Proper care of your horse’s feet is crucial to her overall health and well-being. Daily cleaning and trimmings every four to six weeks are essential to the continued good health of your horse’s feet. Hooves should be cleaned thoroughly before and after every ride or other activity. Because hoof handling is such an integral part of daily life for you and your horse, both of you will benefit if the task is made simple and pleasurable.
How to Clean Your Horse's Hooves
Most horses aren’t being disobedient when they refuse to lift their feet for their caretakers. They’ve simply never been taught the skill. Some horses have had bad experiences with people handling them or their feet, and they need to be shown that the activity can be fun. It’s best to begin training when a horse is still a foal, but if a new adult horse comes into your care, never assume that she knows how to lift her feet and stand patiently while you clean her hooves. Set aside time to teach all your horses this skill.
Make It Rewarding!
Scientific studies have shown that a well-timed reward—known as positive reinforcement—is the most effective way to teach any new behavior or to improve an existing one. Timing is very important. A reward must come within a few seconds of a behavior for it to be associated with that behavior. This is easy if you use a sound to “catch” or mark the behavior. Once you’ve marked the behavior you want, you can reward your horse with a treat without worrying about how long it takes to get the treat to her mouth.
The sound you use to catch the behavior doesn’t really matter. It’s best to pick one sound and stick with it, but your choices are vast. You can say “Yes!” or “Good girl!” You can snap your fingers, you can cluck your tongue or you can give a short whistle. Pick a sound that’s easy for you to make and remember, and that doesn’t startle your horse. For simplicity in the following instructions, we’ll use "Yes," but if you prefer a different sound or word, just substitute your choice wherever you see “Yes.” Again, the trick is to say or make the sound at the instant the behavior occurs—while it’s occurring if possible—not just afterward, the way you would tell a person she did something right. You aren’t just telling your horse she’s doing what you want, you’re marking a response for her. The sound draws the horse’s attention, which serves to catch whatever she’s doing at that moment. Catching behavior makes it memorable, and making it memorable helps your horse associate your reward with what she did.
The rewards (reinforcers) can be anything your horse enjoys. Food—such as bits of grain, horse cookies, wisps of hay, carrot chunks, apple pieces or mints—works great, but you can also try patting her neck, scratching her withers and breathing softly into her nostrils in rhythm with her breath. Most horses like all these things.
Safety Without Stress
When working around a horse’s feet, you must consider both your horse’s happiness and your own safety. The following steps take you through the process slowly, safely and without creating undue stress for your horse.
Step One: Teaching Your Horse to Lift Her Front Foot
- Begin by choosing a time to train when there are few or no distractions. You’ll be asking your horse to stand on three legs, and this will be difficult for her if she’s distracted.
- Lead your horse to the area where you’ll clean her hooves. Most barns have cross-tie stations. If you choose to use a cross-tie station, be certain that your horse has been taught to cross-tie (please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Stand Tied) and that at least one of the ties has a quick-release mechanism. If you must tie your horse yourself, secure her to a stationary object or ring that’s at the height of her withers or higher. Use a quick-release knot, and tie her so she has enough slack to move her head but not enough to wander a step or two or get a foreleg over the rope.
- Once your horse is tied, tell her calmly and cheerfully that you’re going to clean her hooves. Position yourself by her near (left) shoulder, facing her rear. Stand in line with her leg so that, should she make a quick movement, her foot won’t come in contact with you. It’s always very important that your horse know exactly where you are and when you’re going to touch her so she’s never surprised. Keeping this in mind, continue to talk to her, and place your left hand on her neck and stroke her. Then place your right hand on her shoulder, and run it down over the back of her leg until you reach her cannon bone.
- Gently squeeze the cannon bone just above the pastern. Initially this gentle squeeze won’t get any reaction from your horse, but soon it will become a signal to her to lift her foot. To teach your horse this signal, while holding the gentle pressure, use your left hand to press lightly against her shoulder. (Although it would be more convenient, don’t push into her with your shoulder because if you lose your balance you could fall into or under your horse.) Press slowly so that your horse can adjust her balance. The instant she shifts her weight away from the pressure of your left hand, say “Yes!” and release her cannon as you stop pushing on her shoulder. Move to her head and give her a treat.
Here’s a recap of the steps. Be certain to follow them in order:
1. Gently grasp your horse’s cannon with your right hand.
2. Lightly push against her shoulder with your left hand.
3. When she shifts her weight, say “Yes!”
4. Simultaneously stop pushing on her shoulder and release her cannon.
5. Give your horse a treat.
- Repeat this sequence at least five times. Next, omit the step of pushing on your horse’s shoulder. Because of your training, she will probably shift her weight the moment you touch the back of her leg. When she does, be sure to say “Yes!” and give her a treat.
