Q: I recently got a wonderful new horse, but I am having problems getting him to let me pick up his feet. Can clicker training help me with this problem?
A: Clicker training is definitely one way you can work on this “grounded” issue. Many times, horses that are reluctant to pick up their feet are not being difficult, they are simply not balanced enough to do it comfortably. Also, people oft en rush a horse to pick up his foot and don’t give him time to reorganize his balance. With clicker training, we can approach picking up a horse’s hoof differently: we will have the horse pick up his own hoof. He does it on his own many, many times a day, so we just need to capture and reinforce that behaviour. Shaping, or teaching your horse to do this behaviour will work best if he has already had some exposure to clicker training. If you go online and find the back issues of Saddle Up, my foundation lessons are there with their accompanying video links and are a great place to start your relationship with a new horse. You can also find the videos by searching YouTube for “d1fairy.”
These lessons will set you both up for success with this “ungrounding” training. You need to have some of the foundation training in place before starting to teach your horse to OFFER TO PICK UP his hoof. Notice that I said to teach your horse to OFFER his foot - nothing about you “picking up” the horse’s hoof! This is a very different approach. Changing the way you approach and think about lifting up hooves is an important point in shaping your horse to offer his hoof.
Thinking differently makes you different. Now is a good time to introduce the term, POISONED CUE. A “poisoned” cue is a cue that, when given, doesn’t always have a positive outcome when it is responded to, and the outcome (good or bad) can’t be predicted. Think about having your boss say he’d like to see you in his office. For most of us, this would cause some apprehension, because sometimes it means good things, and sometimes not.
We can never tell what it will be each time. Asking your horse to pick up his hoof can be a poisoned cue for your horse, just like going to the see the boss might be for you. Sometimes when he was asked to pick up a hoof, good things happened. Sometimes when he was asked, he wasn’t ready, and got smacked or pushed to get him to pick up his hoof. Same cue, different result. How does he know what to expect each time? Poisoned cues lead to reluctance to do that behaviour. If we look at his reluctance to pick up a hoof as a balance issue, having him offer his foot will allow him to improve his balance. This will have great spillover effects in other areas of his training. Clicker training has this wonderful spillover effect!
simplyHow do you start getting him to OFFER TO HOLD UP A HOOF? Start with the hoof that is the “least stuck” to the ground, and it will be to your advantage if you have your horse in a place where he is inclined to move about a bit. You are going to watch the leg with the hoof you have decided to work on. Why the leg? The leg will start to bend before the hoof starts to come off the ground. Remember, in clicker training, like all good training, you need to break the training down into small, easy steps so the horse can be successful. It would be unrealistic to expect him to lift and hold his foot up right from the start, so we will capture and shape successive approximations of the end behaviour that we want. I like to start this by placing my hand on his shoulder. I can then feel his muscle tighten as he gets ready to move his leg.
I am NOT pressing or pushing on his shoulder to get him to move, I am using my hand to give me an advanced signal that he is actually moving his leg. At the slightest movement of the shoulder, I will click and treat. Do not bend over or assume a “hoof picking-up position.” Stand upright. You are going to click and treat him for any slight movement of his leg that is a forward lift , a move that would eventually lead to his lifting his hoof off the ground. If your timing of the click is good, he will quickly figure out that the reward has something to do with his lift ing that hoof. Simply keep reinforcing these small tries, building on the height and duration of the lift s over time. You will soon have a horse that will off er you his own hoof and he will hold it up to be cleaned.
Please visit the Youtube Channel to watch the three videos on hoof lifting, starting from scratch and going through to the holding up of his own hoof.
Until next time, keep it positive.