Teaching Hoof Handling Using Shaping

Teaching a horse to pick up it’s feet can be a frustrating job. The horse gets frustrated because he doesn’t know what the trainer is asking and the trainer often goes too fast, too soon. This can get dangerous when working with back feet because an irriated, frustrated horse is more likely to take a kick at the trainer.

However, being able to handle a horse’s feet is extremely important so that you can pick them out and clean them, so that the farrier can trim or shoe the horse and so that you or the vet can provide medical care, if needed. However, if done right, you can create great foot manners for your horse. I’ve been working with feet with a few of the rescue horses and this is the method I like to use for back feet. This method uses clicker training and shaping. It comes from personal experience combined with several methods I’ve read, particularly the method Leslie Pavlich gives in her colt starting book.

Pre-requisite: The horse is comfortable with you touching all over his hindquarters and back legs. If the horse tenses up, gets nervous or tries to move away when you touch his hindquarters or back legs, you’re not ready to work on picking up feet. 

Step 1. Pick one side to start on. Gently stroke and rub the horse’s back leg. Stroke lightly on the cannon bone and tickle gently near the pastern joint. What you’re doing is waiting for him to cock that back foot. (Don’t make this hard on yourself–if he’s already cocked the other one, start on it first.) When he cocks and rests his foot, click and treat. Repeat several times until he’s standing relaxed.

Step 2. Touch and rub the sides of the hoof and the bottom of the hoof, clicking and treating after every several seconds of rubbing. If the horse seems unsure, don’t go on until he seems relaxed and unconcerned. 

Step 3. Put your hand around the cocked hoof as if you were going to pick it up. Do this several times, going through the motion of bending down, wrapping your hand on the hoof, clicking and treating. 

Step 4. Go through the exact same steps as step 3, but this time, when you grasp the cocked hoof, lift it 1/4 inch off the ground. Click while you have the hoof in the air, then gently set it down. Do this several times, gradually building distance until you can hold the hoof several inches off the ground. 

Step 5. Once I can hold the hoof several inches off the ground, I like to start working on duration. Up until this point, I am holding the foot for just 1-2 seconds. Now I build in a bit of duration, until I can hold the hoof several inches off the ground for 5-10 seconds. 

Step 6. Continue to increase both duration and distance off the ground. However, remember to work on increasing just one criterion at a time. Build duration for awhile, then build distance for awhile, don’t try to build both at the same time!

Step 7. Once you can hold the hoof for a modest amount of time at a comfortable height, introduce a hoof pick. At first, run it gently on the bottom of the hoof near the frog. Gradually, build up the force you use until you can pick out the foot without any problems. 

Step 8. Once the horse is comfortable with having the hoof picked out, start simulating behaviors that will be needed when the farrier arrives. Gradually shape the behavior so you can hold the leg in a variety of positions–up high, far back, slightly out to the side, pulled forward, etc. Introduce strange objects in some of these positions. You can gently use pliers, a hammer other tools to simulate farrier equipment.

Step 9. If possible, get the horse use to at least 2-3 other people handling his feet. This is really important! It doesn’t do any good if the horse won’t allow the vet or farrier to handle his feet. 


General Tips to Remember

If the horse resists, braces or fights, I always let go. He’s multiple times my size, I don’t really want to get into a fight with him. Instead, I let go of the foot and don’t reinforce him. Then, I examine why he is frustrated–am I building the behavior too quickly? If I know I can hold the foot for 4 seconds, I click and treat after 3 seconds. He learns when he waits 3 seconds without resisting, he gets his click and treat. If he resists, no reward. I very gradually build up the time I can hold the foot.

I usually work at liberty. If you feel more comfortable with the horse tied, do that. It’s your preference. If the horse is moving around a lot, he’s frustrated, confused or bored. I’m either moving too fast or too slow. I need to reevaluate my session length and rate of reinforcement—what is motivating the horse and why is the horse choosing not to participate? I find it works best to use short sessions (3-4 minutes) with a high rate of reinforcement, followed by a break. The break gives the horse and I a chance to relax and lets me evaluate what to do next.

Eventally, you’ll want to put the behavior on some sort of cue. The cue you choose is up to you. Possible cues include: a verbal cue, rubbing or lightly pinching the chestnut, tapping the pastern, tapping the leg or foot in a particular spot with your hand or hoof pick. If the horse is regularly handled by a variety of people, you’re probably best off sticking to some of the commonly used cues or even teaching the horse several cues for picking up his feet.

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