Q: My horse Lucky has started a behavior problem when we handle his feet. He's always been awesome about lifting his feet, but now he's getting crabby about it. It started when he went lame on one front leg because of a foot abscess. Once it burst open, he got much better, but it still bothered him. The vet said it would just take time to heal. So we cleaned his foot every day, soaked it in a tub, and packed and wrapped it. Lucky would let us lift that foot up and work on it okay for a couple of minutes. Then he would get agitated and pull away.

Lucky has been behaving a little better when we work on his bad foot. But now he has started being uncooperative on the other front foot. He's even worse than on the sore foot. He walks on it fine, so we don't think there is anything wrong with that one. Some days he just won't let me pick it up at all. Any ideas on how to break him of this before the habit spreads to the back too?

via e-mail

A: One explanation for Lucky's behavior change with both of his front feet, but not the hind feet, could stem from the discomfort in the front abscess foot. That would certainly explain why he was and still is reluctant to lift the opposite front foot. Lifting an opposite foot makes him bear additional weight on the sore foot. I would guess that his sore foot, even though it's getting better, might still be uncomfortable for the extra weight-bearing when the opposite front foot is lifted.

When Lucky was first willing to lift the abscess foot for only a few minutes before pulling away, there could have been a couple of explanations. I would guess that he was likely relieved at first when you lifted and took weight off that sore foot, but that the foot was painful enough at that stage that some of the manipulations you had to do were uncomfortable, and he would pull away after a couple of minutes.

Another explanation could be that Lucky was uncomfortable with something else going on when that sore foot was lifted. Sometimes when we have to hold a foot up and work on it for more than just a few seconds, we tend to inadvertently hold the leg in an uncomfortable position. Most commonly, we tend to wrench the limb out too far from the body and hold it up too high for comfort. The horse can only cooperate for a while, then he seems urgent to put it down. With experience you can become practiced (as a professional farrier is, for example) at finding a good position that maximizes both the horse's and your own comfort for working during lengthy foot lifts.

Also, farriers and veterinarians working on feet every day develop the muscles and stamina to be more forgiving to the horse's comfort than most of us nonpros can when caring for an occasional foot problem.

A third possible explanation, whenever a horse has a foot problem such as an abscess that might affect his weight-bearing for a length of time, the "good foot" is at increased risk of developing soreness or even laminitis problems from the additional weight-bearing day in and day out while favoring the sore foot. So he might be uncomfortable in both front feet.

In any case, at this point I would recommend continued kindness and understanding about lifting and manipulating Lucky's feet. It's easy sometimes to wonder if the behavior changes represent misbehavior rather than discomfort, but with a nice horse who was happy for years to lift his feet for your family, I bet he's still trying to be "good," until it hurts too much.

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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