horse hoof

As a kid, I rode show hunters, and back then most of them were off-the-track Thoroughbreds–notorious for their shelly, thin feet and the tendency to lose a shoe right before an important show. I learned the value of having a great relationship with my farrier at a very young age–it was the main reason I learned to make brownies.

I started getting paid to ride horses at 18 (and under the table a couple years before that), riding race horses throughout college. After four decades as a horse trainer, I still know this to be true: Top-rate veterinary and farrier care for my horses is critical to my success as a horse trainer. 

My personal farrier, Carey Gunderman, told me, “When the farrier, vet, and trainer are all on the same team, the horse usually wins. We don’t always have to agree, but we have mutual respect for one another and work together in the horse’s best interest, and usually with the best possible outcome for the horse.”

In the very best of circumstances (well-mannered horse, good handler, nice facility), being a farrier is an extremely difficult and hazardous job. I have a tremendous amount of respect and empathy for farriers, and I understand that my horses and I are the beneficiaries of their demanding occupation. 

Having grown up near horse racing in the horse country of central Florida, I was always around top-level farriers, but after moving to the rural southwest, I discovered top-level farriers don’t grow on trees. It was the same with equine vets and medical doctors, who tended to be in the metro areas. Don’t get me wrong–we have some of the best farriers in the country in my neck of the woods–but skilled practitioners are fewer and further between, and I want the very best working on my horses. 

Whether it’s a local farrier who helps me out of a jam when I am on the road, a colleague that stands in for my regular farrier in a pinch, or my dedicated farrier on a routine trip, I have have the utmost respect for their safety and do my best to take good care of them.

Responsible horse stewardship includes managing this critical aspect of your horse’s care with proper etiquette, attention to safety, a well-mannered horse, and a responsible handler. (If you’ve read comments online about a horse owner being ghosted by their farrier, lacking any of these things could be why. Don’t be that person!) 

In this article, I share what I think are the most important things you can do to maintain a great working relationship with your farrier–and to make sure you and your horse are their favorite clients. 

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Horse Owner Etiquette

  • Be respectful of a professional’s time. Have your horse ready early—caught, clean, and waiting for the farrier. The horse’s legs should be clean and DRY (wet legs are worse than dirty legs).
  •  Provide a comfortable and safe work space. A flat, clean workspace, protected from the elements. There should be enough space to keep safe when a horse gets squirrely, but a solid wall can come in handy for keeping an anxious horse still. Many farriers also need access to water and power. Try to put a pause on unnecessary activities in the area during your appointment (i.e. not a good time to run a weed-eater), and keep dogs and kids (haha) leashed.
  • Understand and appreciate the farrier’s personal risk. It’s not your farrier’s job to train the horse, and they are the most likely to get hurt by an untrained or ill-mannered horse. The simplest wreck could ruin your farrier’s career–or at the very least, render him unable to make a living for a while. It’s your responsibility as a horse owner to make sure your horse has safe and reliable ground manners. 
  • Hold the horse–do not tie it. Working under a tied horse is not safe and may lead to huge wrecks. Always stand on the same side of the horse as the farrier (for safety), and monitor the horse’s behavior closely. 
  • Never allow a horse to put his mouth anywhere near the farrier. It’s not cute. All farriers have been bitten from behind. This is rude and unsafe behavior, which tends to get progressively worse. You only have one job–control the horse.
  • Manage the flies. Between the stomping, head tossing, and whipping tail, a farrier’s work is much harder when the flies are bad. Manage the flies in your barn, tie the tail up if necessary, and use fly spray that your farrier approves of (they are the ones soaking it on their skin). I like to use all-natural Ultra-Shield Green for the vet and farrier. 
  • Have payment ready, and don’t question the fees after the fact. The cheapest horseshoer out there is expensive, and a master farrier doing a complicated job costs a small fortune. Get over it. Try doing their job for one day and you’ll see neither one of them make enough money. 

Expectations of the Horse’s Behavior

The ideal horse stands perfectly still and squarely on all four legs. The horse should lift the foot when asked, then relax and allow its foot and leg to be manipulated by the farrier, and patiently hold the leg up while balancing on the other three feet without leaning or fidgeting. The perfect horse also allows the farrier to slowly place the foot down to the ground, not jerking or stomping it down as soon as you start to let go.

That last part is important, and it is a precedent that can be set very early in the young horse’s training. Whatever the age, I want to teach the horse to allow me to hold the foot all the way down and place it on a specific mark. Not only is this good manners, but there are many horse management practices—from x-rays to foot soaking to measuring for hoof boots—where this skill will come in handy.

Again, it’s the farrier’s job to take care of the feet of the horse–not to train the horse to behave properly. That’s the job of a horse trainer–and the responsibility of the horse owner. And remember, anyone who handles or rides a horse is training them (for better or worse), because horses never stop learning. 

