Home » Hoof Care Made Easy With Positive Reinforcement

Hoof Care Made Easy With Positive Reinforcement

Photo 1: Hoof Care is very easy with R+….

R+ Hoof Care Is Best Cooperative, But It Can Still Be Taught Even If Your Situation Isn’t Quite Ready For Cooperative Yet…

Up until recently I handled hoof care less like a cooperative care behaviour, and more as a behaviour that had to happen without choice. My reason for this was that my farrier had a very busy schedule with school, and another job. I felt that my horses saying “no” to hoof care would be disastrous, especially if my farrier was squeezing us into her schedule. We simply didn’t have time to either wait for a yes or reschedule. Unfortunately, my farrier now has to travel for school, and really doesn’t have the time to fit us in.

I live in a small town, and she is the only farrier (the next one is 5 hrs away) which means that I needed to take over the job of looking after my horse’s feet. I attended a hoof care clinic and have a qualified farrier who is willing to assess my horse’s feet every 6 months while coaching and supporting me online through the rest of the process. At first it was a bit intimidating, but now I’m feeling really empowered!

A quick note before we move on:

If you aren’t quite ready to make your hoof care cooperative, you can still train the hoof care behaviours with R+. The better our horses understand which behaviours to present when we are working on their feet the easier hoof care is for our horses, the farrier, and us.  

What My Horse’s Hoof Care Behaviour Looked Like Before Making It Cooperative…

Originally my horses were trained to pick up their feet immediately when the farrier bent over and touched their leg. This prevents the farrier from having to use unnecessary pressure and gives me the opportunity to reward my horse. Then I would stand in front and feed my horses either open bar style (continuously) or using a duration interval using a “food is coming keep going” click (more on this later). The feeding in front wasn’t necessary, as all my horses will stand tied to have their feet done, but it did make it a little easier, as I can influence where the horse puts their weight, which saves the farrier’s back, and makes trimming a little easier for them.

Adding In The Hoof Stand Behaviour…

Since I no longer have to accommodate my farrier’s schedule, I decided to build on the hoof lifting behaviour. My goal was for my horses to hold their hooves on the hoof stand for a relatively long duration. Giving me enough time to map out and clean the hoof, then trim/file. It’s really important for me to be able to take my time making sure I do the best job I can. I wanted to do all of this completely at liberty and without someone open bar feeding the horse in front. Not only does this give me the best opportunity to do a good job, it also saves my back.  

Before Moving Into How To… What Part Of This Makes It Cooperative?

So where is the cooperative part in this? First, I wait for my horse to do the default behaviour (head in middle of the chest, all four feet on the ground), then I move the hoof stand to the foot I would like to work on. This gives my horse a clear visual of what we will be working on. Then I cue the hoof lift. If the horse lifts her foot, then she is ready for me to move the hoof stand under it. If she doesn’t then she isn’t ready. In this way my horse can choose to participate or not. Because I am doing the work, I don’t have to rush or push my horse, I can figure out why there is a no, and work with it.

Once the hoof is on the stand, I then reinforce the behaviour of leaving the hoof there by using a varied duration schedule. I keep the schedule around a specific average time. I slowly increase the average over time, so that my horses will perform the behaviour for longer and longer before needing reinforcement. Giving me enough time to work on their hooves. If my horse needs a break when her foot is on the hoof stand, she simply lifts her foot off the stand, or lets it slide, and I let it go. When I am ready to take the hoof off the stand, I use the “stop behaviour reinforcement is coming click” and put the hoof down.     

The Following Is A List Of Prerequisite Behaviours….

All of this may seem simple, but it is quite complicated and requires that the horse has a deep understanding of each behaviour (this involves more than one behaviour). This process is a behavioural chain (More on this in a later post). Prerequisite behaviours are the basic behaviours “Stand”, “Default”, and “Freeze Nose Target” (I will write about these in a blog post at a later date).

Prerequisite clicks are the “continue behaviour reinforcement is coming click” and the “stop behaviour and wait for reinforcement click” (I will write about these in detail at a later date as well). In short, the first click is a word that I use when I am about to reward my horse, but I want him to maintain the behaviour. I use this one a lot when walking at liberty. With this click my horse keeps walking while I hand him reinforcement. The second click means stop what you are doing and stand in “default” waiting for reinforcement. I use a clicker, or a tongue click for this one. When using the second while walking at liberty my horse will immediately stop after the click, and then I will hand him reinforcement.

Photo 2: Flare showing off her beautiful hoof stand behaviour while I clean the snow out of her foot.
Photo 3: The First Behaviour Is The Hoof Lift Targeting My Hand… The Next Behaviour Is Holding/Freezing The Fetlock To My Hand With Duration.

Finally The How To… Starting With Behaviour 1.

