Written by: Anne Gage

Anne Gage offers tips for teaching your horse to pick up his feet.

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My horse really doesn’t like to pick up his hind feet. What can I do to make it easier to pick his hooves out?

If your horse isn’t picking up his feet, the first thing to figure out is why. The most common reasons I see when working with horses are lack of, or improper training, fear, pain or discomfort.

It’s important to remember that as prey/flight animals, horses are naturally worried about having their feet restrained in any way. So, all training requires patience and empathy that builds trust and allows the horse feel safe.

If your horse used to willingly pick up his hind feet and not lifting them up easily is a change in behaviour, it’s possible that he recently had a negative or painful experience. Or picking up his feet has become uncomfortable or painful due to joint, muscle or foot pain. If this is the case, eliminate any possible sources of pain or discomfort before beginning to re-train your horse to pick up his feet.

In all training, patience and consistency are key for long-term success and building a positive partnership with your horse. Avoid looking for quick fixes or using aversive methods. Instead, establish these foundations:

1. Safety and comfort. Both you and your horse need to feel calm. Work with him in a place where he is relaxed, so that he can stand quietly and you won’t be distracted.

If you tie your horse, use a quick release clip or knot and allow him to stand (poll level with withers).

2. Balance. In order to lift a foot easily, your horse must be standing balanced with his weight evenly distributed on all four feet, his shoulders and hips aligned with each other. Practice this posture every time you groom him. Calmly re-establish this level, balanced frame whenever he changes it. Encourage him to lower his neck without force (no pulling or pushing) by gently rocking his head side to side (to loosen his poll) with a slight downward pressure on the cross-ties, lead rope or directly on the check pieces of his halter.

If your horse is very anxious or excited, he may not be able to maintain this posture for longer than a few seconds.

3. Comfort with touch. Pay attention for signs of tension as you gently stroke your horse all over his body. Big signs include ear pinning, air biting, clamped or swishing tail, high head, head bobbing quickly up and down, threatening to kick. Subtler signs include holding his breath, not blinking, tight mouth, tense muscles and moving away from you. As soon as you notice any of these signs, stop touching him, encourage him back into a calm frame, then start gently stroking him again where he was most comfortable with being touched going more slowly into a new area. Always return to where he is most comfortable at any sign of tension.

Handling The Foot

Rather than thinking of “picking up” your horse’s foot, think of asking him to lift it so that you can then support it. He gives you the foot rather than you taking it.

Stand beside your horse (facing toward his tail) at a slight angle to him so that you’re neither facing directly toward him nor perpendicular to him. Place your nearest hand at the top of his leg then gently slide it down the back of his leg and around to the inside until your hand is at his pastern. Keep a consistent, light pressure. No gripping.

As your hand moves down his leg, bend your knees and keep balanced over both feet with slightly more weight on your back foot. This stance protects your back from strain, allows you to move quickly out of the way if necessary, and avoids pulling on the leg.

If, once your hand is at his pastern, your horse does not shift his weight off his foot, use the fingernails of the same hand to gently scrape upwards along the inside of the cannon bone.

Do not try to lift his foot. Wait for him to lift his foot on his own. You may only get a weight shift at first. Reward this effort by releasing his leg and offering a scratch or treat.

Repeat several times if necessary. If your horse still does not shift his weight or pick up his foot, gently rock your shoulder into his upper leg – rocking on and off.

When your horse lifts his foot, hold and support the fetlock and hoof with both hands. Do not attempt to lift his leg up. Simply support it an inch or so off the ground, keeping the natural alignment of the leg so the joints are not stressed.

After a second or two, lower the foot and gently place it on the ground. Do not drop it. Reward your horse.

Gradually increase the height and the length of time you hold the foot up, paying attention to your horse’s comfort level.

Short and frequent training sessions are the most effective (e.g. two or three five-minute sessions spread out over a day). Don’t rush the process or leave out any steps. Remember patience, empathy and consistency are key to creating long-term behavioural change and building a positive partnership with your horse.

As a clinician, riding coach, horse trainer and certified professional coach and author, Anne Gage focuses on the mental and physical aspects of both horse and rider so you can be calm, confident and connected – together. Visit confidenthorsemanship.com to learn more.