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Horse Problem - Foot Handling Problems - Horse tries to kick when asked for back feet



Training String

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QUESTION: I've recently purchased an 8-year-old quarter horse mare for my daughter. I've learned from the past owner that she had never been shod. The mare stands quietly for her front feet to be cleaned and handled and shod but will try to walk on you if you try to handle the back feet. She actually tries to kick the farrier and will not stand still. I am able to brush her back legs from top to bottom without any problems. Only when I have a hoof pick in my hand, she tries to step or kick. She is really a lovable horse and loves to be petted. I just need some advice on how to get her to give her back feet.
REPLY: Your horse simply needs to be taught how to hold her feet up and there's a right way to do that and I'll teach you how here. Your horse simply does not understand how to pick up her back feet on cue. Let me lesson you here how we do that. And it's about: proper desensitizing for a start.

Feet desensitizing to being picked up: I often use the end of my 12-foot lead rope which is attached to the horse's natural horsemanship halter, if the problem isn't too bad. If the problem is quite serious, it's better to use a separate rope or training string for such serious foot handling problems. I carry around with me at all times when training something called a "training string," that comes in handy for sooooo many things, including for this purpose: working with horses to learn to pick up their feet. It has a loop on the end, so it can be used in a multitude of ways (i.e., you can run one end of the training string through the loop if needed). The training string is made up of soft, yet strong, yacht braid material. It has a leather popper at one end and a looped end at the other. The uses for this tool are literally endless! Small enough to stuff in a pocket. To check out or purchase this training string online on my web store: CLICK HERE

I first desensitize them to the rope or training string, rubbing it all around the leg loosely. With one hand (which also contains the lead near the head) stroking the horse while the other tosses the rope to coil around and touch the leg, the horse knows I'm not asking anything of them (because I'm stroking at the same time), but only asking them to just tolerate the rope toss/touching for a start. When the horse can handle that well, next, I'll then weave it around the leg and get them used to the rope running all around the leg, up and down, inside, all around, as I hold both ends & gently "saw" it back and forth & up and down there. Once the horse is okay with that, then I get them used to having those feet picked up with the rope, using pressure & release. This way, if they flail or kick at any point there, I can hang onto the rope, and ONLY release when they go softer there, not release at the kick, which happens if you try to pick up a problem foot with just your hands; you have to let go there to keep from getting hurt. However...via that release at the wrong time, you just released for a kick, and therefore, you literally taught the horse to kick there. All horses learn from the release of pressure what it is they can/should do/what you want, not the pressure itself. Giving the release at the wrong time teaches the wrong behavior.

So, using the rope or training string to reteach that, you have one hand holding the lead rope near their head, so they can't move off, and the other hand holds the two ends of the rope/training string that is now resting around the lower foot, just above the hoof (or I'm holding the end of the 12' foot lead rope wrapped around the leg if I've gone that route there). But as you apply forward pressure there to ask for the foot with the rope, break it down into baby steps, releasing incrementally for smallest tries, slightest positive changes there, climbing that relearning curve very slowly. Many, many releases for right baby-step incremental answers, repetitively, gets you there faster. Don't be so goal oriented in that lesson at first, to try to get the whole foot up, and holding it up for too long, when the opposite works better: give the foot back quickly after every baby give and before the horse asks for it, and you get there quicker. This means even releasing for the weight shift at first as the horse readies himself for picking up the foot. Repeat: release for smallest try, slightest change.

And I would get this problem fixed before asking a farrier to come in again, or he'll potentially set the horse back perhaps with his negative reactions and the horse will associate the farrier visit with pain or stress or too much pressure when she simply does not understand and you've then got an ugly cycle going.

Once the horse can pick up the feet softly, consistently and hold them up voluntarily for brief seconds, using the rope (pressure/release), many repetitions, then I'll ask for the foot to stay up a little longer, like 5 seconds, then release if the horse remained softly complying there. Many repetitions of that. Then, if all goes well there, I'll ask for the foot to remain up for 10 seconds, then release if the horse complied well there. Many repetitions. And so on. Until the horse holds the foot up with the rope around it, for as long as I ask.

Note: sometimes in this retraining lesson, the horse will lean all their weight on you (on the rope) with that leg, after they lift the foot. You never want to release for that. You don't want to be teaching a horse that we hold the foot up and that they can lean all that leg weight on us (they're heavy!!), but they must hold the foot up with their own muscles. Release for that only and the horse will sort it out.

At this point I will usually introduce my hand in there, but still, right along with the rope, so that if they jerk the foot away with my hand there, I've got the rope as backup to contain the foot and not give a release for the foot jerking, but only release when they give me softness again in the leg. (Keep a safe distance if/when the horse starts to kick; step back a safe enough distance, but hold the rope pressure steady and don't release until the kicking episode ends or pauses, THEN release right at that leg relaxed point).

With my first hand introduction, I will stroke the leg softly and give the horse a pleasureful leg massage, so that the experience is highly positive. Most horses love leg massages as much as we do once they are ready for them. Then I set the foot back down. Pause, stroke, reward. Repeat. Many times. Before long, the horse is picking up the foot with the mildest pressure ask with the rope, begging for the leg massage. At this point, I introduce my hand slapping/smacking the bottom of the foot so the horse can begin to get accustomed to what the farrier will need to be doing there. Then I set it down softly. Always set a foot down softly, never dropping it. You want to teach the horse to set the foot down very softly, not slam it down, to keep us and farriers the safest we can be. If you can set the foot down cocked on the toe, all the better; that's a relaxed-horse foot stance they understand well and something you want to encourage continually.

