Why can picking out feet be such a painful learning curve with young horses?
If you look back to their natural lives and instincts, it soon becomes clear. Horses are creatures of flight. So when we pick up their foot we are stopping them running from anything that scares them. Logically, you can see that horses would be reluctant to give you a leg, and only let those they trust pick out their feet.
Picking out feet should become part and parcel of your daily routine, even if your horse is a foal or yearling. When you groom them, let them get used to you running your hand down their legs without flinching or fidgeting. Then, when they are comfortable and trust you touching their leg then try lifting the foot. If it is introduced like this at an early age then your farrier will thank you, and picking out feet never becomes an issue.
You want to get your horse into a routine when picking his feet out; horses love routine so he likes to know what is expected of him, and what is next on the agenda. Once he is confident in this routine then you can change the routine slightly, by changing the order in which you pick his feet out, for example. I always used to pick Otis`s feet out in the following order: near fore, near hind, off fore, off hind. But once he started to be confident here I started picking out the feet from the near side in this order: near fore, off fore, near hind, off hind. This means that anyone can pick his feet up in any order and he will oblige.
It is usually easier to start with lifting the front leg, so lets start here. Keep the area quiet so he`s not worried about fleeing from a monster, and make sure your horse trusts you around him, before running the hand nearest to his leg down the back of the foreleg. If the horse has feathers then use these to your advantage (grabbing hold of them is useful when he waves his leg around) and cup your hand around the inside of his fetlock. Lean slightly on his shoulder and say “foot” or “lift” or whatever you would like to say – it doesn`t matter as long as you are consistent. You lean on the shoulder to encourage the horse to take their weight off that leg, not for you to support the horse`s weight. Try not to get in to a leaning match with him!
Initially, you don`t want to hold the foot up for a long time, just long enough for him to hold it still and to begin to understand the process. If the horse waves his foreleg around, as if digging a grave, hold on tightly until he stops! When he stops and keeps it still momentarily it can be put back to the floor. This means he learns to keep his leg still until you say so. If you know your horse is going to wave his leg around then lifting the foot up so that the sole is as close to the elbow as possible prevents any wriggling. When he relaxes so you can lower his foot. If your horse is resistant to you lifting the foot do not worry about using the hoof pick initially, just get him used to the process of lifting his foot when asked, holding it still, and then replacing it. Take every opportunity to lift up feet as it will help in the long term – at the beginning and end of the grooming session, and after exercise, or when he is turned out and brought in to his stable.
Lifting up hind feet can quite often get people in a pickle as the horse can be worried, and inclined to wave his leg around, but then the handler timidly holds the fetlock, tickling the horse`s leg and not giving him security and not inciting confidence. Standing close to the hindquarters, you should run the hand nearest the horse down the front (this is so if he should strike out, your arm will not be in the firing line) then cup the front of his fetlock and ask him to lift. Young horses naturally respond by snatching up with their leg, so be patient and try to hold on to it so he learns that he should lift a little slower, and then hold it there. If the hind leg is waved around, unfortunately you do just need to stand close and hold on tight. If the horse kicks out with his hind leg as you start running your hand down his cannon bone then spend some time desensitising him to the process of being handled on his hindlegs.
It can be useful, when you don`t use the hoofpick, to use your second hand to help cradle the foot still and angle it correctly.
Once you get the hang of holding up a fidgety horse`s foot, then it`s a fairly easy process and tends to result in a battle of the wills – i.e. who is more stubborn and determined! When the horse holds his foot up correctly and you put it down to the floor, remember to praise him! A quick pat or “good boy” is usually enough. Remember though, repetition and consistency are the key to ensuring your horse has good manners when having his feet picked up.