The first behaviour that needs to be trained is the basic hoof lift. This is just picking the hoof up and putting it down. At this point I don’t use the final cue. For front feet usually I will stand beside the hoof that I want lifted, and either I will put my hand on the back of the fetlock, or a target (depending on the horse), then I will click (using the clicker or tongue click) and reward, and repeat, eventually moving my hand a little away so that the horse has to move the foot to make contact with my hand essentially targeting my hand with the back of their fetlock. Once this is established, I just lift my hand higher and higher. Pretty soon they will lift to the full height target my hand and then put the hoof down.

Next… Behaviour 2…

Then comes the tricky part…adding duration. Will the horse hold their fetlock targeted to my hand in the lifted position for a period of time? I use the clicker still for this one. The click indicates the horse can break the freeze target and put their hoof down. This takes time to build up but is perfect for when we begin switching to the hoof grab. I do the exact same with the hind foot, except I sometimes target the front of the fetlock instead of the back (This is 100% dependent on the horse I am working with. The important thing to note is that I stay consistent with whichever I choose. I don’t target the front of the fetlock, one day and then the back the next).

Sometimes touching the fetlock can already be a poisoned cue, or the initial target (moving the hand slightly off the fetlock) can be a bit hard for the horse to understand, in which case we need another way to encourage a hoof lift. This can be done with getting the horse to nose target (taking a forward or backwards step), or just pure free shaping. It is the same in that at first, we just get the pick up and put down. Once that is established, we move into adding duration. Holding the hoof up with duration can be taught with or without the freeze target. I find the freeze target (especially to the hand) makes the hoof hold a smaller jump.

I hope you notice here that there are many, many ways to train each behaviour. Like always I encourage you to be creative and see what works for you and your horse.

Behaviour 3…

The next behaviour is the hoof hand hold. The horse should hold their own hoof up while still maintaining relaxation enough that I can move the hoof. I heavily reinforce the initial hand hold. The next part “moving the hoof” only happens when the hand hold is relaxed and well understood (it should feel like you and the horse are holding hands). It requires shaping using small approximations and creativity to teach the horse to relax and allow us to move their hoof forward, and back, higher or lower, and on to the hoof stand.

We Want To Lightly Support The Hoof…

At this point we don’t want to hold on to the hoof, just lightly support it. It can be a challenge not to pull the hoof into place, but its important that the leg is relaxed and easily moveable before we begin moving it. It is VERY important to be mindful of the horse’s comfort level at this point. Some horses are very stiff, so we never want to pull their leg further than their natural range of motion. Also, Aggressive movements too soon can intimidate the horse and set the training back.

If the horse wants their hoof back, we give it back which is the opposite of what R- training tells us to do, and if you are like me and come from a solid background in R- training it feels very counter intuitive to give the hoof back. But I find the horses are quicker to relax when they know that they don’t need to have a physical fight for their own feet.

Next We Add In The Hoof Stand…Behaviour 4…

Once you have established a relaxed hoof grab where you can move the relaxed leg/foot up and down, forward and back (well within your horse’s range of motion), you are ready for the hoof stand behaviour. To start I work with the front feet. I cue a hoof lift, hold the hoof, and then gently put the hoof on the stand (can you see the behavioural chain here?), and then gently hold it in place (just to keep it from slipping if the horse moves, if the horse wants it back I still give it back. I don’t hold tight and keep the foot there.) While keeping the hand on the heel of the hoof to keep it stable on the stand I “open bar feed” with my other hand.

As soon as possible I remove my hand from the hoof and move to the front of the horse feeding continuously the entire time. First I establish the front of the hoof on the stand (Photo 4), and then I do the bottom of the hoof on the stand.

Next Is Adding Duration To The Hoof Stand Behaviour…

When the horse is ready and seems very comfortable on the stand (after a few sessions) I begin adding duration between reinforcement using a varied duration schedule. Pretty soon the horse will hold their foot on the stand for long enough that I can clean their hooves, trim, file or even medicate them if necessary. The back hooves can be a bit trickier but if the horse has a good understanding of the front hooves, they usually make the leap just fine. If not, it can be very helpful to get a friend to either support the hoof or do the initial feeding. Once the back feet have been established on the hoof stand a few times building duration is no problem! The final step is lifting the hoof back up, moving the hoof stand out of the way, giving the final stop behaviour click, and reinforcing when the hoof goes back to the ground.

Photo 4: Moving Fox’s Relaxed Hind Leg On To The Hoof Stand…

Once You Have A Duration That Works For You And Your Horse You’re All Done!

And that’s it! After a bit of work the horse now has a solid cooperative care hoof stand behaviour. The hoof stand behaviour is a fabulous back saver, and ensures that the horse will be well behaved for whoever needs to handle their feet. Also note that I have added the cooperative care part to this, but if you want to just teach the hoof care part because you are like I was and have a farrier on a schedule, that works too!

As a side note… A frequent question that I get is.. Where should someone start when beginning R+? I always say start with an educated instructor. It will save you a lot of mistakes and re-training in the long run. Training with food and other positive reinforcers is a skill, and just like any other skill it takes time to master.   

Have A Fantastic Day!


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