Picking up your horse’s feet can present a challenge, but it is necessary. Some horses refuse to lift the foot. Some grab it from you and stamp it to the ground. Some put all of their weight on it when you are holding it. Some kick when you try to get close. Some kick out behind. It can be a dangerous job if not properly taught.
In the early stages, remember “baby steps” will accomplish the goal. Break it down into small parts. First, make sure you can massage the leg all the way down to the hoof. If you have trouble with this, see De-Sensitizing.
Start by tossing and curling the rope around each leg from top to fetlock. Let it wrap firmly around the fetlock and don’t stop until the horse stands still, relaxes and is no longer dancing around when his legs are momentarily “tied together” with the curling rope. Depending on how long your horse has been objecting to foot manipulation, this might take 5 minutes or 5 days.
I do not recommend that this be taught with a horse tied up. A tied horse can get seriously panicked if he senses that he is restricted or cornered. Just take him to the round pen. Let the lead dangle. If necessary, get a partner to hold his front while you work with him. Don’t expect your partner to keep him totally under control – just try to soothe, calm, and keep him from actually running off. If he is seriously unmanageable, even with a partner, he is not ready for this exercise.
Start with the front legs. Ask the horse to pick up the foot by twisting on the little acorn up near the knee (Some people whose horses have feathers grip and pull the feathers at the bottom of the fetlock as the signal to lift the foot) You might have to lean your shoulder into his shoulder a little if his weight is on the foot you are trying to lift. As soon as he lifts for even a fraction of a second, stop twisting or pulling. (a baby step toward compliance). Ask again. Reward again by releasing the pressure. Now massage the whole leg again before you repeat the exercise. Repeat this until the horse instantly lifts the foot when you touch the acorn or grip the hair.
Once you have succeeded in getting a lift, start asking for a longer hold. Prolong this until you can get your hand under the hoof and hold for a second, then two seconds, then three. Gradually build on the little successes. If he tries to swing away, move with him (holding the foot if possible). Don’t give up until he stands still and relaxes. (The FIRST baby step is to stand still while you lean down and work with the foot).
If your horse is rearing, jumping around or being seriously unmanageable in any way, he is not ready for this and needs to go back to de-sensitizing.
Rear feet present a bigger and more dangerous problem. Always approach from the side and front, out of the cow kicking or back-kicking zone.
Do the rope desensitizing around the pasterns and fetlocks until the horse tolerates the curling rope grip like nothing is happening. Rub his legs up and down.
Start trying to pick up one rear leg by pulling his head toward you so that he can see you and so that he is not just straight from head to tail. (A straight stance can kick more efficiently than a curved stance.) When he is totally calm in your presence while you touch and rub all up and down his leg and foot, grip the fetlock or the hair at the bottom of the fetlock and try to lift the foot. If he lifts but promptly stamps the foot back down, you have got a baby step. Repeat the exercise and then rub his leg again.
If he kicks out or twirls away or you feel endangered, you must lift the foot from a more distant stance – out of the kicking zone. Toss your rope low around the foot you want to lift. Carefully get ahold of the popper end, and pull the foot up toward you using your weight as in a tug of war. He may kick out and snap the rope out of your hands. He will probably also swing his rear away. Carefully try it again. Your first baby step may be just putting some pressure on the rope around his fetlock without him moving. Repeat this until he stands still. He isn’t lifting, but he isn’t moving away.
Raise the pressure and raise the bar. Now, ask him to actually lift. The tiniest lift (even if it is to try to lift above the rope) should be rewarded by releasing the pressure in the rope. (Don’t accept a kick or stamp as a lift.) And so it goes until he lifts the foot and holds it up. 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000 as you build his holding time. He isn’t really trying to please you by lifting his foot. He is trying to avoid the rope. But we don’t care WHY he is lifting, only that it gives us a chance to reward the lift.
You are still not touching his foot with your hands.
When you feel confident that you can lift the foot with the rope and he will hold it up for a few seconds, move in closer and try it with your hands again. Of course, it goes without saying, be cautious. If he kicks out or in any way does anything aggressive, go back to the rope. If he just stubbornly leaves the foot on the ground and you can’t get it up, go back to the rope. If he just keeps moving away, follow until he stops, and then try to lift it again. If he picks up for even a second, let loose. Repeat. Rub the leg then try again asking for longer and longer holds.
See De-Sensitizing again if he is too skittish to accomplish these maneuvers.
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