Monday, October 26, 2009

Handling feet

This summer I was contacted by an individual who had recently purchased a 3yo TB/Appy sporthorse gelding. Among some of the dangerous behaviours the owner was having trouble managing in this horse, she couldn't handle his feet. When she tried handling his hinds, he would kick out violently, almost nailing her in the head during one occasion. With anyone tried to pick up his fronts, he reared.

Now, this horse had a lot of issues stemming from a strong lack of respect and thus that had to be addressed as well. Many issues, in fact, stem from something underlying rather than the issue itself - often an insufficient level of trust or respect. A horse who lacks sufficient trust in her handler will refuse to pick up her feet as well and may even defensively kick out with her hinds; she's not going to let a predator take away her only mode of escape! We had 2yo Thoroughbreds fresh off the farm arrive at the track who were skittish to begin with - getting them to pick their feet up off the ground was sometimes like climbing Everest! While it is always important to address the root issue, there is also a lot that one can do specifically with a horse's feet to accustom their feet to being handled or to work on a foot issue, directly and specifically. Keep in mind though that there often is more to it, more that can be done in addition to just handling the horse's feet, even if the horse's only "issue" seems to be with allowing its feet to be handled - it can be less about the feet than it is about the horse's overall state of mind toward you. I highly recommend the Parelli 7 games and Patterns of course, though there are other methods that also address respect and trust while building a partnership with a horse.

Desensitize your horse
Work on your horse until she allows you to touch her anywhere. Use approach and retreat, and reward the slightest "try" (if I have a horse who does particularly well at something, say accepting a tarp for example, I'll walk away to give them a break before continuing - I might do this several times in a session even). Use all sorts of materials once she is relaxed when you use your hand - it's not that if you play with a tarp your horse will now accept tarps forever more, but it builds trust in your leadership and exposes your horse to various situations.

Use ropes first
With a young horse I often will just get down and dirty - get right in there under their feet. However if they are particularly violent with their feet, if they're older, or if I'm unsure of the horse and how they will react, I will use ropes. If you're unsure, use ropes - it never hurts and it could keep you safe! You can take a long leadrope - something soft and thick (Parelli's 12' line works great) and loop it around your horse's pasterns, attaching it back on itself (close the snap over the rope once it is passed around the horse's pastern). Make sure the rope can come loose if it needs to, or that it won't stay tight after you remove pressure, and make sure that your horse is comfortable with having ropes touch her first. Start with the front feet, as horses tend to be more comfortable having their front feet handled than their hinds. Standing out of the way, gently apply pressure. If your horse starts fidgeting nervously, use approach and retreat to accustom your horse to the pressure. Otherwise, apply gentle pressure and increase the tension in the rope until your horse releases - reward the slightest try (even the thought or weight shift) by releasing tension in the rope immediately. Ask for more of a "try" each time (not rewarding until you get the "increased" try) until your horse will hold its foot up. End when she releases (lifts her foot) and relaxes. If you're having a lot of trouble though, it is ok to end without as much progress - just make sure to always end with relaxation (if possible). Once your horse is relaxed with the rope, you can get underneath her to ask her to pick up her feet. I teach all my horses the 7 games, including the Porcupine game; when I ask for feet to be raised I use the Porcupine game, pinching the chestnuts on the front legs and the caps of the hocks on the hinds to ask for a horse to lift its feet. You can use your own method/cue, but I really find this one to be effective.

Sometimes it is a combination of issues that give reason for a horse not lifting her feet or acting badly when her feet are worked with, but sometimes simple work such as above is what is needed :)

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