- When you’ve taught your horse to shift her weight off her leg at the touch of your hand at the back of her cannon bone, the next step is to teach her to lift her foot. Slide your left hand down the front of your horse’s leg to the front of her pastern (ankle) as you slide your right hand down to her cannon bone. Gently squeeze her cannon with your right hand, and when she shifts her weight, lift her foot with your left hand, cupping the hoof in your hand. Say “Yes!” Then gently lower the hoof back to the ground, and give your horse a treat.
- Practice lifting the hoof and holding it. Be sure to hold your horse’s leg so that it doesn’t cause any discomfort. The upper part of her leg should extend down under her body as if she were standing on it, and the lower leg should be held parallel to the ground. Be careful to keep the bent leg perpendicular to the ground—don’t allow the leg to angle under the body or out to the side, as this can be painful for your horse. In addition, be careful to support the foot by the hoof rather than the coronet or the pastern bone. Keeping the weight of your horse’s leg against the coronet or pastern bone can be uncomfortable for her. Causing your horse discomfort is not only a humane issue but a training issue, because it will cause your horse to move away or otherwise react poorly to handling.
Step Two: Cleaning the Hoof
You’ll need a hoof pick and a stiff brush to clean your horse’s hooves. Some picks have convenient wire brushes attached.
- Hold the pick in your hand as you lift your horse’s foot. If the hoof isn’t too packed with debris, you’ll notice that the frog runs in a V shape pointing at the toe. With the hoof cupped in your left hand (shift it to your right hand if you’re left-handed), set the point of the pick in the cleft created along the edge of your horse’s frog, against the heel of her hoof. Working toward the toe, pluck the crevice clean. Always pick from heel to toe to prevent the possibility of slipping with the pick and poking the frog, the sole or even your horse’s pastern or your own leg. Once the bulk of the dirt and other matter has been plucked from the hoof, scrape the surface of the sole and the rim of the hoof with the side of the pick. If your horse is shod, pick thoroughly around the rim of the shoe.
- When you’ve picked the hoof clean, use the brush to scrape its surface until you can easily see the sole itself. If the frog looks tattered, don’t worry. Simply pull the shreds away. Horses shed their frogs at least once a year, sometimes twice, and loose shreds of frog aren’t unusual. If you try to pull a piece of frog away but it won’t loosen, just leave it for another time or have your farrier remove it when he or she trims your horse’s hooves.
- Set the hoof gently on the ground.
Step Three: Lifting the Hind Foot
- As mentioned, it’s very important that your horse know where you are and when you’re going to touch her, so after you’ve set her foreleg down and stood up straight, tell her she’s a good girl and stroke her shoulder. Walk toward her hip, running your left hand along her side as you move. Stop when your shoulders are in line with your horse's hip. Don’t continue farther back because that can put you at risk of being kicked.
- Leaving your left hand on your horse’s hip, set your right hand on her rear and run it down the back of her hind leg to her cannon bone. As with her foreleg, your cue to her will be a gentle squeeze of the bone. With your thumb facing up but close to the rest of your hand, curl your fingers slightly around the back of the cannon. Softly squeeze the bone while gently pushing against your horse’s hip with your left hand. The instant she shifts her weight, say “Yes!” Then release her leg and stop pushing against her hip. Give her a treat. Remember to place your hand on her shoulder and slide it along her side as you come from her head to take your place beside her hip again.
- As you did with your horse’s foreleg, repeat the steps until she moves away at the touch of your fingers on her cannon without the need for you to push her with your left hand. (You can still rest your hand on her hip for support.) At that point (when she moves away without a reminder), don’t simply say “Yes,” release and treat. Instead, use your grip to push against the back of her cannon so that you lift her leg forward under her. Hold her leg under her until she relaxes. At that instant, say “Yes!” and set her leg down. Be careful not to let her hoof drop to the ground. Not only is this uncomfortable for her, it can make her more likely to push against you and otherwise fidget in the future in an attempt to control when and how her foot goes back down. As soon as you have placed your horse’s foot on the ground, give her a treat.
- Repeat the steps above, always running your hand along your horse’s side as you return to her hip. Lift her leg under her as often as it takes for her accept this without resistance. Always say “Yes!” lower her leg and treat.
- Next, after you’ve lifted the leg beneath your horse without any resistance, you’re going to take a step toward her rear and lift her lower leg back and out so the bottom of the hoof is facing up. To accomplish this, you‘ll be doing a number of things at the same time. Here are the movements involved. Remember, most of them happen at once:
Take a step toward your horse’s rear and a little bit into her as you move your left hand down her rear to the front of her leg. Your left hand will help you hold her hoof, but your right hand—the hand farthest away from your horse—will do most of the work. Keeping your left hand on your horse’s leg as you move back and lift her foot will help keep you stabilized and give you a push-off from her should she react in any way.
