Ryan Gingerich - Ask the Behaviorist: Picking Up Your Horse's Feet

April 3, 2009

QUESTION: My horse is usually very good when I groom and bathe him, but the drama starts when I try to work with his hooves. When I approach his hindquarters, he sidesteps his rear away. With his front feet, he will stand still when I pick up a foot, but then he jerks his foot out of my hands and stomps it back down to the ground. He has never offered to kick or step on me, but this is very frustrating. What can I do to make this a more pleasant experience for my horse and me.

ANSWER: Let’s begin with the basics, which is to teach the horse to stand still. I won’t go into details here, but I will direct you to “Basic Control” in my program. Once you’ve achieved teaching the horse to stand still, the solutions to working with your horse’s feet will become fairly simple.

The Front Feet
In this particular case, I would suggest putting pressure on the horse’s shoulder so that he shifts his weight off the foot. When he does, release the pressure. Then pick up the horse’s front foot and put it down immediately so the horse doesn’t have a chance to snap it away and slam it down. Practice this routine, gradually adding to the amount of time you hold the foot until the horse no longer wants to pull it away from you. Do this exercise on both the left and right sides of the horse.

If the horse continues to snatch his foot away before you have a chance to put his foot down, then shorten the length of time you hold the foot. Start building up to the point where he won’t pull the foot away from you at all.

Make sure that you’re not putting the horse off balance or causing him any anxiety by picking up his foot and leg too high. The bend at the knee shouldn’t be any greater than 90 degrees.

Don’t grasp the leg tightly with your hands. Also, if you grab the horse’s toe and pull it back towards his body, you can easily compromise the animal’s circulation and cause him discomfort. This can also greatly contribute to behavioral issues. Simply cup the cannon bone with your hand, letting the leg “hang” there.

If your horse continues to be dramatic about this issue, then try this. To pick up a foot on the left side of the horse, start by draping--not looping--the lead rope over your right arm. Hold his left leg in the cannon bone area with your left hand, and at the same time put pressure on the shoulder with your right hand so that his weight shifts off the left foot.

The Hind Feet
The hind feet demand a similar approach, including the basic “stand still” lesson.

From what you described, it sounds as though you’re in a frustrating situation with not even being able to get to the foot because he’s moving his hindquarters away from you.

If the horse can’t be touched on his hindquarters or down his hind leg, rub him with a light, three-foot-long dressage whip. The long whip will help give you some distance from the horse so he can’t kick you. Rub the whip down the inside and outside of his legs, getting him accustomed to the feeling.

If necessary, enlist the help of a trusted handler, who truly knows how to handle the horse in a focused, humane way. Have the handler stand at the head of the horse and hold a dressage whip. If you’re working on the horse’s left legs, the handler should hold the whip in his outstretched in his or her left hand. The handler’s job is to keep the horse in a straight line and standing still. The dressage whip is used only as an extension of the arm and to create a physical barrier.
If you’re reaching for the left hind foot and the horse steps away from you, move away from the horse. Then allow the handler to reposition the horse by reaching out with the whip and kindly asking the horse to come back into place.

Start at the hip, stroking down the haunches and the leg all the way to the pastern with your hands before you ask for the foot. If you can’t touch the horse’s hip without his moving away, then you surely can’t pick up the foot.

Once you’ve stroked the horse from the left hip to the pastern, place your left hand on the hip and your right hand on the hock. Put pressure on the hip with your left hand, asking him to take weight off the left hind foot. Release the pressure once he cocks his foot or takes weight off it. Grasp above the hock on the gaskin muscle and bring the leg up and slightly forward, so that the leg is a little underneath the horse’s body.

As with the front foot, ask him to hold it for just a few brief moments, and then put it down. Practice this until you can hold the leg without his snatching it away from you or moving away from you. There should be no resistance at this point.

Then move your right hand down below the hock and repeat the process: Pull the leg forward, hold it, and let it down gently.

Once the horse is comfortable and not resistant, repeat the process with your hand on the horse’s cannon bone. Pull the horse’s leg up slightly, but not too high. Don’t position the leg out of place, like toward the side, and don’t cause the horse to be out of balance.

Now take the leg and make tiny circles with it, one tiny circle in each direction to start with. Then put it down.
When this becomes easy for the horse, rotate the leg a tiny bit away from the body, as though you were putting your knee up under the horse’s leg to get to the foot. Then put it gently down.

Next, move your hand to the inside of the leg and cup it in your hand. Bring the leg slightly out to the outside. This is not a normal stance for the horse, so do it gently, slowly, and in small increments. Put the leg down.
Continue the process until you can ask the horse to extend his leg behind, rather than towards, his head. Rotate the leg a bit, but not so far that he becomes uncomfortable or anxious. Keep the leg at a low level, then gently put the foot down.

If the horse threatens to kick or thrash, the handler needs to be on the same side of the horse that you are and force the horse to move away and backwards through the ‘deletion’ process (as explained in my program).
The owner needs to immediately start the lesson again: pick up the foot, put it down, pick up the foot, put it down, and so on.

Once the horse is comfortable and non-resistant, transition to the right side and hold the hind leg for a second. Let the leg down and then step toward the horse’s head. Continue the process until the horse is steady and calm with this lesson.

If your horse is really resistant initially, have him stand parallel to a fence. Stand on the other side of the fence from him and practice this process. Because the fence acts as a barrier, the horse doesn’t have many choices. He can go forwards, backwards, or kick out.

This particular horse sounds like he is doing a basic refusal, and he probably isn’t exhibiting a flight response, so kicking may not be an issue.

I think with this horse it’s a matter of spending time training him and you’ll overcome this behavioral problem. This training will not only help you but also your farrier.

From boyhood on his grandfather’s farm to his first job as an equine trail guide, Ryan Ginberich had a special relationship with horses. His desire to make horses his life’s work led him to complete a national horse training certification program, then study with one of the world’s top equine behaviorists. Years of further study helped Ryan, who is now deemed “The Behaviorist,” to develop his own training program, Connective Horsemanship. At his National Equine Behavior Center in Missouri, Ryan continues to hone and expand his knowledge, which he shares weekly on his RFD-TV show. When not at home, Ryan travels the country helping owners and their behaviorally-challenged horses. Visit Ryan’s Web site at www.ryangingerich.com.