Issues From The Ground: Handling Feet

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Hi Julie, I have enjoyed your newsletters, and all the great training information. Also have enjoyed the tapes I purchased at the horse expo here in Denver. You mention the pamphlet that came with the Private Lessons CD, and I don’t have one to refer to, was there something I missed picking up when I bought it at the expo? Where can I get the information you are talking about on the CD? Also I have a 3-year-old colt I’m working with. When I pick up his feet to clean them, he continually leans downward with his knee until he just about lands on it when I have to let his foot go before I go down with him. Where did I go wrong? He’s okay when I first pick it up, then I go through a struggle, and he finally lets me have it, but not till he pulls his scenario, pulling back then forward then downward till he’s almost on his knees. Any information would be helpful if I can get him to behave better.

Thank you Julie, Charlene Fridge

Answer: Charlene, I am glad to hear you are enjoying the instructional videos and audios. I have gotten lots of good feedback from people that feel the videos and audios really help them to improve their riding skills. The booklet referred to in the audios is actually part of the cover of the tape or CD case. If you pull out the cover from the case, you’ll find a little booklet that has additional information on how to do the exercises and how to get the most out of the audios.

I have a few suggestions for you, regarding your horse leaning on you. First, a horse (or anything else) cannot lean on you unless you let them. It takes two to tango. For instance, if you walked up and put your arm on me to lean on me, I would have to make a physical effort to support you. If I just moved away, you couldn’t start leaning on me. So when you pick up a horse’s foot, just hold it up, do not let the horse lean on you for support. When he does, just remove the support but hold the foot up (toe pointed up). Your horse has learned to lean on you because he has found it a very effective method for getting you to let go of his foot. What ever a horse is doing when you give him a release is what you are training the horse to do, so every time you have released his foot when he leaned, you have rewarded him for that behavior. You have to train a horse to hold his feet up, not just pick them up; it is certainly not a natural thing for a horse to do- their instinct tells them to keep all four feet on the ground in case they are needed for flight. When training a horse to hold his feet up, pick up a foot and hold it (toe up) until you feel the horse relax, then immediately release him by giving his foot back to him; step away from the horse, then ask again. Do not hold the foot up too long after the horse holds still; look for an opportunity to reward and release the first instance he is still and relaxed. Do this repeatedly, always rewarding the horse with the release when he is relaxed and still. This process rewards the horse’s correct behavior. The first few times the horse may wiggle and fuss, but as soon as he holds still and relaxes a little, you’ll put the foot down (like everything in horse training- timing is quintessential). Don’t try to prevent him from moving and wiggling, just move with him but hold the foot up; only put it down when he holds still. If he gets away from you, growl at him while you immediately go for the foot again; do not stop until he has held still for a second. Very soon, he will learn that when he relaxes and holds still he gets his foot back.

Once your horse is holding still, gradually lengthen the amount of time you hold it up, making sure you only release the foot when he is acting the way you want. Make sure whenever you pick up a horse’s foot that you point his toe up (folding the toe toward his ankle). This will make it much easier for you to hold his foot up and will make it much more difficult for him to pull his foot away. If the horse is very difficult, you’ll have to hold the foot high to keep control of it and stay safe. But if the horse is cooperative, try not to lift the foot too high because it may cause joint pain, especially in older horses, which could be the cause of their fidget. If your horse is already a confirmed leaner, there is a pretty simple cure. First make sure the horse is not tied. Pick up his foot and allow the horse to lean on you; slowly lower the leg until the horse leaning so far he can barely stand up without leaning on you. Then, suddenly and without warning, step away from him, removing his support. Your goal is to make him fall down (make sure he is not tied). Horses absolutely hate to fall down, for the same reason they want to keep all four feet on the ground (flight). If you can lure him into falling down once or twice, he’ll be very reluctant to lean on you again. Remember, it takes two to tango, so don’t enable him to lean on you anymore.

Handling a horse’s feet and training uneducated horses or rehabilitating poorly trained horses is rough and dangerous, especially when dealing with big horses, older or spoiled horses. At best, training horses to have their feet handled is difficult and physically strenuous. You are almost guaranteed to get kicked and stomped on; you may have some black and blue marks to show for it, or worse. This type of training should only be done by experts. Learning to keep your body out of the kick zone is difficult but it can be done. Knowing the full range of the horse’s kick: front, side and back extension, is the first step in learning how to stay safe. The second step is to have an understanding that when his legs are in certain positions, he cannot kick you without pulling his leg forward or stepping onto the other foot, thus giving you time to get out of the way. Also knowing how to hold a horse’s foot up at the right level to help keep control of the leg and learning how to move softly with the horse as he wiggles and relax as he relaxes. Learn to keep the toe curled up to make it harder for him to stomp on you. It takes years of experience, lots of knowledge, plenty of practice and very good timing to learn how to safely and effectively train horses for feet handling. Be very careful and think about enlisting a trainer or an expert friend to help you.

Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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