Ask an Expert

Overcoming Shoeing Fears

March 30, 2011

A certified journeyman farrier helps a reader whose young horse is nervous about parts of the shoeing process.

John Suttle is an American Farrier’s Association certified journeyman farrier, and he serves as the liaison between the AFA and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (both AQHA partners).

Here, he offers some advice for helping horses who are unsure about having their feet shod or trimmed.

Question:

I’m wondering if you have any information about working with a young horse to make the shoeing process easier. My 4-year-old horse stands quietly for all the shoeing process except the nailing on of the shoes. He has never been hurt by the nailing process, so that is not the problem. Any suggestions?

Alisa Richey

Answer:

You could take a hammer, a light hammer, and just lightly tap around the foot each time you go out to clean the hoof, maybe twice a day, morning and night. I’d do it in a setting where the horse is very content and willing to stand still. If you’re leery of that, do it with two people, one who can calm the horse and keep the situation positive, and the other person who just lightly taps the hammer on the hooves. As your horse gets used to that, then you could take a little piece of metal and set that on the horse’s foot and tap the metal. It’s a different sensation, and it’ll make a different noise. Let your horse find out that it’s no big deal. If he gets upset, just stop. You don’t have to make a big deal of it. And each day, just do a little bit more, and the horse will begin to develop a tolerance. Mostly, you don’t want to create a situation that you have to undo. Keep it positive.

For horses that are difficult to shoe in general, typically that comes about when the horse is afraid. That fear manifests itself differently with different horses. Some are very quiet; they hardly move. Some try to run, and others will fight. I like to take a little bit of time and develop confidence with that horse. I do that with a quiet demeanor, and I try to choose a location where the horse has everything working for him. If there are a number of horses in the paddock that are playing, and this horse is in here with me, he may be nervous about it. If someone takes a horse out of the barn while that horse is being worked on, he may be afraid that he’s being left, so he wants to go where he feels secure. And it may be that the tools that we use scare them. Wherever the horse is the most comfortable is where I want to shoe them.

If a horse is nervous, looking off one way, I might just turn around and let him look the way he wants to look. That might make all the difference. There was one barn where the horses were so relaxed we could have three horses with no halters on, and they would stand and be shod, all at the same time, and not leave. And then the people needed that spot for a horse that was going into quarantine, so they asked us to move about 50 feet to another location, and the same horses would pull back and dance around. It was very difficult to be around them. Just that 50 feet made a huge difference in how secure they felt.

Also, the way I touch the horse is very important. An open palm on the horse’s neck, just a very light stroking, makes a huge, huge difference. If you can get the horse to turn his head and look at you and put his nose on you, confidence is built there. It helps him to be part of the situation, where he’s doing something with you instead of having something done to him. And it takes as long as it takes. Maybe we’ll work on the horse over several days, or it may happen all at one time. But whenever I feel like we’re moving into a zone where it’s not a positive experience for the horse, I’d prefer to stop, even if I don’t have the shoe on. The first experience is really important. As the horse gains confidence, it gets easier and easier and easier. So if I spend a little time in the beginning, I’m way ahead a year later.

For horse owners, a really key piece is that when you’re there with the horse, you need to be extremely calm. If you’re worried about how this is all going to go for the horse, the horse picks up on that and it makes him nervous. So the more relaxed you can be, the more at ease you can be, the better it is. The less you try to restrain the horse and instead direct the horse, the better things go. If the horse is acting like he’s real nervous about something and you hold the rope tight or try to pull his head toward you so he won’t turn around and put his nose on the farrier, that sets it up for resistance. Let the horse turn and look. Give him the moment to relax, then you can pet him. You can use that very light stroking with the palm of your hand. It helps if the owner works on gaining the horse’s confidence when the farrier’s not there. Quite often, an owner is a little bit nervous about the horse. So if you can overcome that nervousness and just be very calm and say, “Of course, this is always the way things are. It’s perfectly normal,” it gets pretty easy.

John Suttle, CJF, Valley Ford, California