You’ve probably heard the common expression “No hoof, no horse.” Of course, your regular farrier visits are vital to your horse’s health and to your riding enjoyment. But what if you have one of those horses that turns into a devil the minute the farrier’s truck pulls up outside the stable? It’s probably not your horse’s fault. Whether you have inadvertently encouraged bad behaviour with the farrier or your horse came to you with fear already ingrained, here are some tips to make farrier visits more pleasant for both you and your horse.
Getting Ready for the Farrier Call
Having your horse ready when the farrier arrives can help start things off smoothly. If you’re frantically trying to clean up your horse or come flying into the stable late for the appointment, your horse will pick up on your anxiety. It’s also rude to the farrier. If you are a stable manager or trainer handling multiple horses for the farrier, consider sending reminder messages in advance to all the owners whose horses will be seeing the farrier on a given date.
Instead, arrive at the stable with extra time to prepare your horse in a leisurely fashion, especially if your horse has a history of not liking the farrier’s visit. Make sure your horse is groomed and the feet are picked. Don’t apply any hoof treatments that can make its feet difficult to grasp, and don’t send your horse to the farrier with wet feet either, as this makes the farrier’s apron slippery. A spritz of fly spray can help keep your horse from wanting to stomp at flies during the session.
Choose a quiet area of the stable where the farrier can set up. Don’t have lots of other horses marching past the horses being trimmed as this creates a potentially dangerous distraction. Likewise remove all kids, dogs, and stable cats from the area. Hoof trimmings are a delicacy to some dogs, but getting underfoot to snag them can pose a hazard.
Some stables try to queue up the horses like an assembly line for the farrier. While this works with docile animals, it may serve to make nervous horses more jittery, especially if they are prone to mimicking the behaviour of other anxious horses. You can ask the farrier to give you a five- or ten-minute call when he or she is almost ready for the next horse, so horses aren’t standing around waiting for an unnecessarily long time.
If you have a challenging horse that is calmed by being around a more sedate horse, however, it may pay to bring them out together. In fact it’s a good idea to have very young horses watch the older members of the herd being trimmed and shod to learn that there’s nothing to get excited about. You should also pick up your colt or filly’s feet often and get them used to being touched on the legs. You can even have them come to a stable call and allow the farrier to pick up their feet, keep them on the hoof stand for a moment, etc., so they gradually ease into a full farrier appointment.
During the Trimming and Shoeing
Unless your farrier requests it, don’t just hand off your horse and leave. Ideally, you should be standing by holding the lead rope and offering comfort to your horse. Horses should not be seen by the farrier in cross-ties.
Don’t correct your horse while the farrier is working on it, other than to tighten your hand on the rope or prevent an accident. Some people give their horses a smack on the nose when they do something undesirable, but this just helps the horse associate unpleasantness with the farrier. Don’t permit the horse to rub or mouth the farrier’s back during work. Also, don’t peer over the farrier’s shoulder as this will likely cause your horse to follow your gaze, pulling both the horse and the farrier off balance.
If your horse is mouthy or mildly annoyed during farrier visits, you can try offering a little treat as a distraction. Apples, carrots, watermelon, peppermints, and cookies may buy you some time to get the work done. Hanging a hay bag is another good diversion for some horses. You can also start rewarding the horse after the farrier visit with special things it only receives after standing nicely for hoof work, like a massage or a favourite toy.
Helping Severely Resistant Horses
Horses that are very resistant to the farrier almost always have some deep fear of the situation, often well founded by previous poor treatment or even abuse. It’s also simply part of the nature of a horse as a prey animal to resist an unknown person in a big apron with all kinds of scary looking tools. If you can help figure out what is causing the fear, you can try to retrain your horse to get past it. This is usually a practice that takes time, and you want to take baby steps and not push your horse too much at first.
You may need to work with your veterinarian at the start until you’ve established better trust of the farrier by your horse. It’s possible you will need to administer a sedative in order to carry out basic necessary hoof care, but the idea is to eventually get rid of sedation altogether. If the horse has a legitimate source of pain that is aggravated by farriery, you may need to give pain medication enough in advance to take effect by the time it’s worked on.
If you suspect your current farrier is part of the problem, you may need to switch providers. Just like doctors for humans, not all farriers have the same bedside manner, so to speak, and some have better horse handling skills than others. Some farriers are also able to work with greater dispatch, so what another farrier takes an hour to do they can do in 30 minutes.
If you need to change farriers, ask friends with similar breeds or who have nervous horses themselves. Your vet, breed association, or riding club can be another good source of information. There are also numerous farrier associations in Australia that can help you find just the right person for your horse. Once you find a farrier your horse likes, make sure that’s the person who sees your horse, not a partner or assistant.
If you can get the horse to tolerate a quick visit, that’s a big start. You may be able to do things like using glue-on shoes until your horse will stand for clinches. Or perhaps you can chuck the shoes for a season and ride barefoot to just focus on trimming.
Sometimes fear of the farrier is part of a constellation of behaviours involving lack of trust and aversion to touch. In this case, you want to gradually desensitise your horse to touch in general, then get it to accept the farrier’s equipment and stand still for the work. Engaging the help of a natural horsemanship trainer may be of value to offer advice about desensitisation , as this can be a complex process.
Basically, what you do in this instance is to start in a round pen or corral with the horse at liberty. Get the horse to move around the pen, and as it does so, “accidently” brush your arm against the horse. As you walk away and the horse retreats, it has a chance to ponder the encounter and think, “Hmm, the person touched me, and I didn’t die.” You gradually increase the contact until the horse is comfortable with more and more touch, then add things like leading, saddling, and the like.
To get the horse used to the farrier, you should first appeal to its sense of smell by rubbing the farrier’s apron over the horse’s body, so it comes to find it familiar. You can bring your horse tools to smell and inspect, so those become less frightening as well.
A horse that is a bit nervous about touch but not dangerous can benefit too from a regular massage. Equine massage teaches the horse that sometimes being touched has nothing to do with veterinary treatments or having to perform. The horse then begins to associate touch with feeling good. If your horse relaxes after a massage, you could consider using it as a precursor to the farrier visit. Sometimes even a mini-massage with some lavender oil can help the horse release enough anxiety to stand for the farrier. Even better, a horse knackered from a good workout that is then given a massage before the farrier may well doze off during the session.
A visit from the farrier shouldn’t precipitate a panic attack in you or your four-legged friends. Hopefully the tips above will help make sessions a bit easier for you. If you feel overwhelmed by your horse’s fear of the farrier, don’t let it become worse. Speak to your veterinarian and trainer immediately to see what you can do to turn a terrifying experience into just another run-of-the-mill event in your horse’s life.