The following question came through the Ask Anne page on my website. Difficulty handling feet is a common issue with horse owners.
“My mare has always had a problem standing for her feet to be done. She moves all around and yesterday even broke her halter from the cross ties. She grabs her foot right out of your hand. People say I have to hit her and be more assertive. I have tried yelling and smacking her belly. I can’t beat her. Now the people at the barn want to use a chain on her lip. HELP! I see fear in her eyes.”
Your instinct to not want to beat your mare is correct. Imagine being fearful about going to the dentist and then having someone yell at you and/or hit you because you don’t want to go. Would that make you feel more calm or more stressed about going?
When a horse does not want her feet to be handled, it is not “bad” behaviour – it is due to fear and/or lack of trust. Horses are flight animals and having a foot held goes completely against their nature. It takes a great deal of trust for a horse to willingly give you her foot.
You mention that she has “always had a problem standing for her feet to be done” and now the behaviour is getting worse rather than better. Doing what you have always done will not improve the situation. Now there is a pattern that she expects bad things to happen when someone picks up her foot and people are proving her right by getting more aggressive and forceful with her. Her experience has become that having her feet touched is definitely a bad thing.
The best way to help your mare is to build her trust and comfort level about having her feet handled. This is a process that will take time, consistency and patience.
In horses, frame of body equals frame of mind. By shaping your mare’s body into a calm frame – that is, head low and body bent around you – you can help minimize her stress. She will feel mentally and physically calmer. Once you are able to encourage her into this shape, then you begin stroking her leg – use a whip to extend your reach if she might strike out. Start at her shoulder and gradually make your way down her leg. If she gets stressed and loses the calm frame, stop what you are doing until you bring her back into the low head & body bent around you shape. Begin again stroking her shoulder and then slowly moving down her leg. If she gets stressed, go back to where she was comfortable with the touch. By bringing her into the calm shape, she will begin to associate the touch with feeling good. Only when she is ok with having her leg and foot stroked with your hand AND she stays in the calm shape on her own do you ask her to lift her foot.
When you do ask her to pick up her foot, make sure her weight is shifted off that leg a bit so she is balanced on the opposite fore and the same side hind leg. That means, if you want her to pick up her right front foot, her weight must be balanced on her left front and right hind. At first, you just ask her to lift it an inch or two off the ground and then place it back down right away. Make sure you are not pulling her leg out to the side at all. Keep it lined up straight under her shoulder. As she gets more comfortable having her foot lifted, gradually extend the length of time you are holding the foot up and the height you are lifting it. You are aiming to get to a count of 10 seconds.
If you take the time to work with your mare this way, she will eventually give you her foot rather than you having to “take” it.If you would like to help spread the word about a better way to work with horses, please share this blog with 5 friends, send a Tweet or post on your Facebook page. The horses thank you. You are welcome to use this article in your newsletter or blog as long as you include my credit information: Written by Anne Gage, Confident Horsemanship (www.annegage.com). I would also appreciate it if you’d send me a copy for my media files. Anne Gage Confident Horsemanship www.annegage.com www.facebook.com/ConfidentHorsemanship www.twitter.com/AnneGage