Handling a Feral Horse’s Feet


Having recently purchased a very feral 5year old who had belonged to travelers, I too have found it extremly helpful to use food as a motivator. After 3 months i have achieved so much with this horse through the use of treats as a reward. He backs up away from the gate to allow me in, stands when asked, lowers his head to put the headcollar on. I will state that i do not feed from the hand the treat always goes onto the floor for him. He whinnys as soon as he hears my voice and comes to my call now at quite some speed sometimes. If im out he watch’s my ever move and follows me every where. I have never experience such a bond with a horse before in such a short space of time. I am now trying to tackle his main issue – his feet. Due to him being tethered by the method of tying his front two feet together i can not get near his feet, instead he trys to rear up, snatch them away, kick out. Any ideas on how to tackle this would be much appreciated.


Hi Paula, You are off to a great start. It sounds like you have developed a great bond with your horse. Now let’s get to those feet. Right now he has an unpleasant association with his feet being handled. The best way I have found to address this is to start with an area that is comfortable being touched. Our objective is to get him to associate having his feet touched as a good thing. First, I suggest doing what you can to set him up for success. When does he tend to be the quietest? After exercise? Does he have a place that he is more comfortable? Is a certain time of day better for him? Find whatever may help him to be more relaxed. Next, I would work him without a halter and lead rope. This ensures he has a choice and works to build a horses confidence. Also, in his past when they tethered his feet, I imagine they had him in a headstall with a lead rope. That means there would be an association between the headstall and being tethered. We will address that down the road but for now we want to avoid things that may trigger his defensive reaction.

To begin, I suggest touching him where he is comfortable being handled. Our goal is to move down his leg, so maybe you start at the top of the legs. I suggest choosing either working the front legs or the back legs. Pick the ones that he is the least sensitive about and alternate between the right and the left. If all is going well, wrap your hands around his leg so it feels like it is being held and massage the upper leg. You may reinforce him for good relaxed responses.

I should add that having a cue that tells him when he did something correct will be very helpful for this exercise. It will tell him that what he just did was correct and a reward is coming. It effectively bridges that gap between those two moments in time. Without the bridge signal he will associate what is happening when the food is delivered rather than his desired behavior. If you can’t feed in the middle of the activity, you miss the moment and it can lead to an unintentended result. Here is an example: Once upon a time a woman was working on teaching her young horse how to lift her legs. She was feeding a reward without using a bridge signal. She came to me as she was baffled why her horse was pulling her leg out of her hand and promptly putting it on the ground. I asked her when she was feeding the filly. She reported as soon as she was done. Here was the problem, she was feeding the horse for her foot being on the ground. The young horse put two and two together…the sooner my foot hits the ground the sooner I get reinforced. She was pulling her foot so she could do what got her fed. By adding a bridge signal, in this case a clicker, she could communicate that holding her foot was the behavior that was earning her a reward even though the food came when her foot was on the ground. The clicker worked as a bookmark to pinpoint a moment in time. I think in your situation it would help quite a bit. I have a three part video that will show you the clicker conditioning process (and some basic de-spooking work) if you want to learn more about teaching a bridge signal. Here is a link: http://despookingyourhorse.com.

I am going to use the term bridge signal (click) in the rest of the post. So, when he is standing quietly and relaxed for the upper leg move down a bit and repeat. The best way to do this in the beginning is in quick short sessions. Lot’s of reinforcement in short order. So maybe you leave it here for the first day. Start again and repeat, making progress. Never move to the next place until there is no reaction to the previous level. Always click on the behavior you want to see more of, in this case relaxation. This whole process starts with him relaxed and builds a good association with his leg being touched. As you work down the leg he will recall the previous exercise. When you get to his sensitive area (probably below the knee or hock) start just touching at first, don’t try to hold or massage yet. We have to take small steps (successive approximations) with the more sensitive areas. Slower is better. If he allows you to touch his leg and remains relaxed, click and reinforce. If he gets kind of tense look for the slightest relaxation then click and reinforce this relaxation. Slowly progress to more massaging and then eventually to lifting the leg and holding the leg/foot. Always click relaxation and softness during this process. Slowly increase the handling and manipulating of his leg position. I would also work on teaching him to lift his foot when you tap or point to his foot. This must be taught to be very soft, relaxed and not lifting it to high. Too much energy in this and you may be reinforcing his lifting/cocking his leg. Before I go on I want to add: ALWAYS keep safety in mind when dealing with a worried horses legs. Keep yourself positioned out of possible flying feet. Dealing with this situation can be dangerous and unpredictable. It may be best to have a qualified professional assist you, so please, if you are the slightest bit uncertain, get professional help.

