Maintaining your horse's hooves is vital to his overall health and well-being. After all, you know what they say: no hoof, no horse. You know what you expect from your farrier, but have you ever considered what your farrier expects from you and your horse? The process of properly assessing, trimming, balancing, and shoeing a horse's feet is accomplished more easily and with higher quality if horse owners have a good understanding of what farriers need and expect from clients-both the two-legged and four-legged versions.
Chuck Gibson of Chuck's Farrier Service in Lima, Ohio, knows these expectations well. Gibson, the official farrier for the Michigan Reining Horse Association, has had under his care numerous National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) world champions, All American Quarter Horse Congress champions, and NRHA Derby/Futurity winners. Since he graduated from the Kentucky Horseshoeing School in 1998 and completed an apprenticeship, he continues to build his knowledge and hone his skills. With his expertise, Gibson helps explain what a farrier needs and provides tips for how to train a farrier-friendly horse.
Safety and Professional Courtesy
To create a safe work environment for your farrier, give him or her the highlights of your horse's experience and behavior when you're scheduling. Gibson sums it up nicely: "The farrier wants to know what he's getting into to schedule properly and be prepared when he goes to work. You can't beat safety. I don't know any client who will pay your workman's comp or your hospital bills."
Tell your farrier if your horse hasn't been shod before, or doesn't like to stand, or even if you simply don't know your horse's history. Your farrier will expect your horse to stand quietly and pick up his feet with indifference. If your horse is at all uncooperative, it'll take longer to work on him.
With some basic information, your farrier can allot more time to properly assess and deal with the entire situation during that visit. Of course, your goal is to work with your horse to resolve problems and train him to stand quietly before the farrier's visit.
Be ready when your farrier arrives. Common sense and common courtesy will make your farrier's work safe and efficient. Groom and halter your horse so all you have to do is pull him out of the stall. "He shouldn't be wet or muddy," says Gibson. "I shouldn't leave your barn with more hair on me than the horse."
Aisles should be clean, uncluttered, and well lit. Remove shovels, brooms, lawnmowers, machinery, and tools.
The floor should be level and swept clean. Natural angles and conformation deviations in your horse's hooves and legs need to be properly assessed to balance and angle the foot. Uneven ground can impede this assessment. Dirt floors should be leveled and have rubber mats. For safety, concrete floors should also have mats. "Even if the horse is barefoot, concrete can be too slippery," notes Gibson. "And concrete should be broom finished, not polished, for added traction."
Start 'em Young
A horse's first experience with the farrier can create lifelong habits. Likewise, conformation faults and crooked legs can be lifelong struggles. "It's important to get legs and hooves as correct as possible as soon as possible, so your horse will be sounder longer throughout his life," says Gibson. "You want a good experience-you don't want to create a problem horse from a young age because your lack of preparation added to his bad experience."
Your farrier likely wants to shoe your horse, not train him, so it's imperative that your young horse be taught the ropes.
Gibson advises to start teaching foals from day one. "Stand there and hold their feet," he says. "Most young horses are flighty, but not aggressive or mean. Go slow, and do things a little at a time. Don't get too aggressive with punishment. You don't want to scare the foal more." The way to a calm, quiet horse is through a lot of calm, quiet repetition. Be sure to make your foal's first experience with the farrier a good one.
The advantages of preventing problems by teaching young horses proper behavior around the farrier-as opposed to correcting these problems when they're older-are pretty straightforward:
• Foals represent a clean slate; they haven't yet had any bad experiences with farriers.
• Some foals are easy to manipulate, especially if you have help from a knowledgeable horseperson.
• The chances of getting hurt aren't quite as high with a foal as compared to a 1,000-pound two-year-old who's never been properly handled or prepared for the farrier.
Gibson advises, "It's just like teaching foals to do anything else. If they have a bad experience, they will remember it." He adds, "If you can get them trained before the farrier arrives, their behavior will continue to improve. A bad experience may stay with them for life."
Tips from the Trenches
Here are several tips from Gibson on common problems farriers and horse owners face:
Scared/Inexperienced/Hoof-Shy Horses: "Sack out" a scared or inexperienced horse to help teach him trust while desensitizing him to new experiences. To sack out your horse, simple take a plastic feed bag-one that makes noise when you handle it-and rub your horse down with it as though you were polishing his haircoat. Crinkle it all over him until the noise and feel of it doesn't bother him and he stands quietly. (For more information on sacking out, see the article "Sacking Out the Problem Horse" on page 28 of this issue.)
