Of all the things that make being a farrier a difficult job, dealing with horses that would prefer you not do your job on them is probably the hardest. Difficult horses mean longer hours, shorter tempers and stiffer muscles the next day. In the worst situations, they mean real danger for both farrier and owner. Below is a roadmap for making the trimming and shoeing experience a positive one, even for the most difficult of horses.
Before you get there, balance energy levels
Remember recess in grade school? Recess is there because without it, you couldn’t teach a kindergartner math. Every animal, people included, has to be in a calm state of mind in order to concentrate and think rationally. Ideally, the horse will come in for its trim a little tired, either from turn-out, or exercise. That way, it will be in a frame of mind where it can stand still and think logically about what’s happening to it. It’s definitely within your rights to ask your clients to work difficult horses before you get there.
Be mindful of your own energy levels, too. Horses look for two things in a stressful situation: what’s causing the stress, and who’s going to lead them out of the situation. People are leaders, but we’re also predators, and the horse will look to us to see which role we’re playing. Anger and frustration contribute to the animal’s stress, and make us appear predatory. Fear makes us seem incapable of leading, which means the horse will have to do that job. Calmness—taking energy out of the situation—makes us leaders, and that gives us a lot more influence over a stressed horse.
Roadblock! The horse has been exercised, but it still won’t let me get near it…
Think from the horse’s perspective
To be fair, given that horses are prey animals, what we ask them to do when we ask them to stand for the farrier is wildly irrational. Were we to put ourselves in the mind of the horse come trimming time, we might conclude that:
a) uneven feet are the least of our worries because
b) there is fire – actual fire – in that forge
c) those tools could be used for anything, and
d) running away is the most reliably tested and true problem-solving strategy out there, and it’s much harder to flee standing on three legs
Because trimming and shoeing are super counterintuitive for the horse, letting the horse come to the conclusion that the experience is probably ok, before you even try to get to work, is usually the best bet. It’s much easier to head off problems before they start than to convince a stressed out animal in flight mode that you really have its best interests at heart.
If they’re scared, horses will retreat, and then assess the situation. They don’t run endlessly away. They get to a safe distance and then size up what startled them. If what startled them is not a horse-eating lion, they’ll approach it again. You can let that instinct work for you by letting the process play out. If the horse backs away from you or your tools, be patient, wait for it to reach the point where it wants to assess you, and reward it for its curiosity. Maybe you’ll have to be really patient. If you turn their interest into a positive experience, with a pat or a nice word, they’re more likely to let you proceed to the next step.
Roadblock! It’s taken an interest in everything but actually lifting its feet up and letting me do my job…
Create the conditions that will let you succeed
It’s very easy for horses to win a power struggle with us, but human beings are the best at being wily. You can set yourself up for success by scheduling appointments at times, and setting up your tools in places, where the horse is most likely to be peaceful. Difficult horses will often have more than one issue to deal with. If the horse’s bad behaviour is caused by something that has nothing to do with the trim (it hates being alone, etc.), resolve the primary problem so the horse can concentrate on the task at hand—standing quietly and lifting its feet. Just bringing another calm horse into the barn can help a lot.
You can also manipulate the situation and trick a horse into thinking that the thing that you want them to do is also the thing that they want. Keep a restless horse moving gently on a tight circle until standing and just picking up one leg seems like a real break from work. Horses are like any animal—they’re not interested in expending energy uselessly—and once it figures out that you’re not a threat and you’re not going away, it will stop trying so hard to get away from you.
Gaining the trust and respect of a difficult horse takes time and consistency, and you probably won’t be able to turn a rank beast into a gentle giant in one go. Also, that’s not your job—that’s the job of a professional trainer, or an experienced owner. Your job is to trim hooves. If a client refuses to work on the problems in between your visits, walk away. No client is worth getting injured for. Do what you’re comfortable with and what you think the horse is comfortable with. If you only get the front feet done on a really scared animal, fantastic! That’s a success. You can always come back another day and try the hinds.
by Cindy McMann
image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Erik Charlton (Creative Commons BY)