There are 3 key steps to getting your horse to cooperate willingly in care they are not keen on.
I’m going to use the example of hoof trimming because I struggled with this for years before I found a different way to explain what I wanted and it was tough for all of us. In my experience, wrestling with a horse to get them to pick up a hoof and hold it for trimming is a recipe for exhaustion, injury and a bad mood!
Thankfully we have moved on from those days. Here are the 3 key steps that I discovered:
1 – Make it easy for the horse.
Like, ridiculously easy. As. Easy. As. Possible.
For our hoof trimming example, we can help the horse stand still by picking a location where they are completely relaxed and comfortable. Have their horse friends nearby and give them a haynet so they have something to do. Eating will also help them relax. If they are unable to relax enough to eat then this is a good indicator that they are not relaxed enough for hoof trimming and we need to find somewhere they can be relaxed.
We can make the hoof lifting easy by holding the hoof low to the ground and only asking them to lift it for short periods of time.
If the horse is struggling to hold the hoof up for trimming, to begin with start at a point the horse can offer easily, this might be 2 minutes or 5 swipes with the rasp, watch your horse to see what is relevant to them. Then gradually increase the amount you ask for in tiny increments, to slowly shape the behaviour of standing still with the hoof up for trimming.
Regularly rotating between the hooves during the trim can also help by giving them a break from having to hold the same leg up.
Shorter, more frequent sessions will help your horse learn and help keep you both from getting stressed. Consider limiting the session by just doing 2 hooves per session, and/or setting a time limit. It’s far better to finish off the trim another day, than to undo your training by continuing on if your horse has had enough. (Trust me, I learned this one the hard way!)
2 – Make it fun for the horse.
The best way to make it fun for your horse is to use positive reinforcement to explain to your horse when they have done something you like. You will get more of the behaviour that is reinforced (rewarded), so it is a great way to encourage your horse to offer the leg and hold it up calmly for trimming. I like to use a pan on the ground in front of the horse and drop chaff or treats into it when my horse is standing calmly with her hoof on the stand.
If you need to teach your horse how to participate in trimming, then using positive reinforcement will make it much easier to shape the behaviour of hoof lifting and holding for trimming, because it gives the horse a clear ‘yes’ when they do the right thing. It is far easier for your horse to repeat something they got right, than to try and guess at what you want when all they know is that something about the last few things they did was wrong.
Positive reinforcement not only helps your horses learn what you want them to do, but it also improves your relationship and both of your emotional states when training. If you are new to positive reinforcement training, it is safest to get an experienced trainer to help you get started with simpler behaviours before tackling something like hoof handling.
In the video my horse Evita receives some chaff to munch on whilst her hoof is on the stand.
3 – Give the horse a say
Allowing our horses to have control over when a procedure starts and stops gives them back some control over what is happening to their bodies and helps them to relax and trust the process. Have you ever had a medical professional poke and prod at you without telling you what they are about to do or when it will end? Urgh! It’s horrible! We want to avoid that!
This is quite a shift away from the conventional thinking that the horse must obey, so can be a bit to get your head around if, like me, you have been previously taught that the horse must give the foot when we ask, for as long as we want. However, when we motivate our horse to participate by using positive reinforcement, it is not as session ending as you might think to give them the option to control when they start and stop the hoof lift. If you are looking for true cooperation from your horse, then I invite you to explore giving the horse control over whether he gives the hoof, and how long for.
When we train with positive reinforcement, it is easy to train the horse to offer the hoof without us having to pull or tap on their leg or even touch them at all. You can see Evita offering her hoof to a point cue in the video below. Part of this training is that the only consequence if they don’t lift the hoof is that they don’t get a treat. This teaches them that it is safe to not offer the hoof. By training this way, we know that when they do offer the hoof, then they are ready for us to start. Similarly, if they usually lift the hoof but one day they don’t, it is a clue that something isn’t right and a signal to double check they are relaxed and comfortable and investigate whether they have any soreness in their body somewhere that could be causing them to not want to lift that hoof.
Holding up a hoof can not only be physically demanding, but it can also be stressful as with their hoof up and held, a horse is far less able to run away from danger and some horses can be frightened by this and find it very difficult to cope with.
We can make it easier for our horses by giving their hoof back if they ask for it by wiggling. If our horse learns that they can always get their hoof back if they need it then they are much more likely to trust us to have it in the first place and this confidence will help them relax. It will also mean they always ask for their hoof back ‘nicely’ with a gentle wiggle, rather than escalating to a fight where they snatch or wrestle their hoof back. Giving them their hoof back doesn’t mean we can’t ask for it again. They may just need a short break, or to hold a different hoof up for a while.
So that’s it, the 3 key steps to getting your horse to cooperate willingly in care they are not keen on.
The best part about making husbandry behaviours like this easy, fun and cooperative, is that after a while, the fun-ness becomes associated with the task, so we end up with a horse who says: “Oh goody it’s hoof trimming time!”