When you have had success with the first pair of legs, move to the other pair and start the exercise from the beginning. Success is handling with no tension or worried reaction. When you have all feet handled without a halter, it is time to try the exercise with the halter and lead rope. This may alter things more than you expect. We have a tendency to think like humans but for your horse this might be a significant change. When this is good, move to different areas and then different times of day. If you have any setbacks just back up a bit with the training steps and remind him. I know this sounds as if l like a lot of steps but it will go faster than it seems. Depending on the individual horse, they tend to move fast through some parts and slower through others. Okay, Paula I hope this gives you some ideas of how to maximize the positive reinforcement training for dealing with your horses fears. If you have any questions or would like more help please don’t hesitate to ask. I would love to hear feedback, progress or comments.

ADDENDUM: Utilizing something to touch his legs could be a good intermediate step if he is sensitive to touch in general. This keeps you away from his feet but allows you to desensitize his legs to touch. It may still be a different story when you are manually handling his legs but it will be a good approximation. I find the lunge whip is a good choice since it is flexible and will not harm the horse if he kicks out. Someone (Tina) had suggested using a glove on a stick. She stuffs the glove so it keeps it’s form. I think that is a clever idea too.

My Horse is a Nervous Nelly in the Wash Bay!

Hi Shawna, I need some help with a new behaviour that’s recently come out in my horse. We (my horses and I) have recently moved to a new property and it seems to have made my horse anxious. When I tie him up in the wash bay to be groomed, or washed or saddled, he will not stop swaying and weaving and generally fidgeting. It’s not like him at all. I thought it might have been separation anxiety so I brought his paddock mate out and tied him up opposite but the behaviour didn’t really subside. I can saddle ok (he stands perfectly still then!) and when I’m actually grooming him he’s ok too but if he’s left to his own devices the anxiety seems to come out. I’ve been clicking like mad every time he stands still but we’ve done about half a dozen sessions and there hasn’t really been any improvement. Any suggestions would be appreciated! Riding and lunging and general training he is ok. It’s just being tied up in the wash bay. Thanks for any help

Hi Leone, I always wish our horses could just tell us what it is that has them so worried in these type of situations. I do have some ideas of things to do. I suggest trying to do as much as you can with him at some other place besides the wash stall, or at least don’t leave him alone in there for now. When he gets the chance to get worried he is rehearsing this behavior and it has a tendency to become a stronger part of his repertoire.

I imagine that this wash stall reminds him of something from his past. Maybe he had some medical procedure or wound tended to while in a similar wash stall and he associates this situation with an unpleasant experience. We will be working toward building a new reinforcement history with this wash stall, one that has a good association. Before you begin think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Anything that may help him out for now. For example, maybe turn him out before hand so he has a chance to burn off some extra energy. What ever you think may help him out. We will fade these things out later as he gets more comfortable but for now they may serve him well. There is also more than one reinforcer, or even two reinforcers at work here. One is the use of food as a positive reinforcement for relaxed behavior. The second is your presence (since he seems to get worried when he is left alone) and the third is taking him out of the wash stall. So be aware what he is doing when any of these reinforcers happen.

I am thinking that he gets pretty worried when he is left alone. So we want to work within his comfort zone. I would suggest working his time in the wash stall as a training session for now. This will usually help to keep you focused on his behavior and not distracted by doing other tasks.  You may do a little grooming but it should not really be your objective for now.  The small snippets of grooming tasks will actually serve to be building blocks for the end product of standing quietly while being groomed, tacked up or bathed but more importantly standing quietly when on his own.

Since it seems he is quiet when you are in very close proximately I would suggest grooming and then stepping back a bit.  It may help at first to step away to the back and sides as opposed to walking away from the front which may cause more anxiety.  This part will take a little testing to determine what is the most uncomfortable and then break that down to smaller steps or things that cause less worry. Okay, so let’s say, when you step away from him in the wash stall, he is good for 30 seconds and then he starts worrying. Click and reinforce (with food) at 28 seconds, while he is still relaxed. Your presence will also serve as a reinforcement. If that goes well, move to 30 seconds, if that goes well maybe go to 32 seconds. I would then take him out of the wash stall which is another reinforcement for his good performance. Keeping the sessions short and sweet helps him to succeed. He learns that if I am good this will all be over. Slowly build and build, more time and further away. Too slow is better than too fast for this kind of issue. Again, we are looking for him to practice the correct behavior, to form new habits. As you build more and more time I would also suggest approximations that are short in duration as well as the longer ones. This helps to keep you from being too predictable.  It kind of keeps them guessing and on their toes. Also you may step back up to him and sometimes work on something he knows or is learning. However, keep it simple, successful and reinforcing.

