Monday, October 18, 2010

The Question: How do I teach my horse to let me handle her feet?

I have a foundered mare.  We need to have her feet trimmed and treated, but she will not let us handle them.  I have started a program where I am attempting to reward her for picking up her feet by giving her a bite of feed every time I get the slightest response.  But progress is minimal.  She is not touchy or afraid; she's strong and stubborn.  In all other ways, she's easy to deal with.  You will tell me she is in pain, and she is.  But she was this way before she foundered.  The founder has just compounded the problem. She is getting durmosedan to help her deal with the pain.  I need to know if my proposed plan will work. Currently you can get her foot off the ground with some coaxing, but she won't let you bend her leg and will yank it away after a few seconds.  Am I rewarding her for bad behavior or is any response acceptable at this point?  

Horses who don't pick up their feet when asked are one of my pet peeves.  It is something every horse needs to be taught when they're young as it is impossible to properly care for a horse whose feet you cannot handle.

Unfortunately, we now have to deal with a mare who is in pain and needs to learn a lesson that's going to cause her more pain.  Until you can get her retrained, you need to talk to your vet about sedating your mare in order to get her feet trimmed.  Also talk to your vet about your mare's pain level.  Depending on how badly foundered she is and how she tolerates pain, she simply may be in too much pain to lift her feet.  If that's the case, you may have to make some tough decisions.

If she's not in too much pain, then start working with her.  I think you need to take a few steps backward on your plan for now.  First, is food a good reward for this mare?  Some horses aren't interested enough in food to work hard for a food reward.  If food isn't a good reward, find out what is.  For some, it is praise (petting, soft/nice words).  For some it is being left alone.  Find what works for your mare.

Then look at how you approach this.  You said you can pick her foot up, but only wish a lot of work and coaxing.  For now, focus on picking her foot up - not on holding it up.  Run your hand down her leg, and if you have to lean into her shoulder, and as soon as she even acts like she's going to pick her foot up stop what you are doing and reward her.  You'll know when she's thinking about picking her foot up because she'll tense and shift her weight.  Reward her with whatever works for her, and then ask again.  If she happens to pick her foot up at this stage, don't hold it up - just let go of it (gently) and reward.  The goal here is to get to the point that you run your hand down her leg and she makes an attempt to pick her foot up right away.  When she's doing that on both sides, move on to the next step.

The next step is rewarding her when she actually picks her foot up.  Don't hold onto her foot or do anything with it at this point, just get her to the point where you run your hand down her leg and she picks up her foot.

These two steps may go quickly, or they may take many repetitions over several days.  You cannot rush this, though.  So if you get impatient, walk away and come back when you can be calm and patient.

Once she's picking up both feet reliably, then it is time to ask her to bend her leg.  You've mentioned that that is an issue, so at first ask only for the slightest bend.  If she's resistant, hold onto her foot.  If she gives, then set her foot down and reward her.  Over time, ask for more bend to her leg.   Once she'll pick up both front feet and bend her leg to where you need, you'll ask her to hold her foot up for a second or two.  And again, slowly increase the time you ask her to hold her foot up. 

Rewarding her is important as is slowly increasing what you are asking for.  However you have to get the basis down - picking her foot up at all - before you can move on to anything.  I bet if you can get her to where she picks up her foot as soon as you ask, everything else will flow more smoothly. 

Since she's foundered and hurts, once you get her picking up her foot and holding it up, remember to only ask her to hold it up a very short amount of time.  Your farrier is going to have to be patient and be willing to give her a lot of breaks.  AND once she's picking her feet up and holding them up, make sure she always has a good farrier experience.  If the farrier is hasty, asks too much or is unkind with her, she may revert.

Good luck!