- You should be standing with your left foot where the hoof you’re holding would come down if it were able. Move the leg until the upper leg is behind your horse, the lower leg is almost vertical and the pastern is bent so that the hoof bottom is facing up.
- Hold your horse in this position until she relaxes for just a second or two. Then say “Yes,” move out of the way as you set the foot back down, and treat. Horses can easily be taught to accept having their hind legs held out behind them—you can even teach your horse some useful leg-out stretches—but it’s good horsemanship to take it slowly. Your goal is to have your horse’s leg behind her and her hoof parallel to the ground, held in your right hand. If you’re right-handed, you’ll need to transfer the weight of the lower leg and hoof at that time to your left hand to use the pick effectively in your right hand. Some people find that it’s easier on their backs to rest the leg against their left leg or knee, which is fine. (Farriers hold the leg between their thighs.) Tempting as it may be, never sit on the floor or kneel beside your horse while working on her hooves because you could get hurt badly. Always set the foot back on the ground gently.
Both Sides of the Horse
The safest approach to picking the hooves on the other side of your horse is to continue around the front of her to her right side after you’ve given her the last treat from working on her rear left hoof. But if you ever do move around the back of your horse for any reason, always keep your hand on her rear. Remember, it’s your job to let her know where you are!
What to Do If Your Horse Tries to Pull Her Foot Away
Teaching your horse to have patience requires good timing on your part. The best approach is to replace her foot on the ground before she tries to pull it away. But occasionally your timing will be off, or your horse will shift her weight in response to a fly or other distraction. She’ll try to pull her foot away from you. In these situations, when possible, keep hold of the hoof until you feel your horse pause in her pulling. The instant she pauses, say “Yes!” and lower her hoof. Give her just a moment to resettle her weight, and begin again. Say “Yes!” and treat when your horse allows you to hold her foot up for just 5 to 10 seconds. Then resume your regular training procedures.
Holding Your Horse for the Farrier
All horses need a good farrier. Regular trimmings are essential. However, not all horses will stand well for a farrier. It’s usually a good idea to help your horse by standing with her when she’s being trimmed or shod, particularly until she gets to know the farrier—and the farrier gets to know her. Even if your horse has a history of standing well, if you get a new farrier, you should be present for the first few trimmings to calm your horse and oversee the procedure. Most farriers practice excellent horsemanship and handle horses humanely, but you should never assume this about anyone. Always oversee your horse’s care until you’re familiar and comfortable with the person working on your horse—whether the person’s a farrier, stable help, another horse owner, a veterinarian or a trainer.
Some farriers won’t want you to hold your horse because they’ve had experience with caretakers who don’t hold effectively. However, you are your horse’s caretaker, regardless of your experience or skill, and it’s up to you to see that her best interest is a priority. If the farrier requests that your horse be tied and you know that your horse will tie quietly, go along with the request, but continue to stay by her head and watch.
Position Yourself Properly When Holding Your Horse
If your horse isn’t tied and you are holding the lead for the farrier, position yourself so that you’re on an angle to the side of her head. Never stand in front of her. She can’t see you well if you’re in front of her, and she could easily run over you or strike you with her hoof if she becomes startled or tries to move away from the farrier. Hold her with enough slack so that she doesn’t feel restrained and panic or struggle against you, but keep the line short enough for you to react quickly if necessary.
If your horse tries to move away from the farrier, your reaction is important. Don’t try to draw her head toward you, particularly if you’re standing at her head on her near (left) side and your farrier is working on the back off (right) side. Bringing your horse’s head toward you can swing her rear quarters out and into the farrier. Instead, move into your horse and back her away.
Reinforcement Rather Than Restraint
There are many forms of physical restraint, including leg hobbles or hog-tying and restraint stations. Restraint stations are an excellent addition to any barn, but horses must be taught to load into and stand quietly in them. Hobbling of any type should not be attempted without the assistance of a qualified expert, such as an experienced equine veterinarian or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts.)
There are also many restraint forms that cause some degree of pain to a horse. These include twitching the lip, running a chain over the lip, under the chin, over the nose, etc., and grabbing the ear. Occasionally an emergency situation may warrant such types of restraint, but given that hoof trimming is a necessary and regular event in the life of your horse, these methods are inappropriate and should be avoided in favor of positive reinforcement training of the desired behaviors. Please see our article, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling, for suggestions and information—such as how to target train your horse—on teaching your horse to accept handling during common as well as unpredictable situations.