Now let’s say, you unintentionally push it too far and he gets worried, I would not approach until he settles down, at least somewhat. If you constantly come to his rescue when he acts up he will think that this is how I get comfort (or relief) and his behavior will increase in frequency. That being said, you also don’t want him, or anyone else, to get hurt, so if he gets downright panicked you will need to keep safety in mind and step in, Then take some steps back to rebuild his confidence.

Another thing that can help is if at the end of these good sessions, have his dinner or breakfast ready and let him eat his dinner in the wash stall. I would put it in a tub on the ground so you are not holding it. We want to build up a bit of independence. Pretty soon he will look forward to his time in the wash stall since good things happen there. Well Leone, these are my suggestions for tonight. I may have more thoughts later…I usually do but I think this will get you going in the right direction. Please let me know how things are going and give me some updates! :0)

Thank you so much for your suggestions Shawna. Feels better to be armed with some experienced advice. Have already done some short sessions and I think we’re on the right track. Will definitely let you know how we go.

Hey guys I would love to hear from you in one way or another so please “share”, “like” or comment below.  I would love to know what you think or what has worked for you.  Also if you have questions please don’t hesitate to send in to AskShawna.com or Ask Shawna/On Target Training on FB.

Young Horses: Straightness, Balance and focus

I address a question about a young/green horse who isn’t so good at going straight yet.   I have some ideas and suggestions how to utilize positive reinforcement to help her focus on the training.  I’d love it it you would,” share”, “like”, +1 or comment.  I enjoy your feedback and participation!  QUESTION:

Hi Shawna! We bought a five year old appendix in June under the assumption she was green under saddle but not as green as we have found. Luckily she is super brave and confident and loves to jump but obviously we want her flat work to be just as good. Jazzy is in human terms ADD she gets distracted easily and seems to literally lose her train of thought. While flatting to the left there are two spots in the arena where she forgets to continue going straight. And if I circle her and take her right back she is normally fine. Any ideas? We were thinking of longing in side reins because she may not be as balanced as I think. I also need to get a better set of spurs. I was just wondering if there was a training technique to help a baby focus a little better.


Hi Stacey, My Bugs is an ADD type horse so I am currently dealing with this type of personality. He too, loves to jump!  Inexperienced horses often seem to have balance issues as they learn to go under saddle. Since balance and straightness go hand in hand, as she becomes more adept at keeping straight her balance will get better as well.So…how do we get her to focus and want to maintain her straightness? By simply adding positive reinforcement to under saddle work, you will see a big attention switch.  All of a sudden there is something in it for her. She will become more invested in the training process right away.Next, try to think of what you can do to help set her up for success. Is she more focuses when she has had a turn out, or if she is by herself, or whatever you may have found that helps her to be a little bit better. Sometimes we just don’t know what that is or maybe nothing seems to make a difference and that is okay too,Now, I have a question, does she stay straight at the walk and waver at the trot? I have found this is often the case. If that is the case, I would suggest you build a good strong reinforcement history for walking nice and straight at her “problem” spots. Even though this isn’t the gate with the issue it will still help to build a good association with the correct behavior. Meanwhile, I would also work at the trot and reinforce her when she feels good. That means at first you will be rewarding at any point in the ring. By this point she will be putting together in her mind that straight may equal reward. If you have to, circle around and ride through that spot again, and if she is better I would reinforce her the first 2 or 3 times for the correct behavior. This will give you a chance to get in a reward for the correct behavior. Every time you reinforce a behavior you increase the likelihood of seeing it again. But then I would look for the first pass to be better in that spot. It will not take too much to get her straightened out…literally!You may also want to work on her being soft in the bridle. When you feel her soften and relax in the pole, the mouth her neck…whichever, she will learn to be soft and responsive all the way around.With the smart, curious horses they often really enjoy seeing new things and being exposed to new things and tend to get bored easily. The positive reinforcement training really helps them to try to rein in their exuberant energy! But changing their environment or routine will also serve as a type of reinforcement.