"By sacking out your horse, you get him used to being handled in places where he won't usually get touched," Gibson explains. Once your horse is used to being sacked out, picking up a foot shouldn't be so scary.
When your horse accepts being sacked out, you can move to picking up a foot. Start by outfitting him in a halter and lead rope, and having a helper hold him. Place your hand flat on your horse's neck, and glide it down the shoulder, forearm, and leg to the foot. This takes away any surprise element of grabbing his pastern.
If your horse stands quietly while you approach his foot, pick it up-the first time for just a second. Then put it down and claim success for the day. Each day, ask your horse to hold his foot up longer, by intervals. Before you know it, he'll be trained to stand and allow his feet to be picked up.
Fussy and Impatient Horses: "If I know a horse is going to be fussy-young horses especially-I move slowly," notes Gibson. "I do everything I can to make them comfortable. Pet them, and slowly and quietly pick up their legs." For both the front and hind legs, "Keep your horse's legs in the correct position underneath him as opposed to pulling the leg out to the side," says Gibson. "Try to keep the hoof low to the ground. Stand straight behind your horse, and don't get the leg too far away from the body."
Sometimes, a simple change in location can help quiet a fussy or impatient horse. "You can change the place where you work on the horse-move from the aisle to the wash rack or the stall," says Gibson.
The Leaner: "If the horse likes to lean on me, I drop his leg," says Gibson. "I just step out from under him and let his foot hit the ground hard. Sooner or later the horse will get it. I don't advise farriers to try and hold up a 1,000-pound horse."
While you're teaching your horse manners for the farrier, you may find that holding your horse's foot up for 10 minutes is difficult. If you need help, invest in a hoof cradle (a hoof stand can be converted to a cradle by buying an interchangeable sling-like top piece), which works on both the front and back feet.
Some horses won't leave their feet on the cradle, but Gibson claims it's not the cradle that's the problem. "They're not used to stretching in the way required by a farrier," he says. So how do you get a horse to keep his foot in the hoof cradle? "Repetition," suggests Gibson. "Keep practicing. The most important thing is your horse's comfort. His legs should be parallel with his body, not off to the side or too far forward. And the stand should be the right height for him."
The Nuzzler/Nipper: You know the type-the horse that rubs and wiggles his lips all over the farrier's back. It may seem kind of cute, until your horse takes a bite out of your farrier.
As your farrier works on your horse, pay attention to keep him from being bothersome. "Keep a short lead," says Gibson. "If your horse is in the cross-ties and he stands well but wants to nip, you can use a noseband or cavesson so he can't open his mouth. Or you can use a grazing muzzle/basket or an oat bag-the kind that straps behind the ears. Your horse will be able to breathe through it, but he won't be able to eat through it, so he can't bite me, either."
Training Aids: Friend or Foe?
In the right situation and when used properly, training aids, such as hobbles, stocks, and lip chains, are useful. But keep in mind that they're training aids-not a method to subdue your horse for every trim.
"You can use scotch hobbles to hold up your horse's foot," says Gibson. "In this type of hobble, a strap goes from the cannon bone and wraps around the forearm. I prefer that this hobble is used for training, not during shoeing. I can work on horses that way, but they'll usually get mad, and I don't advise it. I would prefer to have the owner teach him to stand before the next visit."
For truly unruly horses and only if absolutely necessary, Gibson prefers to use tranquilizers-administered by a veterinarian-instead of training aids. "Tranquilizers are better than having a bad event," he says.
Further, Gibson believes that horses do learn while they're lightly sedated. "They figure out that they're going to be okay. It's definitely better than forcing them into submission. However, don't ever use sedation as a substitution for training. The way to get a horse to behave is quiet repetition."
For a fussy horse that needs a little discipline, Gibson prefers a cotton lead placed in the inside of the upper lip to a twitch or a lip chain. It's not as harsh, and it provides more control.
Stocks are used primarily for draft breeds. If you own a draft horse, build or buy stocks, or use a farrier who specializes in draft horses. "Draft horses are so big that when they move a little, you have to move a lot to keep up with them," Gibson says.
Like all the other training aids, avoid using stocks for the first time when the farrier arrives. Train your draft horse to stand in the stocks beforehand.
Training the Owner
Sometimes horse owners need a quick course in Horse Manners 101. Horses are like kids-they need consistent discipline and enforced limits. "Owners need to understand that horses aren't lap dogs," Gibson reminds everyone. "It doesn't take a whole lot of effort for a horse to hurt someone."
Meeting your farrier's expectations not only creates a farrier-friendly horse, but also improves the quality of care your horse receives-the quality of service you're paying for-and it makes your horse more enjoyable to own.