Foal (and Older) Foot Handling

Willowtrail Mountain EmmaA session with my foal Willowtrail Mountain Emma left me pondering the vastly different perspectives people and ponies have about foot handling.  For us humans, the goal is clear: the pony should pick its foot up when asked, hold it in the air as long as we want, let us manipulate their leg and hoof with our hands and tools, and politely put it down when we’ve finished our task.  For a pony, though, having its foot under another’s control represents losing a key defense mechanism – flight – which their instincts tell them must be preserved at all costs.

When we work with foals of course, it’s our job to change their innate perception of foot handling from fear to an opportunity to cooperate.   Because I do my own hoof trimming right now, I’m especially attuned to my responsibility for creating this cooperative spirit since it makes my job as trimmer so much more enjoyable.  A conversation with a client, though, reminded me that foot handling isn’t something to be taken for granted, as sometimes even older equines lack an interest in cooperating in this most basic of equine stewardship responsibilities.

Foot handling of course is not just about lack of fear.  It’s about creating new associations and teaching new skills and introducing the idea of a relationship with a non-pony being.  Nonetheless, I’ve found it does progress in a fairly step-wise fashion.  And I’ve found that with older ponies, sometimes I have to go back a few steps from the ultimate destination to remind them of their part in the dance of foot handling that we’re undertaking together.

The first step in my approach to foal foot handling is to discover where the foal most likes to be scratched.  I then use scratches in their favorite places to communicate appreciation for subsequent cooperative behavior.   With foals I’ve found the first place they usually like to be scratched is the point of the shoulders, then the withers and eventually the ventral line and point of buttocks, a location helpful when working with the hind feet.

I then make sure I can stroke the foal’s body with them remaining calm and accepting, working as necessary from scratches in favorite places to broader strokes across the shoulders, neck, back, flanks, and hindquarters.  If they tense or begin to move off, I return to what they accept calmly while remaining stationary.

Then it’s time to stroke down the legs, part way at first and eventually all the way down to the coronet band.  One clinician has suggested that for older equines, we’re creating an association of a massage with foot handling.  We don’t just walk up to a horse, bend over, and lift the foot off the ground.  Instead we express our appreciation for our equine friend by calmly stroking them before getting to work.  Again, the goal is not to be able to touch the leg all the way down but to have the foal accept the stroking calmly and without tensing and moving off.  I often return to stroking the leg when I’ve gone too far too fast, which the foal has communicated to me by tensing or starting to move off.

Once the foal readily accepts stroking to the coronet band, I tap the coronet band lightly with my fingers.  Eventually this will serve as an initial communication that foot handling is in the offing.  Now though it is about testing the foal’s acceptance of all we’ve done before this point.  I have found for many foals that it takes a few repetitions for the foal to remain calm and quiet about this step.

One might assume that the next step is to pick the foot up.  I have found however that the smaller the increments between steps the better.  So for me, the next step is to ever so slightly tip the foot forward on the toe.  The second photo in the sequence shows how slight this step is.  Of course this step is immediately preceded by stroking the leg and tapping the coronet band.  I only proceed if the stroking and tapping were accepted calmly and quietly.  Tipping the foot forward onto the toe is the first time where I’m taking control of the foot, and I want to make sure that all goes well.  I’ve found that progressing from tapping the coronet band all the way to picking the foot up is too big a step, and most foals express discomfort with the idea by either tensing or moving off.  Instead, I want to give them an opportunity to experience the next step with only the slightest concern.  So I tip the hoof forward and put it back immediately.

Typically foals will accept this small increment with some tenseness but without moving off, as shown in the last photo of the sequence.  We’ve likely all had equines who will lift their feet fine but then try to kick their foot free from our hands and put it back down themselves.  This step of tipping the foot forward and replacing it immediately is intended to be the first subtle introduction to the idea that proper foot handling is not just about picking the foot up when asked but about putting it down when asked and not before, and on the human’s terms, politely, not theirs.  It is of course possible for the human to be injured if a horse kicks their foot out of their human’s hands, so this step and the next couple are very important to the quality of the end result of foot handling training.

After the foal accepts their foot being tipped ever so slightly forward then returned to the ground, the next step is to tip the foot farther forward onto the toe so that the soul of the hoof is definitely off the ground but not necessarily the toe.  The foot is again then returned immediately to the ground and released.   Scratches in favorite places should of course be utilized to communicate that the desired behavior is recognized and appreciated.  It may seem like all of these small incremental steps make teaching foot handling manners take a lot of time, but in practice they go pretty quickly.  The benefit comes down the road.  I’ve had two year olds in their troublesome phase suggest they’ve forgotten everything they were ever taught about foot handling, but then when I take them back though this sequence, complete with strokes and scratches in their favorite places, they quickly settle into the routine.

I make sure to progress all four feet each session.  We all know that horses learn separately for each side of their body, so we can’t assume that just because things went well on one side, they’ll go well on the other.  I’ve also found that there is always one foot that is more problematic than the rest and takes longer to make progress on.  This was true even on my second ever pony, a Norwegian Fjord Horse whom I acquired as a two-year-old, so the one-problematic-foot issue seems to not to be limited to foals.

After I’m able to tip the foot onto the toe, I take the next step of lifting the foot ever so slightly off the ground.  I immediately put it back down.  Sometimes the foal wants to kick it out of my hand even after all these preparatory steps, so I try to have my other hand ready at the top of the hock to force the lower leg to the ground.  I don’t try to keep the foot in the air very long or manipulate it.  Those steps come later.  I have found that this quick pick up and put down is a crucial step to developing trust in the foal about the foot handling process.

From here the foot handling process begins to look more like the end goal to us humans.  From lifting slightly and putting back down, I progress to lifting the foot higher each time and to patting it on the bottom before putting it back down.  I’m still stroking and scratching in favorite places as prep and thank you, and I’m still emphasizing that the foot is put down on my terms and my timing, politely.  When they have been taught that picking the foot up is automatically followed at some point by putting it back down, with the activities in between taught in increasing increments of time and complexity, the end result is at least more understandable to the foal, as well as being one that I can reinforce every time I handle their feet.

As foals age, I have found they progress from being afraid of having their feet handled to being annoyed about the activity.  The step-wise approach I use works equally well in the face of annoyance, reminding them that their foot will be returned to them politely, with several scratches in favorite places in the mean time.

Shortly after my first pony entered my life, I learned about the natural horsemanship approach to being with equines.  My early attempts to use natural horsemanship techniques with my first pony, however, were dismal failures.  I reached out to a nearby pony breeder asking if they felt the techniques could be used with ponies.  The answer has been one I come back to over and over again.  “It’s important to break things down into the smallest possible steps to help them understand.”  While my experience has been entirely with ponies, I suspect the step-wise approach might be helpful with other equines, too.  It certainly has made a difference for me in foal (and older) foot handling.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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