Foot Work: Training for Hoof Care

My only horse finally lived out his days with me last fall. He died peacefully at the great old age of 32 years. He had been with me through thick and thin for 21 years, and was a sweetheart of a horse. He came to me completely broke and was always easy. His only issue was his hind feet--he just didn't want anyone messing with them. Even for a trim we needed to tranquilize him, and it still wasn't easy. He had to be drugged to the point of falling over before we could work on him. Sometimes it took two or three shots to complete a trim. I lived in fear of not being able to find a willing farrier. Once he got older, we usually just skipped his hind feet. The farrier told me that at his age, this behavior problem could be fixed, but would take a lot of work, and he would have a tendency to slip back.

Now I'm getting a new colt, about a year old, without much handling. He's never had his feet done, so I want to get this on the right track from the start. I realize that it might be difficult to explain these things in a letter, but could you run through exactly what you would do to get this colt to stand for trimming and shoeing--step-by-step. Or can you send a video? Vern

 There are many different ways to do this; they all boil down to a few learning concepts and training procedures. What we find most useful is technically called systematic desensitization with positive reinforcement to gain compliance with a mildly aversive stimulus. Tolerance can be further shaped with positive reinforcement to get the horse to offer each foot on request (either a visual, verbal, or tactile cue). In "everyday speak," you could call this procedure simply getting your horse used to something that's new or slightly annoying--but not really all that bad--by patient, gentle, reassuring, and gradual introduction using rewards to show what you want him to do.

For each reward we use a food treat (small slice of carrot or apple, or a tablespoon of sweet feed) or verbal praise, or both simultaneously. We just ignore undesirable behavior or slip-ups along the way. Those "mistakes" should be expected; they are a natural part of the learning process, testing the contingencies. As in most types of training, necessary connections are made and trust is built most efficiently when reinforcement is the principal training tool.

Getting Started

  • If the colt isn't already trained to halter, lead, and stand (and tie, especially if this will be a one-person procedure), get him to the point of understanding and complying with basic commands of forward, back, and stop, and standing fairly quietly.
  • Similarly, if not already a part of the horse's handling routine, get the horse used to general grooming and manipulation of the upper body and legs.
  • Allow at least one week of daily work to achieve basic compliance with handling the feet. It might take more or less time. If you have a quick learner, it's often useful to continue for about a week, reinforcing what he has learned for at least a week.
  • Plan to work a few minutes on feet per session, setting aside a specific time when there is minimal pressure and you can just relax and see how things go. We usually try to work at least once a day, and up to four times a day when it's convenient. There's nothing special about the schedule, and less frequent interactions over a longer period can also achieve the goals.
  • Chart the horse's daily progress; a simple diary or notes on a calendar will do. It is fun to see how rapidly the horse progresses, but also useful if you have a problem and need help. Then you'll have a nice history.

Facilities, Equipment, Supplies

Our checklist for the entire training is fairly simple. We need:

  • A safe working area with good footing and ample head clearance, where if the horse rears or moves, he will not inadvertently run into something and create a wreck that he will perceive as punishment;
  • Personal safety equipment (helmet, sturdy footwear, safety vest), as recommended whenever working around a horse;
  • Food treats in a handy container;
  • A hoof pick and farrier tools; and
  • A clock or watch with a sweep second hand within easy view.

Step 1: Conditioned Verbal Reinforcement--Teach the horse a conditioned verbal reinforcement (reward). It can be anything that is spoken in a distinct, consistent tone and cadence. Select a simple verbal command, such as "Good," spoken consistently in a neutral tone. Offer a treat. Repeat this pairing of the secondary or conditioned reinforcer ("Good") with the naturally positive primary reinforcer (food treat). Do this by offering a treat and just as the horse eats it, say "Good." (In the popular On Target and Clicker training, the conditioned stimulus is the clicker sound.) Pair the reinforcer (word or words) with the treat at least 10 times, or until when you say the word alone, the horse clearly anticipates a treat. This tells you that the connection has been made.

Step 2: Baseline Evaluation--Groom the horse for a few minutes all over the head, neck, and barrel to get to know where he likes to be touched, where he will just tolerate contact, and where he resists.

