Horse Behavior for Shoeing - part 2

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Horse Behavior for Trimming and Shoeing

  2007 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

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The Senses

Keen senses allow horses to pick up very slight changes in the environment. Often more sensitive to subtle movements, far-off sounds or vibrations, and smells than you are, horses are frequently alerted to imagined potential danger (mountain lion) while you notice nothing out of the ordinary (just a new pair of elk gloves or a new brand of clipper oil).

When a horse is convinced that danger is imminent, his reaction is to flee or if restrained in any way, to break loose. It is the rare horse that on its own will calmly re-assess the situation in the event that he might be imagining things.

If a horse lacks confidence or has received poor handling he can spook with the slightest provocation. And horses have excellent memories; they remember events from the past vividly, especially if they relate to danger, whether it was imagined or real. It is thought that horses never quite forget their fears. The best remedy is to encapsulate the bad experiences with layer upon layer of good ones.

How to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillSuppose a horse once had a very frightening experience in the cross-ties (flipped up and over backwards) and a farrier happened to be present. The next time the horse is tied in the aisle and a farrier approaches with his toolbox, what do you think is happening inside the biological organism, the horse? His sense of smell, sight, and hearing are understandably put on red alert. Gut motility increases to prepare for flight. The horse empties its intestine to be as light as possible for escape and begins moving in any way possible. The intensity of the horse's behavior will depend on its temperament and training and on what happens during the first couple of minutes you are together. Convince the horse that more good things than bad occur at that particular spot by giving him a scratch on the withers before you pick up his foot and by giving him breaks when needed. With a badly frightened horse, you might want to consider using one of the calming neutraceuticals or having your vet tranquilize the horse. Realize that using drugs is only a temporary, last ditch method for getting some urgently needed hoof work done.


Because a horse's natural behavior patterns must be altered in order for him to be shod, being aware of equine reflex chains and learning processes can be helpful. Behavior modifications based on already existing instincts and reflexes result in minimal stress and long-lasting results.

Horses are capable of quickly assuming thundering speeds from a standstill, of rising and running instantly from a lateral recumbent sleeping position, and of striking or kicking in the blink of an eye. These lightning-quick reflexes have helped the horse survive for over sixty million years. The same automatic responses allow today's horse to perform in a vast array of spectacular performance events, but they also are potentially dangerous for you or your farrier.

You must learn to work with and/or systematically over-ride the horse's reflexes. For example, it is a protective response (the withdrawal reflex) for a horse to raise its leg when it is touched. Yet, many horses have had this area desensitized (reflex over-ridden) so that the horse will keep his foot on the ground for clipping, washing, and leg wrapping.

Rather than straining your back trying to literally pick up an unresponsive horse's foot, you must train the horse to remember his initial reflex so that he picks the hoof up himself. Then you merely have to catch it. Initially, you will probably have to ask in a very assertive manner so the horse can differentiate between the "lift" request and the "stay put foot" response for grooming. You can do this by either handling the chestnut or pinching the flexor tendon area just above the fetlock. Be ready to catch the hoof in its upward flight, because the total reflex chain includes the horse putting its foot right back down. If you let the horse put its foot right down several times after the pinching cue, you have inadvertently taught him the wrong lesson.

To more easily persuade an inexperienced foal to pick up its left hind foot, for example, an assistant can activate the appropriate reflexes by turning the head to the right and also lifting the head and neck slightly with a hand under the chin. The right legs automatically extend but the left tend to flex thereby aiding the lifting of the left hind foot. Similarly, lifting the left fore foot can be induced by a right head turn, but this time, the neck is flexed ventrally by hand pressure on the nose.

Once a horse has picked up its foot, and this is especially true with the hinds, have enough respect for the honest horse that you allow him to do what he needs to do to stretch, relax, over-ride other reflexes that the position may be triggering, and get comfortable with his balance before you begin working. This may only take a few seconds but it will be added insurance that he will be comfortable and will stand still thereby making you more comfortable. When you are training your horse, only hold the foot up for a few seconds to begin with and gradually hold it for longer periods of time as his training progresses.

Horse Handling and Grooming by Cherry HillIf you have a horse that pulls his feet away once you have them picked up, be sure you are standing in close to him when you hold the leg so you aren't accidentally pulling his leg out to the side. Hold the hoof so that the knee is bent at about a 90 degree angle and the cannon is parallel to the ground. If you bend the knee more than this, it is uncomfortable. If you let the cannon drop closer to the floor than this, the horse's reflex will be to try to put it down. To help you hold onto the hoof of a horse that likes to snatch the leg away, tip the toe upward so that the fetlock joint is bent - it will be more difficult for the horse to jerk his foot out of your hand.