I hope this helps, I would love to hear how things are going with her. :0)

I will definitely let you know we didn’t want to push her too much but she was getting super bored with cross rails so we’ve been challenging her with gymnastics two strides one strides and oxers and nothing phases her!! The bad behavior happens at the walk and trot but does stop as soon as she is soft however it does take a while to get her there! I’m riding her tomorrow so I will work on positive reinforcement
Since both the walk and trot are problematic I have another suggestion. Start Jazzy a bit off of the “rail.” Still follow the contour of the ring but be maybe 10 feet off of the rail and if she is good when she is on the side closest to the trouble spots click and reinforce. Again, drawing attention and a good association with that area. Then make your circle a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger. I imagine by the time you have pushed it back out to the rail she will be responding nicely. Do not move the circle any closer if she is still having some trouble staying straight. Only progress when she has been solid on the previous level. The next few rides I would suggest starting off inside of the rail and you will probably be able to progress faster each time but you are reminding her, which will help her succeed. When she is consistently good about riding past those spots I would reinforce her after she successfully passes the spot and then put more time in between to build up her duration. Pretty soon it won’t be an issue.


Horse Not So Hot on Hot Shoeing

I love this question!  Tiffany asks about teaching her horse to accept hot shoeing.  Her farrier is coming on this day.  She has started the target training so her mare has a good start.  Implementing basic target work and positive reinforcement while she is being shod will help her today but I also give her some ideas for addressing the issue a little more systematically for the long run. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


Shawna- I have just received my clicker and treat bucket and love implementing them into my play/ ground work time! My mare, who many have told me to sell her, is responding very well! It also allows me to know I am not sending her a mixed signal 🙂 She is not a big fan of hot shoeing, sometimes she will stand but not always! Often pulling away 🙁 I am excited to implement the clicker in today’s visit! Any suggestions would be great 🙂 Thank you for your knowledge and helpful tips!


Hi Tiffany, I am so glad to hear how well your mare is responding. It always does my heart such good.

I do have some ideas for her shoeing. There are many different sensations associated with this process. There is the sound. That sizzling when the shoe is pressed on their hoof, the sight of the smoke, the smell and the hammering can’ be very settling if they are already feeling suspicious. When I watch a young horse transition from trimming to getting their first pair of shoes I am always kind of impressed when they stand quietly. If I were a horse I am not sure I would be so calm.

Since we don’t really know which part she is most worried about we will have to assume they all need work. I am making an assumption that she is relaxed with trimming and general farrier work. In either case I would still recommend building up a good association with these tasks. If she is worried, even slightly, it will help her to feel more comfortable with these elements. Actually, she will not simply tolerate these procedures but actually look forward to them. If she is completely relaxed it will still establish a stronger reinforcement history (association) with this part of the process and that will help for the hot shoeing.

For these exercises I recommend picking up her feet, moving them around, stretching them forward like you are going to be putting them on the stand, put them between your legs and tap on he hoof, to mimic the hammering of nails, etc. All the while you will want to reinforce when she is soft, relaxed and let’s you manipulate her feet. If she feels resistance, gently continue what you are doing until she feels relaxed. Remember that letting go is a form of reinforcement (avoidance). Of course, always keep safety in mind. Dealing with feet has some inherent risks. Break it down to small steps going slow enough that she is comfortable. Never move to the next step until she is comfortable with the previous step. THe progress will depend on how comfortable she was when you began these exercises. You may start this in her stall or paddock. When she is good and solid I would also do some sessions in the place where she gets shod. You may also have a second person play the part of the farrier. You wait by the side and step up to reinforce randomly but she should always look relaxed, soft eyes, lips, ears and lower head carriage.

A good intermediate step would be to have her watch as other horses are getting their shoes re-done. Keep in mind horses, or any social animal, are vicarious learners. This means they learn by watching and react to the reactions of those around them so I wouldn’t have her watch a horse who was not so good with the farrier. Pick ones that are nice and relaxed. You may start with her back a bit and if she is calm move closer. While she is watching I would ask her to target, lift her feet and generally relax. Reinforce her when she is relaxed and when she is focusing on the things you are asking her to do and not when she is looking worried at the smoke, let’s say. If she gets a little big eyed simply and calmly ask her to target and get back to something safe and familiar. I would also give her some time just watching and relaxing, this will help to build her patience. This allowing her to witness the procedure without being the “customer” or maybe she would use the word “victim” gives her a chance to see what is happening but also to build a relaxed and positive association with the whole process (sight, sounds and smells). Sometimes just being able to see it helps them. When it is their turn they can’t really look at what maybe worrying them and this may add to their suspicion. Do this as often as you can. Always check with the farrier so you are not in their way.

