How to Make Hoofcare as Easy as ... Feeding a Carrot!

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Well, this is my 2nd week working at an Equine Ministry Camp for this summer and I noticed last week that a few of the horses don't like to have their hooves tended so much.

So -- hmmm, what can *I* do to make the kids have an easier time of cleaning horse's hooves (and make things easier for the hoofcare provider to trim the hooves)?

The handsome guy to the left would "hand" me my tools as I asked for them. No kidding!!!  He learned the names of several and would 'fetch' them for me ... he learned quickly with clicker training!

Now many will disagree with having food and hooves in the same sentence never mind working with food and horses' hooves at the same time. I can assure you, when positive reinforcement (aka, Clicker Training) is done PROPERLY the results are quick and amazing!

In 1984 Karen Pryor published a book named, "Don't Shoot The Dog". In and around 6 years later I discovered that book. At that time I also discovered that there was a name for how I trained horses and dogs and other critters -- "Clicker Training" or, more formally, "Positive Reinforcement" training.

Hmmmm, how interesting. It seemed logical to me that we ALL like to be rewarded for a job well done or even a huge "try". So that's what I always used to do. Worked much more effectively than punishing an unwanted 'bad' behavior! So when I would trim hooves, I'd simply ask for the horse to 'hand' me his hoof and if he complied I gave a treat! 

Simple, right?

Just as logically as I would give a treat for a good behavior I would withhold my praise and treat for non-compliance or unwanted behaviors.

Simple, still, right?

Some people have gotten way into details and more intricacies of positive reinforcement than what needs to be.

Let's take a quick look at how simple this method works for getting a horse to lift its own hoof for care:

1. Ask clearly for a hoof.
2. Horse lifts hoof.
3. Praise that horse the second he is lifting that hoof. (TIMING IS EVERYTHING, FOLKS!)
4. Give the horse a small treat to 'reinforce' the behavior.

It's that simple!

But, again, *** timing is everything ***

Notice I put "is lifting" in bold letters above. That means that one has to praise (mark the behavior) the horse at the very second the horse is in the motion of LIFTING THE HOOF. If one waits until the hoof is lifted then put down, there is no definitive behavior for which the horse is being rewarded. Remember, horses think in moments. So in 3 seconds there are several behaviors that could have taken place. If one waits until after the behavior happens, how is the horse to know for which behavior it is being praised? So, once again ... the marker (praise) must be given at the exact moment of the behavior. 

I use a mechanical clicker when first starting out with a new horse and later go on to a Good! or a tongue 'click' to mark the INSTANT of the behavior.

OK, so, now you've got the horse lifting its hoof for you. How on earth do you teach the horse to HOLD his own hoof up for care?

Well, that's rather simple, too ... we wait to praise and reward. We ask the horse to lift its foot and then tell the horse "Hold it! Hold it!" and wait for the horse to relax and hold the hoof.

Mark, release and treat.

Now I've taught a couple of my horses to 'wave' with a front hoof to say "hello". Yep, I can hear y'all now ... "Oh my goodness! That's so dangerous! The horse will 'wave' its foot when asking for the hoof to clean and the person will get bonked in the face!"

You see, horses aren't all that stupid. They CAN learn to differentiate between our requests (and do all the time, right?) ... so they CAN learn the difference between "Up and Hold, please" and "Say hello!".  I use the phrase, "Up and Hold, please" to ask for a hoof for cleaning or trimming. I use the phrase, "Say Hello!" to ask the horse to 'wave' at someone.

Again, it's that simple. Soon after the behavior is learned well, the 'clicker' can be dispensed with and only used variably. I won't get into the 'variable' part of positive reinforcement here but feel free to ask me if you'd like to know more about it!

However, you've got to remember - timing, timing, timing is everything along with the clarity of our requests. Otherwise, the warnings you hear may come to fruition and you end up with a very rude and pushy horse that is mugging you for treats all the time. THAT is not good. But learn to use this method of training correctly and you'll have golden horses. And yes, even for client's horses. It takes just a few moments for the horse to understand and the longest I've had for a horse to 'get it' was about 10 minutes. Usually it takes less than 5 minutes out of my trimming time to get a horse to stand and lift its own hoof for me using Clicker Training.

For all you scientific thinkers, positive reinforcement is very neurological. How? How is the "click" (marker) processed in the brain? 

Karen Pryor, in her work with German scientist Barbara Schoening who is a clicker trainer and a veterinary neurophysiologist explains that well:

"Research in neurophysiology has identified the kinds of stimuli—bright lights, sudden sharp sounds—that reach the amygdala first, before reaching the cortex or thinking part of the brain. The click is that kind of stimulus. Other research, on conditioned fear responses in humans, shows that these also are established via the amygdala, and are characterized by a pattern of very rapid learning, often on a single trial, long-term retention, and a big surge of concommitant emotions."

When using clicker training one " ... soon finds that there's no more need to correct mistakes; mistakes disappear when you can reinforce the correct move." --Karen Pryor

What does that mean in a simplified nutshell?  It means that the click being a sudden, sharp sound, reaches the amygdala before reaching the thinking part of the brain (the cortex).The amygdala is the "flight or fight" center of the brain. If that is stimulated in a negative way, the horse will flee as his survival instincts dictate. But using the clicker, the sound will break that cycle and, as such, will change the horse's thinking. So horse that is nervous about having his hooves handled for care will have his thinking changed. The horse will realize, in short time, that doing as requested will make him feel good!  And, as such, he will want to REPEAT the behavior that makes him feel good. (Don't we all want that? and further - the unwanted behavior will self-extinguish!)

That's the simplified version of it all.

So next time you hear a farrier or trimmer say, "Oh, I don't want the horse eating anything while I'm working on him; I want his full attention on ME"  remember what you've read here.

If you'd like to learn more or if you think you can talk me out of this "ridiculousness" (said with a grin), please feel free to contact me.

Oh .. and here is a full training session (1st one ever with this horse) that will show just how quickly it works)

One more note -- Clicker Training can be used for many other 'training' aspects as well as hoofcare. It's great for teaching horses (and other animals) to take their meds without issues, can be used for under saddle work as well as groundwork exercises and there are a number of professionals in the circuit who use positive reinforcement for teaching the things of "High School". 

It's not just all about hooves. 


Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications including The Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoof care for the last 20 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. You can email to Gwen -- or telephone in the US (774)-280-4227 NEW PHONE). For further information please click here:





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