When you need to reposition a horse that is tied, use reflex principles to your advantage. When you apply pressure on the horse's side, he will usually try to move his head toward you, flex his ribs away from you, and step with his hind legs away from you. Knowing this, you can set him up ahead of time in a position that makes it easier for him to do the right thing. Tip his nose toward you and then apply pressure on the ribs. Horses tend to move away from light intermittent pressure and into heavy steady pressure. So rather than planting a rigid fist in the horse's side, use a tapping with your fingers and you will get better results.

Contrary to what is often seen practiced, an untrained horse backs up naturally and more willingly from light intermittent pressure on the points of the chest (providing the head and neck are not restricted from lowering) than by grabbing the halter and hauling on the noseband. In fact, pressure on the bridge of the nose actually causes the untrained horse to raise its nose and resist backing. However, a horse can be conditioned to lower the head by applying simultaneous pressure to the poll and the nose.

The reflexes of the relaxed horse are not on edge. Therefore, he may be a bit slower to respond to your cues but also less likely to explode. To add to a horse's relaxation and to avoid triggering red-alert, try to work on level ground and be sure that the horse's other three legs are in a balanced configuration, especially if you intend to work on one hoof for an extended period of time. Work close under the horse's body, moving the leg away from its normal plane as little as possible. Twisting or pulling the leg away from the horse's side may cause the horse discomfort, serve to develop resentment with shoeing, and set off a physical outburst to relieve the pent-up discomfort. Older horses are often stiff, especially in the hind joints, and may be more comfortable and cooperative with their legs held lower than usual.

Horse For Sale by Cherry HillBe aware of accidental cues or conflicting signals you may be giving the horse as you work. Is your hair or your hat tickling the abdominals or the ribs setting off reflex contractions? Is the horse covered with reflex-triggering flies? Use fly spray! When you practice stretching the foot forward (to mimic the hoof stand) by holding the foot between your knees, are you inadvertently applying uncomfortable pressure on the coronary band?


Reflexes are automatic responses to pressure on or movement of various portions of the body. The intensity of the reaction will vary depending on the horse's physical makeup (thin skin, fine hair coat, hot or cold blooded etc.), temperament, experience, training, physical restriction, degree of relaxation or tension, and how forcefully and with what the pressure is applied. A horse that is willful or resentful will over-ride his own reflexes by tuning out your aids as a means of protection or defense. The reaction to pressure on various areas.

reflex zones of the horse, Horse Training, Horse Care, and Riding Books and Videos from Cherry Hill at 1. Poll. Raise head and neck. May try to pull away. Can be conditioned to lower head.
2. Bridge of Nose. Raise head, dorsiflex neck, flip nose up. Can be conditioned to lower head.
3. Head. With no alteration in a normal neck position: Upward head extension causes forelimb flexion, hind limb extension; Head down (ventroflexion) induces hind leg flexion, foreleg extension.
4. Crest. Lower neck.
5. Breast. Back up if the head is low.
6. Forelimb extensors. Cannon and hoof brought out to the front.
7. Forelimb flexors. Leg will bend at knee.
8. Withers. Light pressure: lower head, reach with head, nibble if scratched. Heavy pressure: avoidance from pain, threatening gestures with head and neck.
9. Neck. Contraction on side touched. With no alteration in normal head position: Dorsiflexion of neck induces hind leg flexion and foreleg extension; Ventroflexion of neck induces foreleg flexion and hindleg extension.
10. Back. (Spina prominens chain) Light pressure on spine from withers to lumbo-sacral junction will cause hollowing (dorsiflexion). On left side will cause spine to curve away from pressure and left hind leg to move forward.
11. Ribs. Turn head toward you, ribs flex away from pressure, nearest hind leg flexes, opposite hind extends causing sway or crossing.
12. Loin. Flatten or round back (ventroflex).
13. Croup. Tuck tail and hindquarters and round back.
14. Semitendinosus. Raise leg or kick.
15. Gaskin. Flex hock.
16. Flank. Reach hind leg forward or cow kick.
17. Sheath. Reach both hind legs forward. Drop croup.
18. Abdominals. Contract belly, round back, arch neck, drop croup.
19. Distal Limbs. Withdrawal by flexion.
20. Cutaneous trunci or panniculus. Sheet of muscle under skin of barrel. Light stroking causes rapid repeated twitching. Firm, steady pressure causes tonic contraction.

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  2007 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

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