, whether “correctly” or “incorrectly,” the response shows us what the cue means to the animal. If you aren’t getting the response you want, where could there be a breakdown in your training? Most of the time, horses want to figure out the right thing to do. “Wrong answers” are information that our requests are not clearly understood. Often it’s our mistakes, whether asking differently than last time or being on the wrong side of the horse, that are the real underlying issues. Listen to your horse–he’ll almost certainly tell you what you ought to be doing differently!

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