The key to having horses and ponies who are relaxed and confident for farrier visits is proper preparation.
It’s easy to assume that they should just automatically know how to behave for the farrier. The reality is that horses are a prey species whose main defence against a threat is to activate the ‘flight’ response and having someone hold one of your feet up for a prolonged period puts you in a very vulnerable situation. When asking our horses to lift their feet, we are asking them to override millions of years of behavioural evolution.
We must ensure we do everything we can to help them to learn the farrier is not something they need to be fearful of.
- Start to prepare your horse far in advance of their first farriery treatment and ensure these preparations are kept positive for your horse. This can be done, for example, by gently running your hand down your horse’s legs and then providing them with a reward such as their favourite food or a firm wither scratch. Start by just touching the top of the leg and very gradually move your hand further each time. If your horse becomes worried at any point, just move your hand back up higher again and repeat that step until he is more relaxed.
- Ask your farrier to visit your horse if they are visiting other horses on your yard. If they can give your horse a tasty carrot or a nice wither scratch, then that is even better. This will help your horse to develop a positive association with the farrier.
- Ask your farrier if you could give him a small cloth or old t-shirt to put in his van so that it picks up the scents related to farriery. On the farrier’s next visit, ask him to return the cloth to you and then place this cloth near to your horse each time you feed him, so that he starts to associate those smells with something enjoyable – his feed. Horses have a strong sense of smell and often this is overlooked during training. I It is important to include this element in your training and preparation.
- Make farrier visits as easy for your horse as possible. Ideally, do them in a place where you know your horse is relaxed and feels safe. Provide a hay net or bucket of feed whilst he or she has the treatment so that they have something to keep them occupied and relaxed.
- Manage the environment. Help to keep your horse calm by having them in an area they are familiar with and feel safe in. Ensure they have a companion nearby to help to minimise their stress levels and keep the area calm and quiet with minimal distractions going on around them. Be mindful of the weather and keep them sheltered from the rain and wind. In the summer, choose somewhere where they will not be bothered by flies as they are likely to make them agitated.
- Choose an appropriate time of day for your farriery appointments. Trying to do your horse’s hooves at a time when they are normally turned out, for example, is likely to cause difficulties and frustrations. If they are used to being turned out at a particular time it will be especially hard for them to stay calm and focussed for a treatment at this time. Equally, if the other horses on the yard are being turned out but they are kept in for the farrier, this will massively increase their stress levels and reduce the chances of a successful farriery treatment.
- Communicate with your farrier. It’s important for your farrier to know if your horse is new to farriery or is worried about anything. Ask your farrier to give your horse a break if he starts to become worried or fidgety.
- Keep initial sessions short and positive. It may be too difficult for your horse to have a full trim on the farrier’s first visit. Instead it may be beneficial to just do two feet at first and come back for the others at a later date.
- Ask your farrier not to lift your horse’s legs too high. This is particularly important for smaller ponies as it is easy to accidentally try to lift their legs up higher than is comfortable for them. This can cause discomfort and may lead to them becoming gradually more difficult for the farrier. Ensuring the pony is kept comfortable will be beneficial for the pony and the farrier, making a treatment smoother for everyone.