A few months ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with Phil Maddox of Maddox Equestrian. Phil is a New Zealand-based professional horse trainer who specializes in stress-free weaning, foal handling and starting young horses under saddle. Phil came to spend a few weeks with Manolo at La Mancha. He is quiet and gentle with the horses and while he was here, Manolo was happy to have his help with Topaz.
Phil showed me his technique for teaching foals how to pick up their feet. We worked six days in a row. Remember that foals have a short attention span, so you are better to have a few short lessons then a long one. Every day,Topaz became less concerned about picking up and giving his feet and found it easier to redistribute his weight on 3 feet and stay balanced.
Since then, I have been able to handle his feet in the field or the arena without any problems. I think the trimmers and/or farriers in Topaz’s future will appreciate this very much!
This is what I observed Phil doing during the first sessions and his answers to my questions.
First, let me say that at at La Mancha, we like to teach feet handling at about six months old, around the time foals are weaned. While Manolo gave Topaz a trim when he was not quite four month old, Topaz had not been taught to pick up his feet officially before Phil stayed with us and introduced him to his step-by-step process.
Topaz is handled for a few minutes a few times a month, no more as Manolo does not believe in asking foals and young horses for much arena work before they are much older (3 1/2-4). We have found that too much handling can create some behavioral problems. Topaz is checked twice a day and socializes at meal times when he gets a pat and a quick brushing, as needed. Overall, we are content for foals to learn to lead safely, give their feet and be groomed, walk in the arena in-hand, be hosed, trailer and that’s about it.
Also, its important to know that Topaz lives with a nanny horse: Uncle B. Because Uncle B acts as a security blanket for Topaz right now, when we brought Topaz to the arena, we brought along Uncle B automatically.
Like other foals learning to stand in one place and re-balance on three legs while one foot is being picked up, Topaz was fidgety at the beginning of his first official lesson. This is not surprising when you consider that he had to relinquish control over his legs and have them manipulated for what must have felt like a long time. Examining, treating, shoeing or trimming requires that horses (at any age) allow us to hold on to their feet and flex their hocks, knees and fetlocks even when they are unbalanced or uncomfortable. While its a routine request, when I think about it, feet handling really requires a great deal of trust, patience and good will from horses, and especially babies who are just starting out. So….
Instead of punishing Topaz when he fidgeted, Phil and I simply brought him closer to Uncle B. We had him stand as close to his nanny as he wanted. Uncle B’s calm demeanor and familiar presence reassured Topaz that everything was cool and he stood still and relaxed for the rest of the lesson.
Now on to the lesson! Phil used a four-step process to teach Topaz how to stand and let him pick up his feet without worry or resistance.
He gave him Support, he was Patient, his Releases were accurately timed and he used Patting to help him relax quickly and desensitize him to having his feet worked on. Phil also gave Topaz many pats and stood quietly with him while Topaz smelled him. Of course, we both praised him and told him he was a good horse!
Picking Up the Fore-Legs
Phil started with a fore-foot first and followed with the hind-foot on that same side. I held Topaz during the session and was careful to not restrict his neck and head movement so that Topaz could use them to balance, look around at Phil (and smell him) and not feel “boxed in.” I kept a close eye on Topaz’s body language, his posture, eyes, ears and overall composure to make sure he was not stressed or overwhelmed. Since Topaz and Uncle B where standing close to one another, Phil was careful to not stand between them.
Support: Phil leaned into Topaz’s shoulder to take the weight off his leg while picking up his foot. This “shored up” Topaz and provided him with a feeling of stability as he started to figure out how to shift his balance on his remaining 3 other feet.
Patience: Phil continued to support Topaz while holding up his foot until he felt comfortable enough to relax his shoulder and let Phil hold the weight of his entire leg. Sometimes this took a minute, sometimes Topaz relaxed straight away. In either case, as Topaz mind and body processed the request, Phil waited patiently.
Timing/Release: The first few times, Phil put Topaz’s foot down AS SOON as Topaz relaxed. This well timed release made clear to Topaz what Phil wanted and taught him his requests were fair and reasonable.
Patting: After picking up and setting Topaz’s foot down for the third time, Phil picked it up a fourth time and softly patted the whole foot, especially the sole. He stood in a farrier stance as if Topaz was getting ready to have his feet trimmed or shod. The soft hoof patting enticed Topaz into relaxing his leg sooner. It is something Manolo and I will do when working with horses of all ages who are tentative about giving their feet.
