Farrier-Friendly: Teach Your Horse To Stand Quietly

Jon Ensign shares three steps to teaching your horse to stand calmly while being shod.

Some horses squirm, others kick, and too many lean their weight on you as if you have become an extra leg when you pick up a foot. But whether you’re trimming hooves, replacing shoes or simply using the hoof pick, a horse should stand quietly and hold its own weight.

Jon Ensign says there’s no reason for a horse to fidget when its owner or the farrier is handling its feet. The Montana horseman, clinician and cowboy has shod many of his own horses and can sympathize with shoers who deal with difficult horses.

Jon Ensign holds a horse’s hind leg as a farrier would. After working through several groundwork drills, the horse stands quietly on three feet. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Ensign says that with the right groundwork, anyone can train a horse to cooperate with the farrier. It makes handling a horse’s feet safer and less frustrating for both the shoer and the owner.

Ensign’s first step is teaching the horse to stand still while its feet are being handled. Rather than tying the horse, he works in the middle of a round pen or arena.

“I pick a spot, and I might even draw a square in the dirt with my foot,” he says. “Anytime the horse gets out of the square, I put him right back. If he continues to leave, I’ll put him to work, getting him to move his feet. I don’t just lead him around; I cause it to be difficult for him if he doesn’t stand there.” 

The horse quickly learns that it can either stand quietly in Ensign’s square or stay busy trotting fast circles, turning around and even backing up.

“When he’s ready, I take him back to the square and let him settle for a second or two,” he says. “If he moves, it’s right back to work again.”

Ensign makes sure the horse is accustomed to having its feet handled before reaching down for any hoof. He starts by gently rubbing a flag around both front and hind legs. That way if the horse kicks, it hits the flag instead of Ensign. Next, he rubs a rope down its front leg and places a loop around the fetlock. He then stands a short distance in front of the horse and pulls the rope; his goal is for the horse to give to the pressure.

Ensign holds the foot by gripping the bottom of the hoof, and he steps away from the horse if it tries to lean on him. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“I might just jiggle my fingers a little, and not to make him pick up his foot [yet], but just shift his weight when he feels that bump on his leg,” Ensign says. “I really want him to release his foot when he feels tension.”

Eventually, Ensign asks the horse to lift its foot in response to the rope. He progresses until the horse takes a step forward. Next, he uses the rope to lift each front foot as a farrier would.

“I want to pick up the foot and then just set the toe down,” Ensign says. “I want him to set it down nice and easy, not slam it on the ground. If he just sets his toe in the dirt that tells me he is standing on three legs and is relaxed. That teaches him not to lean.”

Ensign also uses the rope to work with the hind legs. While an assistant holds the lead rope, he works eight to 12 feet behind the horse, asking it to reach back with its hind leg. “When you take one foot away, the horse might get confused or troubled,” Ensign says. “He might fight it or really lean on that foot so you can’t take it away. So when I see the horse prepare to take his weight off the leg, I release as he’s preparing. And then I keep working at it until I can pick it up and then set his toe down. I want him to learn to stand on three legs.”

When Ensign reaches down for any foot, he faces the opposite direction as the horse. That way, if the horse kicks its hind foot or paws backward with its front, Ensign’s knees buckle away from the blow. He slowly runs his hand down the horse’s leg and then gently asks the horse to lift its foot. By now, the horse should respond softly. If necessary, Ensign may pull the fetlock or pinch the tendon along the cannon bone.

He holds the foot up by gripping the bottom of the hoof, like holding a jar by its lid.

When working with a hind foot, Ensign stands a good distance away from the horse to avoid getting kicked. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“A lot of people hold the ankle, and that can feel constrictive to the horse,” Ensign says. “If I hold the toe, I feel like I have more control of the movement of the foot. If the horse pulls on me or kicks out, my hand just goes with that motion. I’m not as locked onto it because my arm is loose and can move back and forth.

“If the horse starts leaning on me, I just keep holding the toe but step out from under him. That causes him to put his weight back on his three feet; otherwise he’ll go down on his knee.”

Again, he gently sets the foot down.

Finally, Ensign simulates a farrier’s job, gripping the front foot between his knees, cradling the hind foot in his lap, and then placing each of the horse’s feet on a stand.

“I’ll set a foot on the stand and rub it so the horse knows to hold it there,” he says. “And I take a shoeing hammer and an old shoe and just tap around on it.”

By taking your time and rewarding subtle yet willing responses, Ensign says a horse can learn to stand quietly on three feet. Your farrier will certainly approve.

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Western Horseman.

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