Once the horse can handle my hand slapping the bottom, THEN I'll introduce the hoof pick and tapping with the pick, before setting it down. Again, many short repetitions of this and giving the foot back before the horse asks for it will get you farther faster. Keep remembering: the horse learns from the release of pressure what it is you want, so release often when the horse is doing things right, rather than waiting too late and it falls apart. And the horse will extend longer and longer holding up her leg willingly if you go that route. Before long, the horse will hold the foot up for as long as you like, to do whatever work is needed, and then will set it back down softly when you give it back to her.

I like to use my "training string" for that lesson if the problem is bad enough (otherwise, I'll just use the end of my 12' lead rope that's already handy there attached to the NH halter on the horse. And what I like about the training string is: if the kicking is bad enough and I can't hold it with the two rope ends looped around the leg, I'll simply then run one end of my training string through the loop on the other end of it, draw it snugly around the foot above the hoof; and often I'll put on leather gloves at this point so I've got a better grip and can't get rope burned. Then...I'll start small, asking with pressure, releasing for the smallest try, slightest change in the right direction, and build up from there. By this point, if the horse kicks or flails with that leg suddenly, I can better hold out there because I've got a longer line now, gloves for gripping better/safer, (and the head/lead contained so the horse can't move away/or I can pull the head over towards me if I need to, to move the hind quarters away if ever needed in emergency), and I then hold out until the kicking stops THEN I release, pet/stroke, reward. This way, kicking stops working for them!

Incidentally, my DVD set, the Whispering Way 12-Step Total Training System, shows in detail visually how to fix foot handling problems. You can check out/order here: CLICK HERE

Teaching or reteaching foot lifting is about feel and timing. If you can reward for smallest tries, slightest changes in the right direction (with releases and lots of strokes and praise), and a lot of them, slowly, incrementally, the horse gets there better, faster, and for good. And don't let the horse bolt away if it ever falls apart, if you went too far, too fast accidentally. Keep control of the lead rope at all times and pull the horse's head into you if/when needed at such times (that pushes the more dangerous hindquarters away from you). And stop and bond on the horse a lot!! Finger in corner of her mouth feathering her tongue to get her working her mouth (relaxes a horse), head down (also relaxes a horse), rub face, "bring her back down." Your horse needs help coping with her irrational feelings. Stop at those times and reconnect emotionally, bonding, A LOT. Personally: I don't think you can bond too much, especially in such a retraining lesson. Here are deeper bonding techniques:

Tip: when asking for each foot with the rope, you want your pressure-pull to be forward, not sideways or back. This encourages the horse to bend the knee naturally and hold the foot up all by herself.

Not until the horse allows the feet to be picked up easily with rope and my hands together, consistently, rationally, do I ever think about doing it with just my hands alone (because I never want to be put in a situation where I'm forced to release with my hands for the kick!! Don't want to be rewarding wrong behavior with a release!). And that might then mean: all hoof picking sessions for a while as well as the first or next farrier visit, I'll help out by keeping that rope draped around the foot (like "training wheels") while the farrier trims, so I can be there for back up reinforcing to not allow a release for the kicking. Get it? Going this route, the horse stops getting releases for kicking and starts to refile that it's okay to give up that leg (usually a back leg I'm talking about that you will have the most problems with, but indeed in some horses it's the front, and the same retraining method works for either/both).

There is usually no way a horse can get that foot away from me if/when I'm holding it with a rope, if I've baby-stepped them to get there. They can flail all they want with it suddenly, but I hold out not giving the release UNTIL they pause for a second there, THEN I release, stroke, reward. Get finger in the horse's mouth, drop head, bond, to relax them. Then repeat. Sometimes it takes gloves and my longer strung-thru itself training string so I have a safer length of rope to do it, but that's how the tougher ones get there.

I had to retrain recently a former race horse with this sudden problem. He had sustained a back leg injury and was forced a lot during the treatment of that back leg, which created a massive kicking problem back there. But once healed, they called me in to retrain him to pick up that foot, and that's indeed the route I went. Gloves, longer training string & all, but baby steps. Very important to start off with baby steps, rewarding with a release first for just the proper weight shift as the horse preps there. And subsequent baby steps. And yes, he flailed at times as we climbed that curve higher, but....with gloves and longer training string and good control of his lead rope/head so he couldn't go anywhere, I could hold out any kicks he wanted to do there, and then release when he'd let down briefly/soften the leg. Timing is everything there! Real quick release timing for that "soft spot." That retraining lesson took about an hour, but he got there; now anyone can pick that foot up okay, even with just hands. Had no idea how long that lesson would run, but he was long overdue for a farrier trim so I was willing to stick it out as long as it took with his serious problem. He got there. Most don't take that long in one lesson to get there, but his was quite a serious problem with that horse since he'd filed anyone fooling with his back leg as something painful. Point is: one lesson done right ("long way is the short way" as we say in NH) and he's there for good. But it's about quick release timing for incremental right answers and lots of bonding/reward every time they get it right. :-)

I'd also like to direct you to a good link on Willis Lamm's (wild horse expert) site that has a great article on schooling the horse to stand still for the farrier if the horse moving around is a problem:

You can use that exercise that Willis teaches there after you have taught your horse to pick up her feet easily & softly as I have described above. But do it in that order so that she is taught fairly and understands what picking up her feet when asked is all about in the first place. Try all that and you should be able to get on top of that problem.

Incidentally, I show this retraining for foot handling problem lesson briefly on another place on my site, where I'm reteaching an actual food handling problem horse to pick up the feet here:

Hope this helps and good luck to you there!

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