California Riding Magazine • July, 2011

Ask Charles Wilhelm
How Do I Get My Horse
to Accept the Farrier?

Question: About two months ago I purchased a 3-year-old. The farrier tried to trim his feet and had major problems. He ended up putting a stud chain on him and the horse fought even harder. Finally, we had to sedate the horse. This was a terrible experience for both of us. What can I do to reestablish the horse's trust? How can I get him to accept the farrier?

Answer: It is relatively common for a young horse to dislike having his feet or legs worked on. Horses are prey animals. It takes a lot of trust for a horse to allow a foot to be picked up as this prevents the horse from running away. Your horse may be used to you and be relaxed with you but you may not have put any pressure on the horse around his feet or legs. This is a common problem but if the horse hasn't learned to accept pressure of any kind, he is going to react with fight or flight. Also, farriers with their chaps, tool boxes and other equipment may be frightening for a young horse.

Situations like this are why I do a lot of basic foundation training. All horses need this type of training. Horses must learn to pick up their feet on cue. They also must learn to accept pressure around the feet. In training, we put more pressure on a horse around the feet and legs than an owner. An owner will usually be gentle, maybe too gentle. We want to push buttons. We want the horse to react and then we work with the horse to get it used to the pressure. We do this to prevent someone coming along and touching the horse or trying to pick up a foot and getting kicked.

As we progress in the training of a horse, we add more pressure around the legs and feet. We pick up the feet, bump the legs, and we use a dressage stick to tap on the legs and body. The horse may be aggravated but will eventually get used to it and accept it. Imagine a small child running up to a horse and grabbing a leg. I have seen this happen. A horse that is accustomed to pressure around the legs will likely do nothing. An untrained horse may rear, kick, or jump and injure the child.

I think of a horse in terms of a pyramid. The base has four corners. Each corner represents an aspect of the horse: mental, physical, emotional and nutritional. A horse needs to be mentally engaged, to learn to respond to physical cues, and to have proper nutrition. Working with the emotions of a horse is one of the more difficult areas and one that takes knowledge of how to do it and patience in doing it.

When a farrier or anyone else puts a stud chain on a horse for the first time in the horse's experience, the horse will go into fight or flight mode. As you experienced, things can get ugly very quickly. Flight instinct causes horses to go through fences, over cliffs, run out in front of cars and run over their owners. Horses don't have the concept of preservation except to flee or fight. This is why we must gradually build up a tolerance of pressure.

We begin by tapping, not hitting, with a dressage stick. Once the horse is comfortable with that we pick up the legs. We sack out the horse with a plastic bag and later a tarp. We put a soft cotton rope around the legs so that if they ever get tangled up in something they won't panic and hurt themselves. By the time a horse is ready to see a farrier the horse is totally calm being handled and touched around the feet and legs.

Here at the barn we see 35 to 40 horses a month and they all go through this type of training. We just had a horse come in that supposedly had to be drugged because he would not let a farrier get near him. I worked with the horse for a couple of 20 minute periods within an hour and then the farrier was able to put shoes on him without him exploding and being concerned. When I started, the horse's emotional level was very high and he was ready to go into flight mode. I worked through that and once he was quiet I began to work around his legs to accept pressure. When the farrier came up to him it was no big deal.

Most of the problems with a horse, no matter what they are, are caused by a lack of basic foundation training. The solution is to start teaching the horse in baby steps. You may be so excited to ride the horse that you don't want to take the time or you forget the importance of the basic ground work. Every horse needs good ground manners. They also need to accept the pressure of being around strangers, farriers, and vets. Your horse needs to accept having his legs and feet touched. You should be able to touch your horse all over. This may take time and you should begin slowly with small steps, building up as the horse becomes more accepting. You may need to find a trainer to work with the horse to build up tolerance in steps.

God Bless,
Charles Wilhelm