How to train a horse to lift its leg

Dr Mac discusses how to train a horse to lift its leg on command so that its hooves can be cleaned.

How to train a horse to lift its leg
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Your horse’s hooves should be cleaned out daily and trimmed by you or a farrier every six weeks. If this is the case, your horse will be accustomed to having its legs ‘lifted’. Week-old foals can easily be taught as they are not strong or heavy enough to injure the handler. But many owners wait too long: they try to pick up their horse’s feet for the first time after a foal is already weaned and able to rear and kick if it feels threatened.

Even more dangerous
are horses that have grown up in the veld and are handled for the first time when they are three or four weeks old. To teach a horse to pick up a front foot, stroke or gently pat downwards from the shoulder until you reach the knee. If the horse is not alarmed, grasp the cannon bone firmly and pull it gently backwards, while pushing on the shoulder with your free hand, forcing the horse to shift its weight to the opposite leg. It’s a good idea to say “foot” at the same time.

As you push the weight away and pull the leg backwards with the other hand, the horse generally lifts its leg a few centimetres off the ground. Once it has done this, praise it and put the foot down gently. Repeat the same procedure with the other front leg. Within a few days, most horses will let you lift the foot high enough and hold it so that you can clean the hoof.

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Problems are more likely to arise when you attempt the same procedure on a hind leg. Many horses will kick instinctively if you even touch the hind leg, and as they kick forwards and backwards and sometimes even sideways, this can be life-threatening!

Using a wall to protect yourself
Before starting on a hind leg for the first time, line the horse up against a solid object such as a wall or paddock fence so that the animal finds it difficult to swing around and kick at you with both hind legs. The handler should stand on the same side as you and must pull the horse’s head towards you if it starts kicking.

This time, instead of pushing the shoulder, you push against the hip bone, once again stroking and patting gently down the side of the horse’s hind leg until you reach the hock. If the horse is not distressed or aggressive, reach down behind the hock and exert pressure on the shannon (the hind cannon bone) and pull it gently towards you, once again saying, “foot”.
As soon as the horse lifts its foot, praise the animal and set the hoof down gently.

Most horses learn by habituation – that is, introducing a stimulus quietly and repetitively, until it becomes a habit. Usually, after about a week of training, a horse will pick each foot up in turn for the hoof to be cleaned the moment you tap the leg and say, “foot”. However, some horses will not cooperate and may become more and more fearful or aggressive, eventually kicking accurately in your direction if you even touch their hindquarters.

Rope and sedation

A practical way to lift both front and hind legs in a difficult horse is with a soft, strong rope. Preferably, you should first restrain the horse in a crush so that it cannot kick sideways. Really fearful or aggressive horses may require a vet to sedate them as well.

The rope is gently passed from the outside inwards and outside again. It is gently brushed up and down the inside of the leg until the horse relaxes, then quietly lowered to the fetlock and slowly twisted until you have a firm loop under the fetlock. The rope is pulled slowly upwards, and you say “foot” as the horse lifts its leg. In most cases, these horses will eventually understand what is required and lift their legs as soon as they feel the rope.

For more information, search watch these YouTube videos: ‘The safe and smart way to pick up your horse’s back feet’ or ‘Rope trick for training horses to lift their feet’.