I am lazy. Perhaps it comes from dealing with many horses a day, over many years, but as time goes on, you tend to work smarter and not harder, and this is part of the reason I clicker train. I see many people who struggle every time they want to pick up their horse’s hooves. This makes hoof care both difficult and dangerous. Clicker training can definitely help with this issue.
Many times, horses that are reluctant to pick up their feet are not being difficult, they are simply not balanced enough to do it comfortably. Plus, people often rush horses to pick up their feet and don’t give them time to reorganize their balance.
Clicker training removes the struggle – the prying with all your might or chestnut pulling. Instead we will have the horse pick up his own hoof. Horses pick up each foot on their own many times a day so, we just need to capture and reinforce the behaviour.
Shape Your Way to Success
Shaping is one method that clicker trainers use to produce a behaviour. On my blog, www.horse-canada.com/the-pony-fairy,you will find the foundation lessons of clicker training with accompanying photos and video links. These lessons are a great place to start a relationship with a new horse, or improve a current one. They will set you both up for success with hoof handling, as you need to have some of this foundation training in place before you can teach your horse to offer to pick up his own hoof.
Notice I said teach your horse to offer his hoof. Nothing in that phrase says anything about you picking up the horse’s hoof! We are taking a very different approach with clicker training. Changing the way you approach and think about picking up hooves is an important point in shaping your horse to offer his hoof. Thinking differently makes you act differently.
Don’t Use Poisoned Cues
Perhaps now is a good time to introduce the term “poisoned cue.” A poisoned cue is one that when given doesn’t always have a positive outcome when responded to, as the outcome (good or bad) can’t be predicted. Think about having your boss say he’d like to see you in his office. For most of us, this would cause some apprehension because sometimes it means good things, but sometimes not, and we can’t tell what it will be every time.
Asking your horse to pick up his hoof can be a poisoned cue for him, just like being asked to see the boss might be for you. It could be that sometimes when he was asked to pick up a hoof he was ready and balanced, and good things happened. And other times when he was asked, he wasn’t balanced or ready, so he got jabbed or pushed to pick up his hoof. Same cue, different result. How does he know which one it will be this time? Poisoned cues lead to reluctance to perform a behaviour.
If we look at his reluctance to pick up a hoof from a balance issue, then having him offer his foot will allow him to shift his balance first. This will have great spillover effects in other areas of his training. Clicker training has this wonderful spillover effect!
Getting Your Horse to Offer His Hoof
Remember, in clicker training, like all good training, you need to break the training down into easy, small steps so the horse can be successful. It would be unrealistic to expect him to lift his foot up and hold it right from the start. It is funny, but most people in traditional training expect this. Instead, we will capture and shape successive approximations of the end behaviour that we want.
It will be to your advantage if you have your horse in a place where he is inclined to move about a bit, which could be his stall, or the barn aisle. Start with the hoof that is the least stuck to the ground. Do not bend over or assume a hoof picking up position; stand upright.
You are going to watch the side of the chest of the leg with the hoof you have decided to work on, or the stifle if it is a back leg. Why? The chest/stifle muscles will start to move before the hoof starts to come off the ground.
I actually like to start by placing my hand on the point of his shoulder. I can then feel his muscle tighten as he is getting ready to move his leg. I am not pressing or pushing on his shoulder to get him to move, I am using my hand to give me an early warning signal to his actually moving his leg by feeling the muscle contract.
At the slightest contraction of the muscle, I will click and treat. You are going to click and treat him for any slight movement of his leg that is a forward lift, a move that will eventually lead to his lifting his hoof off the ground.
If your timing of the click is good, he will quickly figure out the reward has something to do with his lifting his hoof. Simply keep reinforcing these tries, building gradually on height and duration of the lifts and you will soon have a horse that will offer you his own hoof, and he will hold it up by himself to be cleaned.
Please refer to my blog www.horse-canada.com/the-pony-fairy/hoof-care-made-easy for the video links showing just how to do this. In the blog, I will also cover additional things to train that will make you, your horse and your farrier much happier about the whole hoof trimming experience.