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Large young mare with bridle and foot-handling issues

From: Leslie

Dear Dr. Jahiel,

You are, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my e-mail week. Your philosophy of horsemanship is enlightened and entertaining. Thank you for all you do for all of us horse lovers.

I have been working with a young (5 years) Holsteiner mare. She is around 17'3 hands with feet the size of dinner plates. She is unshod, not ridden, we think she may never have had a bath, until recently was always in her halter because of the difficulty in taking it off. The first time I took her from her stall intending to walk to the wash rack, it took us a full 10 minutes - she was terrified - it turns out, she never was brought up that way and had always exited the barn at the rear. I wanted to see if she would cross tie, so I needed to get her in a leather halter. Took me an hour. I finally placed it inside the nasty old nylon one and got it on her that way. Now she halters within seconds, but only if the nylon one is part of the deal. Getting her feet wet the first time caused her great consternation. I have progressed with her to hosing her legs and belly - she's not happy, but she can tolerate it. She loves being groomed after which I have been tacking her up regularly with saddle pad, saddle and girth. Then I take her out to graze.

She will let me touch her everywhere while she's grazing. Even those ears that seem to be the problem when we try to halter, unhalter and bridle. In the cross ties, she will tolerate touching everywhere but her ears and the sides of her cheeks up high. The bit is not a problem. When I groom her I try to accidentally touch her ears, praising her if she lets me linger with the brush. When I introduce a bridle (with no bit) to the head area, she becomes very anxious, and puts her head to the ceiling. Any suggestions on dealing with this issue would be welcome.

Our other major issue is picking up her front feet. She willingly gives me the back feet, but the front ones are firmly planted. I've tried elbowing her in the shoulder, squeezing the tendon behind the cannon bone, pulling up on the little fetlock horn - she ignores it all. Again, if you have any suggestions for us I would so greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

Leslie and Nellie


Hi Leslie! It's not easy to teach an enormous young horse, is it? You're having to deal with a good many difficult situations, all caused by the mare's lack of handling early on.

pain fear confusion

It's interesting that she will accept having her ears handled when she's grazing, but not when you are trying to put a halter or bridle on her head, and that she doesn't seem to have any objection to taking the bit. To me, these are two very big clues to the underlying problem - I'll bet she needs to have her teeth floated. These responses are very typical of horses that haven't had their teeth floated (or have had them floated badly, by someone in a hurry). If she has sharp edges on the outsides of her molars, any pressure on the outside of her upper jaw and cheeks, whether from a brush, a hand, or the strap of a halter or bridle, will push the probably already-lacerated insides of her cheeks against those sharp edges, causing a great deal of pain. Since horses are fast, associative learners, it doesn't take long before a horse in that situation figures out that the presence of a halter or bridle means pain, and that halters and bridles should be avoided whenever possible.

When the vet or dentist has seen to her teeth, and you're sure that any injuries have healed, you'll be able to begin teaching her a "head-down, please" signal. You can also teach her to take treats by reaching her head into her halter or bridle - some horses, trained this way, will just about bridle themselves. ;-)

She sounds to be a very sweet, reasonable mare - like any normal horse, she objects only to things that hurt or frighten or confuse her. When you work with her, treat her like the big baby she is, and teach her based on her acquisition of skills and on what you KNOW she knows, not based on her size or what you think she ought to know by now. As I'm sure you know, assuming that a horse knows or understands something is a very good way to get hurt. It's always safest to teach a horse - any horse - EVERYTHING you want it to know. If it already knows some of those things, there's no harm done, and if it doesn't know them, you're cleverly avoiding risks whilst building the horse's trust and confidence in you.

A case in point: Your mare has probably not had her feet handled much, either. You'll need to train her to pick them up and hold them up, just as you would teach a foal. The difference is that THIS foal is the size of a young elephant, so you will need to be careful.

As my friend Sue Harris is wont to say, "horses are tippy". That is, horses are up high in the air, with big heavy bodies and necks and heads balanced over four very thin legs. It's comparatively easy for a horse to tip over, and a horse that's not on its legs is a horse with no way to escape or to defend itself. Horses don't like to do things that make them feel insecure on their feet, because being prey animals, they feel safe only when they can GO at any moment. When they are unbalanced, they feel very insecure, and they'll do whatever they feel they must do to become secure and balanced again. Horses like to keep a leg at each corner whenever possible, and when it isn't possible, they worry. Horses learning to hold up their feet for the farrier feel very insecure until they learn to balance on three legs. If they begin to feel unbalanced and insecure, they'll typically push against whatever or whoever is holding the fourth leg, in an effort to get the foot back on the ground where it belongs. ;-) If the horse is a foal and the person is large, the person can push back - but if the horse is almost 18 hands, that's not really an option.

Since this mare is so large, you won't have the ability to use the leverage that works so well when we're given the chance to teach horses certain skills very early in their lives. One clumsy movement from her, and you could get hurt - so I suggest you try something else entirely. When you train her to pick up her feet, begin in a large open area where she can move around if she needs to, and where you are less likely to find yourself mashed against a wall if she loses her balance and her body sways toward you.

Load your pockets with treats, and start using operant conditioning to shape her behaviour. You may wish to use a clicker for this - it's a nice, easy way to ensure that your timing is perfect and that the horse understands exactly which one of its actions you are praising.

