Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Connecting to the Feet—A Case Study

By Mary Gallagher

Getting connected to the horse’s feet has become a passion of mine over the years; teaching horses to be careful with their feet is an art. So when I was recently asked to work with a promising 4-year old named Zeus, developing him for various kinds of showing, as well as to be a steady, well-rounded horse, I started with his feet.

Of course, I looked at the whole horse. I saw a bright, healthy, willing gelding with excellent conformation and promising movement. This young fellow was also wearing shoes, which, with his owner’s permission, would soon go. For extended training, I work with barefoot horses exclusively, and Freedom Farm is a barefoot barn for all residents, from trail horses to show jumpers.

So while waiting for a date with our trimmer Audrey to remove his shoes, we began exposing Zeus to working obstacles here at Freedom Farm. I was surprised to note that he was a tad slow to react in the feet. Given his good health, energy and smarts, I looked to the shoes and bell boots he was wearing as a factor, and also thought he could really benefit from lots of free movement and play time.

Key in my philosophy of herd-based living for the majority of horses at the Farm is my belief that they become skillful with their feet by using them constantly and as freely as possible. The herd lifestyle is a sound basis for good physical, mental and emotional health. 

Free horses are very expressive with their feet; playing with other horses would give Zeus more opportunity to use his body’s agility and develop coordination. In the mean time, Zeus would have his own place; our horses in transition from shoes generally stay a while in our rubber mat pens, but in healthy young Zeus’s case, a large paddock with nonabrasive footing was just the thing. We began Zeus’s conditioning by distributing poles of varying size around his paddock, which had the immediate effect of drawing his awareness to the ground and to his feet as he socialized with the horses nearby.

I continued working with him on line, having him step over obstacles of different shapes and sizes. This challenged him to think and react to different heights and lengths of steps he would need to solve the obstacle puzzle. Zeus seemed to like these challenges I gave him to solve with his feet; within two days, there was a marked improvement. Working in the round pen, Zeus could reach with his legs, placing them more accurately and thoughtfully; you could see he was developing some of that carefulness I was looking for. If he touched a pole while going over it, he began to make an effort to not touch it the next time.

Let me digress with a short editorial:

Getting a horse to place his feet well requires giving the horse time to think, and staying out of his way while he works on it for himself. We get great results with our jumping horses here at Freedom Farm: When they enter the show arena, the rider is guiding but not thinking for the horse. Our horses are responsible for placing their feet the best for the situation. When the rider gets too involved with that process, the horse’s reaction time is disturbed.

Over the years I have gotten accustomed to my horses being quick and careful with their feet in this way, and I do believe that being barefoot facilitates this advantage they bring to competition. As a traditionally trained rider of shod horses for the early part of my career, I have also grown to dislike the sound of metal shoes hitting each other. When I ride shod horses now, I feel a heaviness in the feet and a lack of a sense of contact with the ground, as if the feet were numb.

I understand that many people honestly believe, as they have told me directly, that their horse could not go without shoes. Yet the loss of contact with the ground is a real detriment to the shod horse, as is the inability of the hoof to expand and contract naturally, interfering with what is essentially a pumping mechanism to facilitate blood flow. I have seen many horses wearing bandages because of inflammation in the legs, when that inflammation could be addressed with better hoof mechanism—a whole ‘nother editorial for another time!

Back to Zeus:

After a week, his shoes were removed. It was interesting to watch Zeus stand perfectly still as the shoes came off, one by one. When they were all off, however, he started to wiggle and step this way and that, as if (I imagined) he wanted to feel his feet expand and move under his weight.

We turned him out on our grass playground as usual, expecting him to drop his head and graze, as usual. We were amazed when he soon set off at a springy trot, far lighter than before. He started investigating his new neighborhood—checking out the herd paddocks and wide playground for the first time since arriving a week before.

So it seemed the new guy was more social and curious than we thought! As I walked Zeus back to his paddock that evening, he felt different on the lead rope, with a little lighter step and of course a quieter sound to his feet.

Next steps (so to speak...)

After this first week, I already see a different horse. My job, which is to expose Zeus to various experiences and challenges, preparing him to be a great all-round horse, has just begun. I will certainly give him what I know about how to get the feet light, snappy, and careful. 
It is great that Zeus is young—just 4 years old—because his feet have yet to finish developing structurally. I feel that by giving him a chance to develop a complete hoof, naturally, we have increased the likelihood of a long, healthy life for him. For now, we will fit him for hoof boots so he can continue to develop skills for his future life, while his hooves grow and fully develop.

Enjoy this short video of early work and play by Zeus, and stay tuned for updates on Zeus’s progress!

Want to learn to work this way with your horse? Come to Friday Horsemanship Class, where we work on connecting with our horses through the feet, whether on the ground or riding.

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