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Horse Behavior for Trimming and Shoeing
© 2007 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information
Understanding why horses behave as they do is one giant step toward avoiding problems during hoof care and shoeing. I'm going to describe horse behavior as it relates to hoof care so that you have the means to figure out how to make difficult situations better for yourself and for your farrier. And as I do that I'll also offer a viewpoint of the farrier since Iíve been the wife of a farrier for many years.
Over the years, Iíve noticed the profiles of the clients and horses that passed through my husband's appointment book. In the beginning, in order to get started, any new farrier HAS to work on a certain number of difficult horses - leaners, pullers, impatient scoundrels Ė horses that often have well-intentioned but inexperienced owners. Or potentially fine horses that belong to self-claimed experts who just never really develop horse sense. Unfortunately, both types of customers are eventually traded off to make room in the farrierís book for the cooperative, well-mannered horses of competent professionals and dedicated amateurs. Those are just the facts.
For your horseís sake and for the safety of your farrier and yourself, you want to make your horse comfortable and cooperative for hoof care and shoeing. This takes time, dedication, patience and a good understanding of horse behavior as it relates to shoeing. With that in mind, read on and reread this article regularly Ė because as you and your horse progress, certain things that might have not made sense at first will become crystal clear. Iím writing this to all of you who have leg handling and farrier problems so Iím trying to cover all of the bases.
The Nature of the Horse
To get along best with a horse, you have to realize he is not thinking things out as you two go along in your routine. He acts according to inherited instincts and precepts of behavior and reacts to your movements and touch with deeply ingrained reflexes. A reflex is an automatic, unconscious response of a muscle (or a gland) to a stimulus.
Even though the modern horse is relatively safe from predators, his long evolutionary struggle for survival has resulted in an innate suspicion of anything unusual or unfamiliar. Because of this, the modern horse is one of the few domestic animals that still retains the capacity to revert to a wild state.
The horse is a gregarious nomad with keen senses and instincts and highly developed reflexes. These inherent traits make the horse both awe-inspiring and frustrating to work with at times. Gregarious animals are sociable and prefer to be in close proximity to others of their species and to move in herds. Given the choice, horses rarely choose to be alone as there is safety and comfort in numbers.
If a horse is not sufficiently confident when separated from other horses, it may desperately attempt to retain communication with or physical proximity to its preferred associate(s). The chronic cases are referred to as herd-bound or barn-sour: the insecure horse links comfort, companionship, and food with the barn, a particular stall, or with certain horses. What you will see and hear is a horse that screams, paws, swerves sideways, defecates repeatedly, and in general, pays more attention to keeping in touch with his buddies than to developing a working relationship with you or your farrier. What may originate in a young or inexperienced horse as a temporary insecurity may evolve into a long-standing and dangerous habit.
It is your job, not your farrier's, to train your horse. Temporary fixes for a herd bound horse include bringing the buddy nearby. Or if a horse is more calm and quiet in his stall, maybe the farrier would consent to working on the horse there, providing it is safe and well lighted. Eventually, a horse must be "weaned" from his security blankets. But this should be done as a long-term training project weeks ahead of the farrier's visit, not just as he or she arrives. Routinely separate the horse from other horses in an isolated pen or stall or tied to a hitching post so he learns he can survive in a variety of situations away from his buddy, stall, barn. Just because a horse urgently wants to be with certain other members of the herd, however, doesn't mean that all horses get along. Especially when there is limited food or space, battles might ensue. Once the clash is over, a pecking order or dominance hierarchy emerges. This social ranking makes future aggression unnecessary unless a particular horse is not thoroughly convinced of its status.
It is important for you to realize that humans occupy a rung on the ladder of power, too, and are usually tested in some way by each horse to see just where they stand. You must convince the horse in an appropriate way that you are the top gun. The best way to do this is start with very simple things like catching, haltering, leading, grooming and make sure the horse behaves exactly as you ask. If you lay down a strong foundation of good behavior with the simple things, when you move on to tying, lifting a leg, moving over while tied and so on, the stage has already been set for cooperation. Don't start at the point where you have the problem, back way up to some elementary lessons that the horse knows well and then build on that, taking days, weeks, months to continue adding positive lessons to your horse's repertoire. A good resource for in-hand lessons can be found in the following books:
If you feel excessive force is necessary to make a point with a horse, usually it means one of 3 things. Either the horse has a legitimate reason for misbehaving (such as a conflict with reflexes, the presence of countermanding pressure, or an unfair leg position which causes pain in the joints) and you aren't reading the situation correctly, OR you need to go farther back with the basics OR you need the assistance of a professional (send your horse to a horse trainer or enroll in a clinic with your horse).
A big share of the underlying problem with getting any horse to stand still is the fact that horses are nomads. When the wandering tendency is thwarted by domestication pressures, vices such as pawing, weaving, and pacing result. These bad habits are a response to inadequate exercise, confinement, excess feed, and insufficient handling. Regular exercise is essential for the horse's physical and mental well being. Understandably, a "fresh" horse (one that has not been turned out recently) is likely to get antsy when asked to stand still for shoeing. A wired horse is anticipatory, nervous, and can be unsafe.
A debilitated horse is not the answer either, so you wouldn't want to longe your horse to the point of exhaustion before you hold hoof care lessons or before the farrier arrives. Such a horse would be tuned out, would likely lean on you, and be unresponsive. Some horses learn these lazy habits because of a timid owner, but the horse can be shown in a simple and non-aggressive way that he must pick up his feet (see Reflexes later on in this article) and that leaning does not work. Simply refuse to support the sagging horse, keep his leg bent, and let him fall toward the ground. It doesn't take many times of the bottom falling out from under one of his legs that the horse will learn to balance himself on the other legs.
Horses perform daily routines in response to various needs. At a particular time each day, bands can be observed to eat, drink, roll, play, defecate, urinate, and perform mutual grooming. The desire to participate in these rituals is not diminished, and in fact is probably intensified, in the domestic horse. The old adage, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" is based on firmly implanted habits, which are governed by a biological-clock.
You've also probably heard the bladder jingle, "When you've gotta go, you've gotta go." Although most horses defecate unabashedly while in crossties or while being shod, few will urinate, especially if on a hard floor that splatters back. If a normally quiet horse becomes extremely restless, you might give him the opportunity to relieve himself in a deeply bedded stall.
And what if your farrier arrives just before a particular horse's customary turnout or feeding time. Is he going to be concentrating on standing still or will his body be running the programs for eating or galloping instead? A horse SHOULD be expected to cooperate with fair demands any time anywhere. After all, not much is being asked of him the other 23 hours of the day. But if your farrier arrives when the feed buckets are banging, the doors are sliding, the traffic in the aisle is bumper to bumper, or horses are galloping in a nearby arena, it might not go as smoothly as if you scheduled it for another time of day.
© 2007 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information