Teaching a horse to lift a foot

Your horse should lift all four feet willingly when asked, writes Dr Mac.

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Farriers are very special people. They come into your stable-yard and will work with all four feet of any horse you point out to them. But you’ll often find owners who can’t lift the hind leg of their own horses without being kicked. It is not difficult to teach a horse to let its feet be lifted if you start early in its life.

During the first four days every foal should be imprinted; this involves touching it all over, stroking around and inside its ears and in the ticklish spots under its belly. It includes picking up all four feet, one at a time. To pick up the foot of a very young foal, put it close to its mother and push it slightly so it leans against her shoulder and body.

Hold the foal against your body to keep it still and facing towards its tail, gently pick up the front leg, while stroking and talking to the horse. To pick up the hind leg, put your arm around its chest and your head along its body, facing backwards. Lean down and lift the hind leg towards you. As you lift the leg, say the word “foot’ slowly and clearly.

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After the first four days, the exercise is not repeated until the foal is weaned. At this stage it is larger and more powerful, and two or more people may be needed to restrain it. Work inside the stable, and hold the foal firmly against a wall. Stroke rhythmically and softly down the front foot closest to you, from the knee to the fetlock, until the foal stands still. Then push the foal’s shoulder slightly away from you until its weight is on its opposite foot.

Grasp just below the fetlock of the foot you want to lift, and bend the fetlock so that the foot lifts slightly. Do this a few times until the foal is comfortable with the idea, saying “foot” each time. Now lift the foot higher, so that the foal bends its knee. Hold the foot for a few minutes and let it down carefully – do not just drop it. Repeat on each side until the foal starts to lift its foot when you say “foot”.

In most foals, the hind leg is not more difficult than the front leg. However, it is good to be careful and make sure there are enough people to hold the foal securely. Face the rear, but this time the hand closest to the horse rests against its hindquarter. Start by stroking down to the hock until the foal relaxes. Bend your knees slightly (do not lean over and put your head in a position where you can be kicked in the face), and, leaving your one hand on the hock, start stroking down to the fetlock with your other hand. Grasp the fetlock and bend it, while at the same time grasping the hock gently with your other hand. Remember to say the word ”foot” each time.

Unfortunately, many horses are handled for the first time when brought in to be “broken to saddle” as two- or three-year-olds. It is not easy to raise a foot without the horse fighting back and probably winning. For this reason you may have to put the horse in a crush pen or at the very least, cross-tie it using a strong halter band and two lead ropes, one fastened on each side.

It is a good idea to use a thick rope, dropping it in an open circle and then pushing the horse into a position where its foot is in the circle. The rope is closed over the pastern and the foot pulled up, sometimes by using one of the cross poles of the crush as a lever. Some early drawings of horse taming show the foot being lifted by passing the rope through a ring on the surcingle (a thick strap fastened around the body just behind the withers and elbows).

It is quite possible to train horses so well that they will stand quite still with their halter rope draped over their body or cross-tied while the farrier does their hooves. Some horses will even put their foot up on a “brace” made of metal so that the farrier does not have to hold the foot up. Even for the owner, a horse that lifts its feet on command is a joy to own – you can check under the hoof for a stone or remove ticks from the back of the pastern without very much effort, as the horse balances on its other three legs.