He’s a beautiful black Spanish stallion, 7 years old, hobbling round a bare paddock on deformed feet: severe laminitis followed by lack of trimming. I’m with M.Sc. students of applied ethology specializing in welfare, so I explain about laminitis. “No way you can touch his feet,” says Miguel, owner of the paddock though not the horse. “We used to sedate him but last time he wouldn’t let us and the blacksmith walloped him in the belly with a hammer. Since then, no way.”
When I go into the paddock he stands alert, braced for what he thinks is coming. Earlier I’d seen Miguel cornering and grabbing at him, so I wander about examining the ground until the horse relaxes and wonders what I’m doing, a shift towards a positive attitude.
You can’t do anything with a horse that doesn’t want to be with you.
I wander up to him, touch him briefly on the shoulder and walk away before he does. Repeat. Repeat. Finally he softens while I stroke him, and turns to smell me. So I put my hand gently on the back of his headcollar and clip the lead rope in. I say “come”, walk a few metres, then say “whoa” and stop. He circles round me, then stops, alert again, anticipating trouble. “Good”. A gentle stroke. We keep walking and stopping until he’s quite relaxed about it, stopping when I do
When you’re about to approach a problem, ignore it and start with the easy things he knows.
I stroke him all over and down his back left leg.
They always start with the front left foot, so that’s where the worst problems will be. I’ll leave that till last.
I get to the fetlock, cup my hand round it, and say “lift”. He doesn’t. I try again. He stands on it harder. The third time, tugging rather, I manage to get him to tip his foot forwards on to the toe. “Good”. I let go and stroke him.
Reward the smallest try.
Next time, he lifts it just a little. “Good.” I move round to his right back foot. Same deal. But this time, he lifts the foot well on the third try. I put it down quickly before he can take it away. “Good.” I move to his right forefoot. It’s more difficult than the back foot but we get there.
I am trying to establish a little routine that may possibly work when we get round to the difficult foot, although I know that horses are quite specific about which foot is which. It’s the pattern of communication I want him to understand.
But the left fore, as I feared, is a different matter. He moves away when I even try to stroke his shoulder, let alone get to his foreleg. So I repeat what we’ve done so far without creating havoc, with a student in front rewarding him at the right moment: tipping the hind feet on to their toes and lifting the right forefoot a second, to see if there’s a sort of carry-on effect. There is, sort of: he lets me stroke down his left leg, but snatches the foot up and slams it on to the ground when I ask for it. “Good.” Repeats produce the same result. There isn’t time to reward him at the right moment. He does the same again and again five times, not improving at all. No point in any more.
We need to be able to reward him the instant the foot is in the air, not reward him for slamming it down. We need a clicker.
Fortunately the students have worked dogs with clickers, and bring one next day. I repeat my careful way of catching him, repeat the walking and stopping, which he’s now happy about, introduce him to the students and start again with Edrei rewarding in front and Daniela with the clicker beside me.
We start with the left hind, and repeat the sequence of tipping the foot on to the toe, lifting it a centimeter from the ground, then lifting it properly, this time with clicker (Daniela’s excellent with it) and reward. Then the right hind, same sequence of tip, then lift a little, then lift properly. I brush it briefly with my hand, telling Edrei to keep rewarding, before putting it down. Then the right fore, which on the third time of asking stays up two seconds before I feel I have to put it down.
Our problem is that we are using the horse’s concentrates, which he would get without having to work for them. We need a stronger reward. Cubes of carrot or apple, which are more special, more discrete, and leave the mouth clean, are better.
Hooray, someone has brought an apple for lunch. We cut it up. With its help I can lift the right fore and clean it while Edrei keeps feeding cubes of apple. Great, but the foot stinks. It is horribly distorted: rotten frog, sole bulging ominously.
When I ask him for the left fore he lifts and slams it, but Daniela’s marked the moment it’s in the air so he gets his bit of apple. The second time it’s no better, but the third time there’s a definite pause before he puts it down more softly. I can feel my two helpers glow. We repeat a couple of times, getting maybe a half-second wait before he puts it back down again. But he is definitely getting the idea. So I decide to leave the lesson at that for the minute, leave him to absorb the fact that nothing has ever gone wrong for him in our hands, take the other horses for a walk and come back later.
In this work it´s vitally important to be satisfied with small progresses, not become overconfident, attempt too much and end up with a refusal. Horses get emotionally tired when they are being asked to overcome their fear again and again.
We return after our walk. Luckily someone else has found another apple so we prepare it.
The horse comes to me immediately. I repeat exactly the same sequence of walking and stopping before stationing him in the same place with my two helpers as before. We use the clicker and cubes of apple. He now lifts his back feet easily, although funnily enough it always takes three times of asking: one to tip the foot on to the toe, one to lift it a little, then the third time he gives it to me generously and confidently.
When a horse’s training has been achieved through predicting and avoiding pain, anything new is immensely threatening: in his experience there will be pain but he doesn’t know how to avoid it. Therefore, changes of attitude and new learning are best done by establishing a routine pattern that he comes to believe are signs that nothing will go wrong: safety signals. Later, we would try to get away from the routine although some brief suggestion of the safety signal will be necessary, perhaps for ever. At this juncture, this horse is doing the safety signal routine himself. For him, lifting his feet in three stages means nothing will go wrong.
Since I came by train I haven’t any tools and nor has anyone else, so with an inadequate bit of iron I hack off some rotten frog and false sole from his right hind foot. He gets clicks and food all the time I am working. The right fore presents no problems either.
The left fore lifts and slams on the first attempt, lifts and hesitates on the second attempt, and on the third time of asking he simply gives it to me.
I can feel his caution at first, a kind of “I think this’ll be all right, let’s see”, and then he relaxes completely and lets me clean it thoroughly and tap my bit of iron against it.
If only I’d had tools...
If I went back, even after some time, and repeated the whole sequence, I would be able to trim his feet. He would recognize the pattern of signals, because signals learned for rewards stick in the horse’s mind. It doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that a farrier could do it unless he were willing to listen to what worked and understood why. The details are important. Horses with phobias like this aren’t necessarily anticipating and fearing the end point, your final aim: they’re anticipating a frightening fight. You have to change that expectation to a good one.
With a different horse and a different problem I might do it differently, but with the same methodical steps as a guide:
If the horse doesn’t want to be with you, forget about it.
Ask something simple he must already know, but praise (reward) him for it, to change his expectations
When overcoming a learned fear, use food rewards at EXACTLY the right moment. The best food rewards are small, special treats that leave the mouth clean.
Reward the smallest try, then reward the small try, then the try.
Do not use the approach that, according to his previous experience, leads to a fracas. Set up a pattern of clear, standardized moves and communication that the horse will learn to recognize as leading to a pleasant outcome. That’s what interests him, more than your final aim.