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Hard to Shoe

From: Rita

Good morning! I'm really enjoying horse-sense and learning so much from the other questions and answers! I asked you a question last week about cribbing. I appreciated your thoughtful, thorough response. Thank you! And, of course, I have another question!

I half-lease a 13 yr old QH mare, Daisy--in McLean, VA. She and I have been riding together (and learning together) for about 14 months--I just started riding again after about a 30-year hiatus. My trainer and I are working to develop her as a hunter. She's very sweet, never mean; yet spirited, with lots of energy--and can be stubborn (I think that's a frequent QH trait). Patience is the key with her. I'm always trying to figure out how to have things that I want her to do to be HER idea, so that she moves more willingly and happily. I try to reward the SMALLEST positives.

And, I have learned that she has had some bad experiences, perhaps with previous leasers or before she arrived at this barn. I read (twice) a wonderful book by Tom Dorrance, "True Unity--Willing Communication Between Horse and Human", who encourages riders to get under the horse's skin, to begin to think like they do to figure out what motivates them. For Daisy, she seemed to be enormously AFRAID OF BEING HURT! She's very head-shy around strangers (she's great with me, now). So when the farrier came (after a recommendation from my vet to help her flat feet), she was again afraid and kept trying to pull away and yet she was never vicious. The shoes eventually got on--THIS farrier was great, but I learned later that a previous one hit her when she pulled away.

Sorry for the long story to get to my question, but I hope it gives a little insight. The farrier recommended that to get Daisy more comfortable with the shoeing process that every time I pick her hooves I should tap her on the hoof (immitating a hammer) with increasing force over time so that she becomes accustomed to it. So, I started doing that. I tap her until she pulls her foot away, then talk to her quietly to reassure her, then do it again until she accepts it. At first it seemed like it was working. Now, about 2 weeks later, she gets antsy when she knows I'm going to get near her hooves because she knows what's coming.

Should I keep doing this? Is this the best approach? Maybe she'll NEVER get used to it (just like I'll never get used to the dentist!) I don't want her to lose trust in me, yet I'd love her to learn that it won't hurt.

Thank you so much, Jessica. You're doing a great service!

Rita :-)


Hi Rita! Thank you -- I'm glad to know that you're enjoying horse-sense.

Your farrier is on the right track, and so are you, but you are going to have to be very sensitive to Daisy's reactions. This is a good way to train a horse to accept having something done to it, but you have to be careful to do it correctly, so that what you TEACH the horse is actually what you want it to LEARN.

The basic idea is that you introduce the process to the horse gradually, BEGIN to do whatever it is (tapping the hoof, in this case), do it until the horse becomes anxious, then BACK OFF, and wait a moment or two, until she is relaxed again, before you go back and repeat the process. Each time, you take it a little farther, seeing how long you can go before she gets worried -- it should take a bit longer each time, as she gets more accustomed to the process.

The change that I would suggest is this: talk to her soothingly WHILE you tap, and when she pulls her foot away, place it on the ground, stand back and SAY NOTHING. Don't pet her, don't talk, just stand there and wait until she becomes quiet again, and then start over, picking up the foot, talking to her, and giving it light taps, then making the taps harder. Again, as SOON as she pulls away, place her foot on the ground gently (never DROP a horse's foot!) stand back, and do and say NOTHING until she's quiet, then resume.

I think that what's happened with you and Daisy is that you have inadvertently taught her to "get antsy". I know you were trying to do just the opposite, but look at the situation from HER point of view: when she holds up her foot, you tap it, which may not be terrifying but isn't intrinsically enjoyable. When she begins to pull away and move around, you let her foot go, and you reassure her. To Daisy, this means that you WANT her to react this way -- after all, she's learned that whenever she does it, you reward her!

She's doing the best she can to learn, and she IS learning, but she thinks like a horse, and you're going to have to think like a horse too! Horses don't associate what you're doing or saying with what they just did -- as we humans do -- they associate it with what they are doing IN THE MOMENT. If you reassure her WHILE you are tapping, then give her NO input when her foot is on the ground, she will learn to associate the tapping with the reassurance! Right now, she associates your reassurance with her pulling away and getting her foot back onto the ground.

Start over from the beginning -- just pick up the foot, talk to her, and put it down. Then pick it up again, hold it a little longer, talk to her, and so on -- but when you put it DOWN, don't pet her and don't talk.

You don't have to tap very hard -- I train horses in this way, and I simply tap the sole of their feet with the back of my hoofpick. It makes a bit of noise -- not as loud a noise as the farrier's hammer will, but that's fine. It's really just the idea that she needs to get used to. Once she's accepted that you will sometimes hold her feet up for a short time to clean them, and sometimes hold them up for a longer time to tap them, you won't have to do it every time you clean out her feet.

Your farrier sounds wonderful -- be VERY nice to him (coffee on cold days, cold drinks on hot days, a horse with clean feet and LOTS of flyspray). If you can be there to hold your horse while he works on her, at least for the next few times, that would be a good idea. You can have a pocketful of treats, and give them to her when she is standing quietly.

Another thing that can make a big difference is getting to the barn before the farrier arrives, and giving your horse some exercise. Free-school her in the arena, or longe her, or ride her. You are NOT trying to make her tired, but you do want her muscles warm -- even fifteen minutes of walking will make a big difference. When a horse comes out of its stall and is stiff, it can find it physically uncomfortable to have to hold each leg up for the farrier. If you can warm your horse up and let her stretch and play a little, THEN ask her to stand for the farrier, she will be more comfortable physically and mentally.

Good luck! Let me know how it works out.

- Jessica

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