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Foal meets farrier

From: Paula

Dear Jessica, my mare's first foal (and mine too) was born at the end of February. He is so sweet and cute and just a total delight. On your advice (not to me personally but from the HORSE-SENSE archives) I had him gelded when he was just a few weeks old. My vet was very happy to do this and said I had more sense than 99% of his clients, which made me very happy too. You and my vet both said the recovery would be fast, and it was so fast that it didn't seem to bother Gunner at all! Thank you. Gunner is such a wonderful, laid-back little guy. I've just been enjoying the heck out of him. My vet said that I should plan to have the farrier come out and trim Gunner's little hooves before he is three months old, so I've called my farrier and made an appointment for Gunner and his Mom to get trimmed at the same time. My vet also said "get him ready" for the farrier, and I'm not sure what that means or how to do it. When I asked him he just said "You know, just handle him, get him used to it." I thought if I started right now, we could be ready by the time the farrier comes out on May 15th.

Here's what I've done with him so far. I touch him all over and run my hands down his legs whenever I'm in their pasture or shed with them (he and his Mom have a two-acre pasture with a shed). He's pretty good about it. I've picked up his front feet a couple of times but I'm not sure if I'm doing it right. They're so little!! I don't want to hurt him. I haven't tried to pick up a back foot because he is pretty quick to kick out when he's not happy. How can I get him ready so that the farrier will like him and he will like the farrier?


Hi Paula! You've done very well with Gunner, and you still have plenty of time to get him ready for the farrier. By teaching him to accept handling all over, including his legs, you've taken the first step. Now you just need to continue.

When you work with Gunner, don't tie him up - he's far too young to be tied, and he could panic and hurt himself badly. Instead, you can ask someone else to hold him, and you might want to tie up his mother nearby. If she's standing there calmly, he isn't likely to try to run away, and he won't become worried about where she is. Letting her stand nearby without tying her is also a possibility, but it's riskier - if she decided to wander around the corner of the shed in search of a little wisp of hay that blew away, the foal might think that he needed to follow her, and if you said "No", you could end up having an upset foal on your hands. Eventually, you'll be able to take Gunner off by himself to have the farrier or vet work on him, but for now, keep him calm and quiet and with his mother.

Standing next to Gunner, pet him, scratch his withers, and begin moving your hand slowly down his leg. Don't be tentative or too light - you don't want to tickle him or annoy him. Foals usually appreciate a good scratch on the withers and a good scratch just above the tail, so start with that and then work your way down the front and hind legs.

When you get to the foot, be sure that Gunner is standing in good enough balance that he won't fall over when you pick up a foot. Foals can put their legs into amazingly pretzel-like configurations, so begin your handling routine when he's reasonably balanced.

Move slowly and deliberately, and when you pick up each foot, talk to Gunner, tell him what you're doing and why, and tell him when you're about to put his foot down. Don't drop the foot - and don't let him kick it out or down. Tell him "foot", pick up and hold the foot, then tell him "foot down" or "put it down", and place his foot on the ground.

With hind feet, do the same thing - begin with a hand on his rump, take it down his leg slowly, and pick up the foot slowly. He needs to understand and accept that for the moment, YOU are in charge of that foot - and he also needs to be relaxed about the idea and the process. Keep your hips and upper thigh VERY close to his hindquarters. and keep his leg and foot right next to your leg. This will help him stay balanced and keep him from thinking about kicking out - and if he DOES get worried and try to kick out, you might get bumped, but you'll be too near him to get kicked. On the other hand, if you try to hold his hind foot high and far behind him, you'll be asking for a kick, and you'll be in a prime position to GET kicked...

Which brings me to a couple of "don'ts". Don't take his foot up very high, or try to pull it away from his body. The higher his foot is lifted, the more unsteady his balance will be, the more worried he will get, and the more likely it is that he will try to move. At first, lift the feet just barely off the ground. As he becomes more familiar with the routine, you can lift them a little higher and then a little higher - keep expanding his "comfort zone", but always keep him inside that zone.

The same idea applies to the length of time you hold each foot. Three of four seconds will do at first - the idea is to teach him that he has no reason NOT to cooperate. Pick up the foot, count to five, tell him "foot down", put it down. No worries, no fuss, no problem. As he becomes more familiar with the whole idea, and learns how to balance his weight more easily on the other three legs, you'll be able to hold the foot up longer. Ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds... take your time, don't be in a hurry, build up the "holding time" slowly. You could add five seconds each time - but you'll be more effective if you add two seconds each time and do the foot-holding exercise more often.

Watch Gunner's reactions and let them tell you what you should do next. If he is clearly accepting and a little bored with having each foot held for twenty seconds, try twenty-five, then thirty, etc. If he is clearly on the edge of becoming nervous and jerking his foot away from you when you hold it for twenty seconds, go back to fifteen seconds and build back up to twenty, then build the "holding time" by adding just a couple of seconds. "Bored but polite" is the reaction you want. ;-)

When you're able to hold his foot for twenty or thirty seconds, add the hoofpick to the routine. If he's calm, you'll be able to clean out his feet and get him in the habit of accepting the feel and sound of the pick. If you have one of those nifty hoofpicks with the brush on the other side, so much the better, you can get him used to both implements.

When this is easy to do with all four of Gunner's feet, and he's learned to allow you to lift his feet higher and hold them long enough to clean them slowly and put them down gently, you can add still another sensation: use the side or back (depending on the design) of the hoofpick to tap the bottom and sides of his hooves. Gunner won't need shoes for years yet, and if he's lucky enough to have really good feet, he might never need them at all, but it's still a good idea for him to learn that tapping sounds and vibrations won't hurt him.

Just do a few gentle taps at first - let him show you how he's going to react. Sometimes relaxed, sleepy foals that don't mind anything else will suddenly wake up and say "WHAT!" when you begin tapping their hooves, so do a little at a time, pay attention to his reaction, and increase the tapping when he's relaxed about the idea. By the time you're doing this, it should be easy for both of you - after so much practice, you should be very good at this "gradual desensitization" approach.

Last but not least, when your farrier comes out, have him trim the mare's feet first so that your foal can watch and see for himself that Mom is fine with this whole process. Then remind him that it's Gunner's first time, and tell him - and show him - exactly what you've been doing with Gunner's feet. He'll probably want to see Gunner standing and perhaps walking around for a moment, and then he'll look at the feet. He may do nothing but give each hoof a few strokes with the rasp - and indeed, that may be all that Gunner needs. Or, if the ground has been very soft, Gunner may need to have a little bit of his hoof growth removed with small hoof-nippers. Either way, your farrier is going to want to make the experience as gentle and pleasant as possible for the foal. After all, he's going to be trimming Gunner for years to come, and this first trim will help establish their relationship. If he gives Gunner a scratch on the withers and rump, or possibly a treat, that will help begin a friendship - but what will matter most is the way he handles Gunner's feet.

Before your farrier leaves, ask him if there are other things you could be doing with Gunner to make him even better about standing to have his feet trimmed. He may have all sorts of useful suggestions - and he'll appreciate the fact that you are planning to train your young foal in a way that will make his job easier and more pleasant.

If Gunner's mother is calm and relaxed about all of this, she'll help you. If she is standing right there, calm, bored, and accepting, whilst the farrier works on her hooves and then on Gunner's hooves, you'll have an extra advantage in getting Gunner's relationship with the farrier off to a good start.

It sounds to me as though you're giving your foal a wonderful start in life - congratulations on your good sense and good management.


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