Problems with shoeing are most commonly due to horses not being willing to pick up their feet or having them handled, rather than being due to the shoeing itself. These horses are also unlikely to pick up their feet for their owners for daily hoof care, this risks these horses developing problems with their feet.
Shoeing a horse protects its hooves from wearing down when ridden on hard surfaces and helps to prevent damage to the hooves. Cracked or damaged hooves can be extremely painful for a horse, as well as preventing ridden exercise.
Some horses may have ongoing problems with their hooves, which can be helped by specialist corrective shoeing. Appropriate shoeing can help to ease the pain caused by laminitis for example. In the examples below you can see the difference between feet that have been regularly trimmed and shod with ones that have not.
Horses tend to be shod every 4-8 weeks and even if a horse is not shod, it will still require regular attention from a farrier who will trim the hooves to prevent them from growing too long or out of shape. If a horse can be trained to pick up its feet easily, these regular and unavoidable visits from the farrier will be much less stressful for both the horse and the farrier.
When dealing with behavioural problems in any species of animal, it often helps to try to understand why an individual might be behaving in a particular way. Horses often behave in an instinctive way, especially towards something that they are fearful of.
The horse is naturally a prey species and shows the instinctive response of ‘flight’ when under threat. A horse standing on three legs is unable to respond in this way, and may therefore be particularly reluctant to pick up its feet when in an unfamiliar place or with unfamiliar people. A horse that is uneasy about having its feet picked up may pull its foot away or kick out. It is likely that horses behaving in this way were not sufficiently introduced to having their feet handled when they were young.
Problems can also arise due to previous, unpleasant experiences. When buying a horse, try to find out as much about its history as possible from the previous owners. If the horse does not like being shod try to find out if this has always been a problem, or when the problem arose and was there a particular incident that triggered the problem; does the horse react this way to everyone or just to the farrier? The horse may have been handled roughly during shoeing in the past or may have experienced pain from poor shoeing.
Horses can also dislike being shod due to the actual shoeing process itself, particularly when being hot shod. Associated with hot shoeing is the noise and smell of the hot shoe as it is placed on the hoof and some horses may not like these. Both hot and cold shoeing involve the sounds associated with the nails being hammered into the shoe which, again, may not be liked by the horse.
The two most important factors when dealing with horses that do not like being shod are patience and an understanding farrier. It is important to use a good, reliable and patient farrier who has experience of dealing with all types of horses, including young and nervous horses. Any good farrier should be happy to take his time and be patient with a horse. If your farrier is not like this, use one who is!
Picking up the feet
For a horse to allow a person to pick up its feet, it has to trust them. It is vital to take time and patience to build this trust up gradually. Rushing things or getting annoyed will simply break any trust that has been built up. If you get angry with your horse you are re-enforcing their perception of the situation being unpleasant. Act confidently when trying to pick up your horse’s feet.
Horses that do not like picking up their feet learn that by pulling their foot away or by kicking out, the person trying to pick up their feet goes away. Every time this happens, the learnt response is reinforced. These horses have to be re-educated that picking up their feet does not mean they are putting themselves in a dangerous position.
If a horse is likely to kick out when you are trying to pick their feet up, it is safest to start from outside the horse’s kicking range:
One way to approach this is to stuff an old glove with something soft that won’t make a noise when touched, and to attach this to a sturdy stick. Starting at the neck, this can gradually be moved over the horse’s body, initially avoiding the legs, and rewarding the horse with a carrot for remaining calm.
Only when the horse is relaxed with this should the glove be moved towards the legs. If the horse stamps or kicks out, try not to remove the glove from the leg as this is again reinforcing the association of kicking out with the unpleasant stimulus going away. As soon as the kicking/stamping stops, reward the horse. Start with short sessions, gradually building up and always end on a ‘good note’, i.e. when you have touched the horse with the glove and it remained calm, and with a reward.
You can progress from the glove to a soft brush, e.g. a baby brush, and eventually on to a body brush. Only when the horse is calm with this should you move closer and run your hand down the legs.
You can then progress to attempting to pick the foot up. Always run your hand along the neck and down the leg first; never go straight to the lower leg as you are likely to startle the horse. Initially, just try to pick the foot up off the ground slightly for a few seconds and reward the horse for doing so. If the horse pulls the foot away, remain calm and simply lift the foot up again. Repeat this until the horse allows you to pick the foot up and hold it. Gradually increase the amount of time the foot is held off the ground.
As it is going to be someone different who shoes the horse, try to get several different people to pick up the horse’s feet, but make sure they remain calm if the horse refuses, otherwise all the patient work will be undone. If you keep your horse with other horses whose owners use the same farrier, ask him to practice picking up your horses feet without doing anything, when he comes to shoe the other horses. This will allow your horse to associate the farrier with picking up his feet, but without anything unpleasant happening.
As with picking up the feet, familiarising a horse with the shoeing itself has to be done gradually. If there are other horses in the yard being shod, the horse could be stabled next to the stable where the farrier is shoeing. This way the horse can become familiarised with the smell and sounds of shoeing without actually having anything done.
If your horse is not kept with other horses, a local riding school may allow you to stable your horse there for a few hours while the farrier is there shoeing other horses. If this is not possible, you could ask your farrier if you could make a recording of the noises made during shoeing and play this whilst your horse is being fed. This will help to familiarise the horse to the sounds of shoeing.
When your horse is being shod, try to have another horse within sight and try to ensure that other horses are not moved around the yard or fed, which could cause the horse to become agitated. Feeding the horse whilst being shod could also help. The horse should be reassured throughout shoeing and rewarded for standing calmly. A handler who is known to the horse should hold the horse during shoeing, as long as they are not nervous around the horse as it may sense this and become agitated itself. Make sure the farrier allows the horse to rest between having each shoe fitted.
Standing on three legs is an unnatural stance for a horse and can be tiring, especially for young, weak or old horses. Initially, nervous horses (or those that have never been shod before) should have the front and hind feet shod during separate farrier visits, starting with the front feet and leaving the hind feet until another day. With more nervous horses, only one hoof should be shod with each visit.
What is most important is that the shoeing should end on a “good note”, even if fewer shoes have been fitted than was intended. Some horses may not like having their leg stretched forward and their hoof rested on the tripod stand for the final rasping. If a horse begins to get agitated at this stage it is again best to stop.
If it appears that it is the smell or sounds associated with hot shoeing that the horse dislikes, and you have been unable to desensitise the horse to these, you may have to ask your farrier to cold shoe your horse. Although hot shoeing is preferred, as the shoes tend to be a better fit for the hoof, cold shoeing is a better alternative for the horse than no shoeing, particularly if ridden regularly on hard surfaces or if it has problems with its feet.
Sensitive handling while shoeing is particularly important with horses that have problems with their feet. These horses may require more frequent attention from the farrier and more complex shoeing than other horses. They may also experience some discomfort during shoeing and all of these factors have the potential to make shoeing an unpleasant experience.
Using a bridle instead of a head collar should allow the handler to have more control over the horse during shoeing. Some people may twitch their horse for shoeing, although not all horses tolerate this. Using a twitch may enable the farrier to shoe the horse, but the horse does not learn that shoeing is not an unpleasant experience and in fact the twitch may reinforce the perception that shoeing is unpleasant.
Although desensitising a horse to shoeing is a slow process, the benefits to the horse (and farrier!) much outweigh the time put in.