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Trouble with shoeing

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for this wonderful provision for horse lovers. You are so down-to-earth and perfectly frank in your helpful answers. Applause from this corner of the horse world.

My problem has to do with shoeing horses for pleasure riding. We have one horse in particular that is absolutely awful when it comes time for the farrier to do his work. He is a very patient man, and I know his job is not easy, but I still want to make it better on the horse, the farrier and myself.

The Quarter Horse mare is 14 and does not have, shall we say, excellent ground manners. She is somewhat difficult when pressure is applied to her head and a lot nearer to impossible when bridling. However, she is a *gem* under saddle. Anyway, my question is in regards to shoeing her. She is not too bad on the front feet, but when it comes to the back feet she is a terror. She does not like to have her feet picked up and messed with at all and she gets so defiant that she will rare up and come forward back down to the ground. The shoeing process takes some time, and it gets frustrating.

I have a feeling she knows she is strongly manipulating the situation. The last time the farrier came he could not even clip her back feet, let alone put shoes on them. I have noticed that she seems particularly worse with her back left foot, when it gets very high off the ground while he is working on it.

My husband recently built stocks for administering vaccinations, checking pregnant mares, etc. This mare has been in the stocks and is very comfortable with them. There is enough room for movement around her back feet without putting either the mare or a person in danger. We do not want to have to sedate her to have her shod, and we are running low on other options. Do you think it might work to try shoeing her while she is in the stocks?

We want to keep this mare as a trail horse and possibly a Western Pleasure prospect. We want to work with her, not against her, and we want to better her personality. We would like to work to correct the way a human or humans have taught her to react to situations in the past. I personally think that in many cases people can actually teach horses to have bad habits. We would like to fix this, and if the stocks aren't the solution, are there any other suggestions you have?

Thank you so much for your time. Take care! *Sharon*

Hi Sharon! Thanks for the kind words. You're probably right in your assumption that you mare has learned this behaviour. Some farriers are very rough, and a young horse badly handled by a rough farrier can be difficult to shoe thereafter, unless new owners and an understanding farrier can work together to create a new set of associations and expectations in the horse's mind.

You've actually offered a few clues to this mare's behaviour -- she's fourteen years old, she picks up her front feet more easily than her hind feet, and she's particularly defensive about her near hind foot, especially when the farrier lifts it high in the air.

Fourteen isn't old, but it's a rare fourteen-year-old horse that doesn't have some arthritic changes. And a fourteen-year-old horse is not going to be as supple and flexible as a very young animal. What do these things have to do with the shoeing problem? Possibly quite a lot.

You're going to need to work on two things: your horse's body and your horse's mind. The only way you're going to be able to convince her that having her back legs and feet handled doesn't hurt, is if you can make that statement true. And the only way you can teach her to believe you when you say "you must do this" and "you can trust me" is to make those statements true too. Generally speaking, I would start this mare's training from the ground up, beginning with haltering and leading. The horse that stands calmly and drops its nose into a halter will do the same thing with a bridle, IF it doesn't have reason to fear the bridle. If your mare is worried about being bridled, check the bridle's fit -- not just the bit, but the earpiece(s) or browband as well. And have her teeth checked too. ;-)

Now, my thoughts on what you've described:

Whenever I hear about a fourteen-year-old Quarter Horse that is utterly unwilling to allow its hind feet to be picked up, and that reacts, NOT by kicking, but by REARING, I have to wonder about the condition of the horse's front feet. Many conditions -- navicular and laminitis come to mind immediately -- make it very painful for a horse to bear weight on its front feet. A horse that refuses to pick up a hind foot may not be saying "You can't have my hind foot", it may be saying "I can't put any more weight on my front feet, they hurt too much." So that's the first thing I would do -- have the vet check her front feet!

Whenever I hear about a horse that resents having a leg held up and out, I sympathize -- if you want to see what this feels like, have someone hold one of YOUR legs in a position that you would never, ever assume on your own, and hold it there until you begin to cramp (this doesn't take long at all).

You'll find that the ONLY thing on your mind is getting that leg down, around, back into a position where it doesn't hurt.... You can learn to do the splits (say), through gradual incremental careful practice. You can't learn to do them from having another person grab your leg and pull it out straight away from you -- but you can learn to be very suspicious of any person or situation that seems to be getting close to the one that caused you so much pain. Are you still with me?