Taking the Hind-leg Forward (towards the head):
Phil used a lead rope to acclimate Topaz to having his hind-legs handled safely. He used a soft, clean lead rope to ensure it glided smoothly up and down each leg without rubbing off Topaz’s skin.
First, Phil passed the lead rope between Topaz’ s legs and picked up both ends so that he could gently shimmy the rope up and down each leg. Phil explained the safety reason behind this. If at any stage Topaz panicked, he could drop one end of the lead rope and it would comes loose. This reduced the risk of Topaz getting tangled up greatly.
He also said to do this very carefully because horses do not have soft tissue padding from the knee and hock down to the feet. He did not want to give Topaz a rope burn or a bruise.
Once Topaz had become used to the feel and movement of the lead rope on his leg, Phil positioned the lead rope below Topaz’s fetlock, gently lifted his foot off the ground and moved it forward (towards Topaz’s head) and VERY slightly out to the side. Held in this way, the lead rope remained in place securely when Topaz moved his leg about. This steady support encouraged him to relax the leg quickly.
Once Topaz relaxed his leg, Phil released it and put the foot down. He did not pull on Topaz’s leg, lift the foot too high or or move the leg too far out to the side as these actions would have induced panic in Topaz and he would have struggled to pull his leg away.
Once Topaz showed he was comfortable and unafraid off the whole process, Phil removed the lead rope.
While standing just behind Topaz’s shoulder and facing his tail, he picked up the hind foot, brought the leg forward, held Topaz’s leg in a farrier stance with his knees together and toes pointing to each other and then rested Topaz’s foot on his knees. Phil explained that this put him in a reasonably safe position. He put one hand behind Topaz’ hock to help guide his foot unto his knee. This way he was able to handle Topaz’s leg with his free hand and was able to feel if Topaz was going to snatch his leg away. When he did, Phil just let the foot and leg go and by taking just one step back, he was in a safe position, away from being kicked. He then simply started over, calmly. Always think safety first. Remember, foals can be very quick if they decide to kick out!
Phil then proceeded to pat the hind foot all over. He also spent a lot of time rubbing Topaz all over, especially under his belly to ready him for when his leg would go out towards the back and for the sensation of having the trimmer underneath him.
Taking the Hind-Leg Back
To pick up the hind-leg back, Phil asked Topaz for his hind-foot which he had just learned to give forward. When Topaz lifted his leg, Phil stepped forward and placed Topaz’s hoof on his inside knee, he used his inside hand (closest to Topaz) to cup the side of the hoof and his outside hand to pat the entire hoof and sole. While doing this, he stood as close to Topaz as he was comfortable accepting. Phil explained that a lot of foals when asked to pick up their hind leg and extend it behind them will either pull their leg up under their belly or if the handler extends the leg back low and straight (where we eventually want it) try very hard to put their foot down on the ground.
Phil said to not wrestle with them. At this stage they will very often snatch the leg up quickly, and can kick out. If this happens, then just go back to handling the foot and leg in the forward position until the horse relaxes again.
While holding Topaz’s leg and foot Phil used the patting on the hoof technique to create relaxation and then guided his leg and foot into the right position – lower to the ground and close to the midline.
The same process was repeated to the other side, starting with the fore-foot first.
Note: Picking up and handling the foot as low and close to the midline is important when working with horses feet. As one person from Canada commented to us recently on Manolo’s page (paraphrasing), “keeping the foot close to the midline helps the horse remain balanced so foot handling is never associated with pain, discomfort or the fear of being thrown off-kilter. We do not want to routinely bring the hind foot back, sideways and hold it high. This causes the horse to hike the lifted hip, unbalances them and makes them sore.” We absolutely agree. In the only pics we have from his first lesson, Topaz is still at the “not quite ready” stage and Phil is patting his foot. A few moments later, he relaxed and Phil was able to lower his foot and position it close to the midline. I wish I had pics of of all the stages of learning Topaz went through as it was very educational for both of us.
As it is, just a few days later, we were able to handle Topaz’s feet up to 10 meters away from his nanny without getting at all worried. A few months later, you can see in the pics taken in his outdoor shelter that Topaz has become completely comfortable with having his feet picked up.
To finish this very long post, I want to say that watching Phil handle Topaz, it was so clear how important it is to not pull, not engage in a tug of war or a battle of will. This is just as I learned from Manolo when working in-hand or riding. For babies, just like adult horses, relaxation, trust and confidence cannot be forced. If we stress them or use force to get what we want we are never going to get a positive outcome. Lucky for Topaz, he had a good teacher. It is always a good idea to ask for a professional’s help when learning to work with babies. And Phil: Topaz and I say…THANK YOU.