RESPECT – Learning to Pick Up Feet
Learning to politely pick up a foot when requested is an essential part of the young horse’s training and should be done regularly from birth. However, there are some youngsters who miss out on this early training. Some youngsters are born and bred outside, living in mini herds, which is all very nice except that when they are weaned and sold on to future owners they are completely ignorant of what is required of them.
Leading in hand is usually the first thing taught, followed by lungeing, backing and riding away. Incredibly the feet are sometimes neglected. I have had one horse brought to my yard as a three year old Warmblood imported from Holland, who had supposedly been backed and ridden away, but it was almost impossible to pick up this horse’s feet and his feet were unshod and extremely long. His owners were under the impression that this was unimportant and that he would lift his feet up when he was good and ready. To me this appeared an appalling state of affairs, since his feet needed urgent farriery attention, not to mention the fact that they were packed full of debris which had been there for a very long time. The health implications of this were obvious; infection and/or damage from the altered hoof/pastern axis were only a breath away.
Every time the owners tried to lift a foot the horse either refused to pick it up or snatched it away, and the owners immediately gave up. I believe that the handler should hold onto the foot if at all possible, moving with the horse as he moves and wait for him to find his balance and stand on three legs. Once the horse realises that it is quite possible to stand still on three legs and does so for a few seconds, then the handler can slowly release the leg to the ground and give much praise. Unfortunately in the case mentioned the owners would not take my advice, saying that they did not wish to stress the horse, so every time he snatched the foot away or moved at all, they let go. The result of this has been that several years on he is extremely difficult to shoe, regularly rears with the farrier and more than one farrier has refused to shoe him.
Teaching a horse to lift his feet up does not have to be stressful. To begin with the youngster should be familiar with the handler running the hands gently but firmly down each leg, not necessarily asking for the foot to be lifted. This should be done several times a day, ideally in the early days after foaling, but the principle still applies at whatever age.
Lifting the Front Feet
When beginning to lift the feet, it’s best to start with a front foot. Speak reassuringly to the horse and stand facing the tail, say on the left hand side. Run your hand down his neck and shoulder, and then down the leg to the fetlock. On reaching the fetlock joint gently put some of your body weight onto the horse to encourage him to take weight off that limb. Be careful not to do this too harshly, just a small weight shift is enough; you don’t want to unbalance him. Using your left hand gently but firmly lift up the fetlock joint, or fetlock hair if he has any, at the same time saying ‘up’. Then take hold of the foot at the toe with your right hand. Less weight will fall on your arm if you hold the foot at the toe rather than the pastern. Hold this position for a couple of seconds (holding the foot in both hands). Then slowly lower it to the floor again. Do not suddenly let go which may well unbalance and frighten the horse.
Lifting the Hind Feet
After verbally reassuring the horse, stand next to his hip, facing the tail. Place your left hand which is nearest to the horse (we will again assume you are on the left side), on his quarters. Run your hand down the back of his leg to the hock. Then put your hand on the front of the hock and run it down the inside of the cannon bone down to the fetlock. Give the command ‘up’ as before and if the horse does not comply gently ease a little weight towards him to encourage him to move his weight away from that leg. As with the front legs, be careful not to overdo this weight transference and do not do it suddenly. Move the joint slightly backwards when the horse raises his foot. Slide your left hand down to encircle the foot, holding it at the toe with your right hand. Do not lift it high nor take it far back. Both these actions could seriously upset and unbalance the horse. Hold the foot for a few seconds before gently replacing it on the ground.
Obviously the hind feet can be more dangerous, as some horses, if frightened, will kick out. If you suspect this to be the case then it is best to concentrate on the front feet for a few days. When he is really at ease with picking up the front feet, he should then be much more relaxed with the hind feet. It is worth noting that the closer you stand to the hind limb when picking up, the less momentum the horse has if he should kick out.
This is a job for a relatively young and agile person. If you are at all stiff or arthritic you won’t be able to move around with the horse whilst holding the leg, if he dances away on three legs, and more importantly you may not be able to jump out of the way quickly enough if he does kick out.
If the horse does kick at first; it is not always because he is being nasty or naughty, it could just be that he is afraid. It is difficult at first for a young horse to learn to balance on three legs, and may be a frightening experience if he has been shouted at or even hit in the past. But persistence and quiet determination will usually win the day. When the horse realises that you are not going to give up the moment he shows resistance, and that when he lifts his foot, he doesn’t have to keep it up for too long, he will start to relax about the procedure and gradually he will be better able to balance on three legs, and the time that the leg can be held up will increase, as will his ability to balance.
It may be helpful if the horse can be encouraged to relax and enjoy this training by a helper offering a tit-bit – bribery normally works wonders. But be careful not to reward him for bad behaviour. Give him the tit-bit when he has lifted the leg. Some horses who have developed the habit of kicking can have their minds completely taken off what is going on by being given a bucket of feed by a helper. The bucket needs to be at shoulder height; if it were on the floor the horse would not be able to stand on three legs successfully.
Some horses are so stressed by the process of having their feet attended to by the farrier that they need to be sedated by a veterinary surgeon for it to be done in a manner which is safe for the farrier as well as the horse. This sad state of affairs is usually because of bad training and/or a bad experience, such as a nasty, impatient person unnecessarily hitting the horse. Thankfully most farriers are very patient, yet calm, persistent and determined, so in my experience it is not normally the farrier to blame. Obviously sedation is a last resort; not only does it involve a great expense for the owner, but unnecessary sedations are definitely not good for the horse. It is possible that after one or maybe two sedations, with good training and handling in between, the horse will then become calm enough to have his feet attended to without sedation. This should definitely be the goal, and it is the responsibility of the owner/trainer to prepare the horse as much as possible for the farrier.
As in all horse training, respect is a two way street. The trainer must respect, and be sensitive to, the horse’s feelings of fear or discomfort and make allowances for previous bad experiences. However, this should not mean acceptance of complete lack of discipline and reasonable co-operation on the part of the horse. The horse must also respect the handler. Calm, firm, yet patient determination is what is required of the trainer. With a previously traumatised horse even the slightest sign of co-operation should be praised and can then be slowly built upon. It is the trainer’s job to instil into the horse a feeling of complete trust, secure in the knowledge that everything he is asked to do is in his own best interests, even though it may be a little difficult or strange at first.
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org