Horses can learn to hold up their legs, and to allow their legs to be held up by the farrier, but by small degrees, carefully, and only if the person handling the leg will allow the horse to take the leg back and put it on the ground periodically. Your mare's seeming overreaction, and especially with the near hind, makes me suspect that at some point, her leg has been pulled up with a rope and tied up. Imagine having a cramp and being unable to move to relieve it -- it's not a happy thought. It isn't a happy thought for the horse, either. And if she has learned to associate having her hind feet held with the pain of cramping and the fear of being immobilized (that alone can create instant terror in a horse), it may take a long time to teach her that THESE humans do things differently.

You can re-condition your mare to pick up her feet for you and the farrier, but it's going to take time.

First of all, always wear your safety helmet when you handle this mare on the ground. Rearing is very dangerous, and you don't need to put yourself at unnecessary risk.

Second, be sure that your mare is as supple and flexible as possible BEFORE you ask her to hold her legs up. Before you practice, and before the farrier works on her, turn her out, work her in the round pen, or longe her on a very large circle at walk for ten minutes and then at trot for five. If you use the round pen or longe line, remember to walk in both directions before you trot, and then trot in both directions. This will warm up her muscles so that they will be able to stretch -- which is exactly what they have to do when someone picks up and holds one of her legs. Warm muscles can stretch.

Cold ones tear -- so always warm the horse up before you ask it to stand and stretch its legs for the farrier.

Third, get some help and start teaching your mare that having her hind legs handled isn't the end of the world. With one person at her head to feed her treats, and one person picking up her feet, beginning with the front legs, you'll be able to start retraining her. Like most early training, this is going to be a matter of advance-and-retreat. Touch her on the rump, then run your hand down the leg, then move away and pause for a moment. Keep repeating this until she no longer jerks or flinches, then prolong the moment with your hand near her foot. When she is reasonable about this, put her away. The next time you take her out, do it all again, until it's boring for her and for you. ;-)

When you begin to lift her hind feet, lift each foot just barely off the ground, and stay very close to her body -- don't try to pull the leg away from her body. Tell her "foot" when you pick up the foot, and "foot DOWN" when you place the foot carefully back on the ground (never drop the foot, always place it on the ground). Again, do this until it's boring. It may take an hour, or a couple of hours over a few days, or it may take a couple of weeks -- don't begrudge the time you spend now, it will save you time later on.

When she's learned to relax and "give" her leg, you'll be able to move the feet around, shift them higher and lower, etc. Do all of it SLOWLY and GENTLY, and don't forget the praise and the treats. If someone is at her head to praise her and feed her something small -- even just a couple of raisins -- at the moment that she's doing what you want her to do, she'll learn very, very quickly because she'll understand just what she's being praised FOR. If she holds up her leg for two minutes and then begins to jerk it, and you hold on to it and say "foot" quietly until she gets quiet, then hold it for another second or two and put it down, saying "foot DOWN", and if the person at her head praises her and offers her a small treat when she holds the leg up AND when she gets calm again, she will be able to figure it out because the praise/treat will correspond with what she was doing at the moment she was given the praise/treat.

Then when this all becomes easy, it'll be time to bring in the farrier and ask for his help. Show him how you're working with her, and ask him to do the same: saying "foot" and "foot DOWN", backing off when the mare gets too worried, but always coming back, gently, when she quiets down. If you and the farrier can work together to keep the mare comfortable and relaxed, and to keep HIS attitude one of quiet, gentle persistence, you'll be able to get your mare trimmed. Have the same person stand at the mare's head with treats -- the routine should be JUST the same, with the single addition of the farrier. ;-)

Don't shoe those hind feet until you absolutely have to, because you'll need the time to teach her to accept the farrier's trimming her feet first - that's enough for the first few sessions! And frankly, if the mare has a habit of rearing, I'd be dubious about shoeing the front feet until she loses that particular habit. If she needs shoeing because her front feet are sore, that's another matter...

Wear your helmet, take your time, and always give the mare the strong, true impression that (a) you are very calm, and (b) you have all day and all night and all the next day, so there's NO hurry.

If you and your farrier are going to be safe, your mare must be re-trained.

It's going to take time and effort, but it's do-able. Have your vet check to be sure that there's nothing wrong with her physically, wear your safety helmets, and be generous with the mare, praising her for even the slightest hint of an effort, and giving her the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.


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