In any case, you may want to enlist a friend for the first few lessons. The friend won't be training the mare - that's your job - but will serve as the treat dispenser, offering a treat whenever YOU say "Good girl" or "Thank you". Begin with the hind feet, since she is happy to pick those up. Give her a clear physical signal - a tap on the back of the leg, say - together with a clear verbal signal ("Foot", or "Foot up"). Praise her as soon as she begins to lift the foot. Don't worry if she is so eager to lift her hind feet that you find yourself signalling "pick up the foot" when her foot is already in the air. It won't matter whether the tap or the foot-lift comes first, the important thing is to create an ASSOCIATION between the action and the signal, so that she understands that they go together. When she is cheerfully picking up her hind feet and letting you hold them up whenever you give the signal, it will be time to tackle the front feet. And don't forget that when you're ready to put her foot down, YOU should put it down, gently, toe first, saying "Foot down" or something similar. This gives her a clear signal saying "It's okay for you to put your foot down now - and I'm NOT going to DROP it, I'm putting it down very gently". She'll trust you much more if you let her know what you're doing all the time.

Now, on to the front feet. First, be SURE that the mare is standing in balance. Horses naturally carry more weight on their front ends, and as you know, young horses tend to carry proportionately more of their weight on their forelegs - that's why the first year of training is aimed at teaching the horse to carry itself and the rider without dumping even MORE weight onto their forelegs. If she is standing awkwardly, stretched out, with her hind legs spread wide apart or far behind her body or too close together - as if she were rope-walking - she will find it next to impossible to pick up a front foot and allow you to hold it. If she's leaning forward, with most of her weight over those front legs, she won't be able to lift one - she'll put herself in danger of falling over. So put her into a balanced position, with her hind feet under her hips, not out behind them, so that she'll be able to shift some weight backward. The backwards weight shift is minor, not immediately, dramatically obvious as it is when you teach a dog to sit and "shake hands", but that's a useful image to keep in your mind.

When you're ready - when you're BOTH ready (all three, if you count your assistant, the human treat-dispenser) - you should stand just next to her shoulder, facing back toward her hindquarters, and use EXACTLY the same physical and verbal signals you used when asking her to pick up her hind feet. As soon as you feel her shift her weight to the other leg - even before the foot comes up - praise her and provide a treat. Reward ANY tiny hint of the behaviour you want. If you pull and tug at her and withhold praise until she does it perfectly, she won't ever do it perfectly - or happily - or even willingly. If you reward every tiny shift of her leg, she'll keep thinking how very simple this is, how easy you are to please, and, being a normal, nice horse, she will then offer MORE of whatever pleases you.

When the foot comes up, tip the toe UP so that the sole of her foot is pointing toward the sky. If she holds it there, praise, treat, say "foot down", and put it down GENTLY. Don't hold onto her foot longer than she wants you to. If you stay within her comfort zone, you'll be able to expand it a little more each time, as she becomes more confident in her ability to understand what you want and offer it to you without losing her balance. If you start out by trying to take her outside of her comfort zone, the zone will get smaller instead of larger, and she won't want to pick up her feet at all. Go slowly, be absolutely consistent, and you'll find that as you proceed with the lessons, she'll pick up her feet higher and more quickly on lighter and lighter signals, and that she'll be able to hold them up longer, without making a fuss. The important things to teach her from the very beginning are (a) she can trust you to be clear and kind - and (b) you will NEVER drop her foot suddenly.

It sounds as though you're managing well with the water from the hose, but just in case you can use them, here are my thoughts on introducing horses to hose-baths. The hose isn't cause for alarm if you'll take your time and use some psychology along with the water. My horses are always easy to hose down, because they are introduced to the hose gradually and gently, in a field or arena where there is plenty of room to move around. I hold them loosely on a lead rope and show them the hose and the water, then begin by wetting their feet and the area just above their feet. They can move anywhere they like - as far as the leadrope will let them move - and they do move around, but not for long. If I tried to force them to stand stock-still whilst I used the hose on their legs for the first time, they would become frightened and stop thinking, but this way, they are free to move their feet and keep stepping away from the water if they choose. Since they are not being forced to stay in one place, they don't worry about being unable to get away, and since the hose isn't hurting them, and the water finds them wherever they go, they soon stop worrying about it. (I use the same system to get them comfortable with spray bottles.)

It also helps to introduce the hose and water at a good time. I wouldn't introduce a horse to a hose-bath on a cold or a windy day when the horse was nervous or agitated, or when the water might feel unpleasant. I usually wait until a very hot, sunny, summer day, and then I "forget" to put flyspray on the horses' legs. When the flies are biting and the horses are unhappy with the sensation, I bring out the hose, and most horses figure out VERY quickly that the sensation of cold water on their lower legs is a welcome, pleasant alternative to the sensation of flies biting their legs. Once they've learned to associate the water with relief and comfort, they will always have a good attitude about the hose, and I can begin to teach them how nice the water feels everywhere else (except in their ears - NEVER put the hose in a position where it can spray water into their ears). As a result, I have NO horses that worry about the hose, and one of them will actually make a pest of herself asking for a shower whenever she sees someone using the hose to fill the water tank. ;-)

Jessica

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