Next step, when she is in need of being shod, I would first let your farrier know what you are doing and been doing. Even if they don’t understand the training they are appreciative of your effort and they are VERY appreciative when the horses have overcome their fear. I usually tell them that I will want to reinforce through the process but communicate with them before you actually click so they can anticipate the shift that may happen when your horse hears the bridge signal. So, it usually goes something like this: I take her to the farrier stall/ wash rack…where ever they usually work. I would have the target and ask her to target, click and feed a good relaxed response. This is to let her know that the target training session is in effect. It tends to help them shift from their old mind set (association) to a the new one they have with the target. I usually stand off to the side, a few feet away. If you are too close it may be distracting for her and she may be too much of a busy body. As he/she starts the early stuff I would find a point, communicate that you are going to click and feed. The farrier doesn’t need to stop what he/she is doing. I would then retreat and wait a bit longer. When all is calm again repeat the process. I would suggest putting more time between clicks during the first part, saving more reinforcement for her more challenging part. If it you like (and it works out with your farrier) you may also give her a short break. Remember that the break should only be initiated when she is calm since it is a form of reinforcement. If she looks totally calm I would just keep her where she is and let the process continue. THe goal is to fade out all of these tools down the road. If all went well, the next time I would put more time in between clicks/rewards. Then, the time after that, I would start being further away, etc. You are fading yourself out of the picture. When she gets over it and realizes the whole process is not threatening or worth worrying about she will just stand quietly like other horses.

I know it always sounds like a lot of steps but I like to break it down the best i can. These are called successive approximations and they usually go pretty quickly. If you think about it, right now there is no real motivation for her to get over this fear. However, when you add the positive reinforcement it changes her focus and it helps her to become an active part of the training process. She is wanting to succeed as well.

Well, I hope this helps to give you some direction. If you have more questions as you progress please let me know. Okay, Tiffany, i look forward to hearing from you along the way! :0)


You have been a huge help! Thank you for the direction 🙂 I will work with her before he comes today so she will have something positive to look forward to while he is working. I will also build on the tools you have given me over the next 6 weeks until he arrives again. I will keep you posted! Thank you again for your wonderful advise to help me and my horsey journey!


Hey I am sure you will not be surprised that it went wonderful :) Before he arrived I went went into the stall to pick her feet. I clicked during the picking and rewarded with a treat, and I also clicked when I released her hoof. By her 3 foot I would say “foot” and she would shift her weight ready for me to pick up her foot. Also licking and chewing :) When my farrier arrived I told him that I was starting to use clicker training, he said he also has another client using it as well (he is very open to the natural approach). He informed me he was out of propane so we wouldn’t be hot shoeing today. I was thinking this might be a good building point. I followed your instructions rewarding when she was relaxed, head down. The first 3 feet went great! I found I couldn’t stand right next to her because she would search for the treat and I didn’t want her to be off balanced for him as he was under her. Her last foot she pulled her foot from him, I asked why he thought she did that? He said he thought she just got lazy. After the Farrier was done I asked how he thought she did? ( I already had my WOW moment :) ) he said she was “night and day!”

Thank you so very much for your help and enlightenment! I feel that because of people like you the horse world has been blessed :) I will keep you posted when he comes back and hot shoes :) Thanks again.



Is Hand-feeding a Problem?

This is always a been a hot topic which brings up some valid concerns. Here is a response posted on The Horse.com. Dr. Sue McDonnell is the founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She offers some sagely advice.

Here is a link to the article:  Hand-feeding Treats

I posted this in a group discussion but decided I wanted to share it here as well:  From the article I think it is apparent where I stand on the topic. I want to reiterate that it is not feeding the treats/reward that is causing the problem. It is all about our timing. What were they doing when the treat is delivered? What ever behavior the horse was exhibiting at the time is the behavior will see more of. We have, in effect, said that is what earned you the reward. We are training this behavior.

The mere fact that this hand feeding issue exists supports the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training. Horses, or ponies, are quick to remember what resulted in a reward…even if us humans aren’t making the connection, they are figuring it out. The trick is to learn how to use this incredible motivator for good purposes. To improve performance, motivation, our relationship and to solve problems. I hate to see people throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is not so hard to learn how to use positive reinforcement correctly. However, it is not a part of traditional horse training,,,yet. The behavioral principles are at work whether people are aware of them or not. The more people learn about them the more effective they will be as trainers. All that being said, I would rather not have my horse fed treats by people who were not aware of the relationship between treats and the resulting behavior. I look at any type of reinforcement as a training tool. Would anyone let a child, or adult for that matter, use a riding crop on a horse, all willy-nilly, with no education? Certainly not. I think it is the same with treats. Both reinforcers (the stick and the treats) are changing behavior. I think education is the key

On Target Training, Shawna Karrasch

© Copyright 2013 On Target Training. All Rights Reserved.