Training a totally raw horse to stand quietly for a farrier can be a vigorous and dangerous process. Seek help from an expert if you cannot manage a horse safely from the ground. It’s your responsibility to get the help you need to make sure the horse is safe and well-mannered–for its own health and well-being, and the farrier’s.

Training Your Horse for the Farrier

I call this kindergarten for horses. Basic ground manners for the horse include:

  • Controlling the feet
  • Standing still when asked
  • Respecting boundaries, and
  • Keeping its nose in front of its chest while being handled

I’ve written, talked, videoed, demonstrated, cajoled, and pleaded a lot on this subject, and there is plenty of information for you on my Academy website

Right now, I’ll talk about a training progression that is specific to safely handling the legs and feet, and preparing your horse for the farrier. Whether the horse is young and unknowing, a mature horse without any previous training, or a horse that’s developed unsafe manners due to trauma or poor handling, these are the steps I would take to insure the horse is a solid citizen for the farrier.

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  1. Foal meeting the farrier
    Melissa’s foal, Newt, meets the farrier for the first time. Long before their first trim, foals and weanlings can get acquainted with the farrier, make friends, and become familiar with the sounds and sights.
    Desensitize to legs touching and brushing until the horse stands still and is comfortable with the touch of both hands and different types of brushes. For a mature horse that has never been touched or doesn’t want its legs handled, this can be a huge step. See my video about desensitizing legs with a hyper-sensitive Thoroughbred mare.
  2. Next, I teach the horse to shift its weight off and lift the foot on cue, AND to relax and keep the foot up until it’s released. Bear in mind that teaching a horse to pick up the foot is easy, and it happens fast. Teaching the horse to patiently hold its leg up and relinquish control of it to you is decidedly not easy. These two skills should be taught at the same time, and if you do the former without the latter, you end up training the horse to jerk its foot away–and making matters worse. This is not always an easy job, and it can be quite animated, especially on a larger and/or reactive horse. Done right, it happens fast. Done poorly, you end up teaching the horse bad things. If you’re unsure about this process, consider getting expert help.
  3. Allow the horse time to learn how to balance on three feet, and that it won’t kill them. Ignore any fussing, and move along with the horse as they move without releasing the foot until it settles. Don’t try to hold the horse still or scold it, just hold the foot high with the toe flexed up. Only release the foot when the horse is still and relaxed. Help the horse find the release by putting its foot down (not dropping it) immediately when the horse relaxes. With good timing on the release, the horse learns to hold still and relax fast. Pick up and hold the feet repeatedly (working on one leg at a time), holding it a little longer each time.
  4. If the horse is struggling to take its foot back, hold the foot high with the toe pointed straight up. That will make it harder for the foot to stamp down. If the horse gets its foot back just keep reaching for the leg and pick it back up immediately—keeping the pressure on until it relaxes.
  5. The horse should learn to stand up and balance on three feet as you hold one foot up and steady the horse. If the horse begins to lean on you, slowly bend down with the horse, lower and lower, holding the foot toe-up, then suddenly remove your support and drop the horse, so it has to pick itself back up or fall down. Horses hate to fall, so even the thought of falling discourages the leaning behavior. Done right, this technique will eliminate leaning the very first time the horse tries it.
  6. Once a horse is well-trained for routine foot handling, I introduce what the farrier does—squeezing the leg between my knees, pulling the legs to the side more (be gentle), manipulating the foot, rasping and tapping. The way the farrier manipulates the legs and feet for trimming and shoeing is different from the way we handle the feet for daily cleaning. These are positions and sensations the horse must be comfortable with before it’s ready for the farrier.
  7. Young horses (foals and weanlings), will probably not need their feet trimmed for a while, but they can get acquainted with the farrier while still on the mare. I want the foal to stand with the mare as her feet are trimmed, taking it all in, contained and waiting patiently (not running about wildly), and to make friends with the farrier. Long before its first trim, the foal will know the farrier and become familiar with the sounds and sights.
  8. If a mature horse comes for training that has never had its legs handled or stood for the farrier, I still want the first experience to be very positive, both for my horse and for my farrier—I want them BOTH left with a good impression of each other. I will hold off the farrier as long as possible until I get the horse desensitized and trained.

In the presentations and demonstrations I make at horse expos and clinics, I always tell people that one of the kindest things you can do for your horse is to teach it to have good ground manners. Armed with these skills, your horse will always be treated kindly by vets, farriers, barn workers, and the like, and will have a safe and secure future. 

All horses need regular foot care from a qualified farrier who is educated and trained to treat the foot, as well as the whole horse, in concert with your vet and trainer. Finding and keeping a great farrier can be a challenge in the best of circumstances. Once found, I want to make sure I keep up my end of the bargain by being the best client they have, so on that rare occasion when I have a big ask or an urgent need, I know they’ll be there for me and my horses.

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