Throughout our training process, we place huge emphasis on the basic manners of our horses. We feel strongly that by producing horses who are polite, solid citizens, we are truly giving these guys the best possible chance of finding their ideal lifelong homes. One of the fascinating aspects of retraining lies in finding out just what a horse already knows, and consequently what they don’t know or will need to relearn. Most any horse will have gaps in their knowledge, particularly horses whose past interactions with people may have been less than ideal. We expect to come across a lot of these gaps throughout the retraining process, and we know that with time, consistency and positive reinforcement, all horses can learn new things and make great progress.
We came across one such gap over the summer with our OTTB Harlow and the farrier. It took Harlow awhile to relax in his new surroundings, and so we understood that he would be a bit nervous about most everything until he settled in. However, during the summer it became clear that Harlow had a specific issue with standing for the farrier: he did alright for his first trim, but got so nervous the next two times that we had to drug him in order to get the job done. Although he was fine when we picked out his feet, Harlow would not let our farrier do his hind feet and would kick out repeatedly, getting himself more and more upset. Our farrier is very thoughtful and patient around the horses, so we knew that Harlow’s issue ran deeper and needed to be addressed. We guessed that he had a negative experience in the past or was having physical difficulty in balancing himself on three legs, and so we began ‘roping’ his hind leg.
The concept involves teaching a horse to lift their leg when asked, using a handheld rope looped around a hind leg. With Harlow, we began in the roundpen where we could easily position him beside a wall for extra support. While one person stood at his head, the other stood far behind and at a slight angle, asking him to lift his hind leg through pressure on the soft nylon rope. The goal would be for the horse to become comfortable relinquishing his hind foot, and eventually to stand quietly (a final step would be for the horse to straight tie quietly while his leg is lifted).
We did this 2 or 3 times a week for the 5 weeks in between farrier visits. At first, Harlow would panic a little and try to rush forward, all the while kicking out with the roped leg. He quickly settled, and would stand quietly but still kick out his leg just as the person behind released pressure on the rope. However, with calm repetition he began to figure it out–we were able to lift his leg behind, bring it forward as he would need to for the farrier’s hoofstand, and then bring it out behind him again. Harlow is stronger on his left hind, and we did notice that he had more difficulty in lifting that leg, because it meant standing on the weaker right leg. With practice he realized that he could still balance on three legs and that it wasn’t a big deal, and when he stood perfectly for the farrier during his next trim we felt like proud parents. We will continue to practice the roping at least once a week to make sure that Harlow’s good behavior becomes the norm–he now understands what it expected and we look forward to filling in more gaps as we progress with this sweet boy’s training.