Step 3: Tolerance Leads to a Reward--Touch the horse somewhere on his body that he likes--usually the shoulder, neck, crest, rump, face, or under the chin. When he stands quietly and relaxes to the touch, say "Good," pause a moment, and offer a treat. Repeat this three or four times at each of about five sites on his body until he clearly anticipates the treat. If during Step 2 you found areas that he "just barely tolerated," now go to those areas, massage or do whatever works best to get him to relax and accept touch in those "borderline" areas. When he does relax, say "Good," pause a moment, and offer a treat. This will set the pattern of learning for him that tolerating touching leads to reward. It will also get the operator and the timing down--while working on areas that are less risky than the feet.

Step 4: Front Legs First--Starting at the shoulder, touch the colt, holding gentle contact until he relaxes, say "Good," then give the treat. Repeat this, each time touching lower on the front leg. Horses are individuals in how fast progress can be made. For some, basic compliance with foot manipulations can happen in one or two sessions. For some, we celebrate an inch a day, and expect that some days might go backward, knowing that the next session might be great. Most horses are somewhere in between, and can get there in remarkably good time and minimal organized effort.

Once touching is readily tolerated, and the reward is anticipated (which indicates that the horse is perceiving the procedure as positive), proceed to picking up the feet.

Avoid dropping the foot onto a hard surface once the horse has let you pick it up. Place the hoof down gently and deliberately, rather than dropping it or allowing the horse to pull it from your hand. Initially, lift just as high and for as long as the horse easily tolerates. Gradually build to the point where the horse will allow the lifting and holding of the leg that will be required for trimming and shoeing. Similarly, gradually build from holding the leg up for a few seconds to 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes, and up, then place it down and give a treat or verbal reinforcement as a reward.

When he resists, relax and begin again quietly, calmly, and with no punishment.

Step 5: Hind Legs Next--To get similar compliance with the hind legs, do the same procedure, starting at the rump and working down the thigh, upper leg, and lower leg. As with the front legs, start with touching, then with picking up and placing down, lifting higher and holding longer.

Step 6: Tools and Tapping--Expose the horse to the sight and sound of the tools and shoes clanking on the floor. Once he relaxes, reinforce with "Good" and the food treat. Repeat this until his behavior shows you that he has made the connections--as soon as you present the tools he relaxes and looks for your positive response. Then progress to applying the tools to his feet. Start with a soft brush and hoof pick, then use a rasp, then tap with a hammer. Proceed from gentle and quiet to more typical conditions, banging tools and dropping shoes onto concrete. This will get him accustomed to more everyday experiences.

Step 7: The Real Thing--Find a farrier who appreciates the behavior modification procedure and can commit to a kind and gradual introduction without punishment.

No Limit to Extras

Some people like to proceed in a consistent order for daily hoof picking and examination. This gets the horse accustomed to the routine, and some horses without special training will learn the routine and start to lift each leg on their own as the handler approaches each leg. If not, this behavior can be shaped by prompting the horse and rewarding the response. Give a verbal or visual signal as a prompt, such as, "Lift." Or you can use physical prompts, such as when you take position at the leg and perhaps touch the shoulder or rump gently (or any cue you wish to train). When the horse picks up the foot, give the reward.

Horses can be trained to place and hold a foot in a container, as is needed for foot soaks. This and other practical, simple behavior modification tasks are demonstrated by Shawna Karrasch in her On Target Training. This is done by just letting the horse inadvertently put his foot inside a shallow tub placed near the foot, then rewarding him, or first guiding the horse and rewarding successive approximations of the sequence of placing the foot into a shallow tub and standing there until asked to step out.

When to Cut the Treats

Initially we consistently offer the food treat (primary reinforcer) with the "Good" or other conditioned reinforcer. That's called continuous primary and secondary reinforcement. Once the association is made, we usually drop back to mostly just the "Good," and only give a treat once in a while, and maybe at the end of grooming. This is called continuous secondary reinforcement with intermittent primary reinforcement. Usually, once the compliance is well established, we drop the treat reward, and sometimes even the "Good." Continuation of intermittent primary and/or secondary reinforcers usually does no harm.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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