So I was reading a little Maureen… and got a swift kick in the buttless chaps when I realized I’d totally missed the “trim by” date on Firefly’s baby feet (must have missed the small print for all the dirt). Maureen Tierney, in all her wisdom, advocates for early trimming to avoid lifelong issues. Here I’d been puttering along assuming – what? That Trimming Day was ages away, that time didn’t rage along in the blink of an eye, that babies stay tiny and cute and sleep-in-your-lap-able with the most perfect little feet for ever n ever??
So. But. Also. Fortunately for our hero, foot work had already started way back in the day, and Firefly had her first trim this week (at 3-and-a-quarter months old) with little to no hullabaloo. YES, I am AWARE I should have been taking pictures, but my phone camera exploded and I forgot to take the proper camera and by george I can’t stop for things like photo-taking when I get an idea. So you just have to…imagine. They look great, lemme tell ya.
But let’s back up a bit in case you want to follow along. If you have (or will have) a foal in your care, and you’d like to raise her up without force or the usual casual nastiness, there are lots of ways to go about it. This has been my seat-of-the-pants, go-with-the-gut approach to Teaching Fly About Feet. And don’t worry if you’ve missed the timing, like I did – nothing is more important than having a trusting relationship with that baby, so don’t rush or force your foal for the sake of a trim.
Relationship > Goals
First off, just have a good time with that baby. Get her used to touch and friendship without restraint, “imprinting” techniques, or any kind of stress. Watch her mother and take your cues from her about what’s okay and what isn’t. Watch baby for signs of overwhelm or crankiness. Watch yourself and don’t overdo it, put yourself in dangerous situations, or let your goal-oriented cranium take over. Don’t sweat it if it’s going slow – better to build trust slowly than erode it in a moment’s rush. Just hang out. Enjoy it.
When you’re comfortable with each other and having little touch and cuddle sessions, it is simple and easy to start introducing cues and concepts in a very non-invasive manner. Just hanging out with Firefly brought up natural situations for me to teach her to back up, to follow, and to pick up her feet – as in, out of my lap, off my head, or wherever she thought feet belonged when she was tiny and adorable…and before she was less tiny and less adorable (at least when it comes to feet on heads)
For us, picking up feet started in quiet times together. You can tickle the back of your foal’s pastern until she lifts it (no grabbing!), then follow up with loads of scratches and verbal praise (something like: “Oh my GOODNESS FLYzee, you are the most TREMENDOUSLY WONDERFUL GIIIIRRRRLLL!”). Over time, work on each foot, then over more time see if she’ll let you hold them up for longer and longer. Never hold on to her til she worries, let her have her foot back whenever she wants. No big deal. This can be a literally 15 second activity – no need to repeat endlessly, just remember to do it whenever the moment presents itself.
If you’ve been doing your homework and building a proper, unrushed, love-based relationship with her, what you’re doing won’t scare or alarm her, it’ll just be another odd thing you do together. When you start holding her feet up for longer, say to try to pick them out, remember not to rush into your goal-brain. Stay relaxed, and actually let the muscles go loose in your arm. Hold her foot and move with her as she kicks and sways, she has to find her balance and can’t do it if you have an iron grip. Let her explore what standing on three feet feels like without terror. Let go the second you think she’s having trouble. Pile on the praise.
The Big Day
Trimming day doesn’t have to be any kind of big deal; it doesn’t even have to take place all on one day. Fly’s first trim took two visits with the rasp, simply because I didn’t want to rush it.
This is where being able to trim your own horses comes in mighty useful. If you have an open-minded farrier, see if you can brief them on the process as you’d like to see it. You don’t want to imprint a bad experience, you want to make getting trimmed a non-issue for the rest of her life. The trim does not have to be complicated, and it is very DIY-able; I use the Hoof Guided Method, which is more or less a sole-determined 30-ish degree bevel from 8 to 4 o’clock – you can learn more about it here.
- Pick a nice, flat spot with good footing
- Give her a snack to keep her busy and still – a haybag or something that keeps her neck and back level (this will help with her balance)
- Remove hazardous objects, and any herdmates that might intimidate, distract, or annoy her; make sure Mama is close by and can get to her
- Ask for her feet with saint-like patience and remember everything else I’ve said about keeping your goal-orientation under wraps. Help her find her balance. Take your time to make sure she’s comfortable. Pay attention to her other three feet – are they square? Could you balance like that?
- Tune in, connect, and let her participate – i.e. tell you when she’s ready. Tell her what you’re going to do, and why, which gets you focused and also reminds you that your ultimate goal (even though we’re goal-free right now!) is her well-being – NOT “trimming those damn feet if it’s the last thing I do”, which I am all too guilty of slipping into when I get all one-track and dogged about things. Firefly was actually taking a second to regroup and then offering me the same foot when she was ready again. She’s the darlingest!
- If it’s you doing the trimming, remember it’s a big rasp and a little foot, so take your time and don’t rush (I know, how many times can I say it?)
- So many scratches. All the scratches. Before, during, and after. Take breaks for scratches! When she has trouble holding her hinds, I scratch her little inner thigh and it relaxes her so much she stands without realizing she’s doing it! This reinforces the good vibes and teaches her that standing on three legs can be grand. Then I’d sneak in a few strokes of the rasp and go back to scratching.
- If it isn’t going well, give up and try again tomorrow. Seriously. You can do more damage by pushing and forcing the subject than you’ll ever do leaving a foot too long for one more day. What’s your cue? Try this – are you having fun? Is it light and easy and nobody’s getting activated, scared, mad, or revved up in some way? If not – if it’s getting hard or frustrating, quit now. Have a nine-minute scratching-and-praise break. Go do something else for a while.
The Nerdy Takeaway
It’s so important to keep contact with foals (and all our horses!) pleasant and not overwhelming, considering their limitations and their unique experiences, desires, needs, feelings – and it’s also so important to find ways to do what we need to do to keep them healthy, calm, and cared for.
So there are always questions to ponder, like: Is your relationship robust enough that you can ask her to endure a little irritation or confusion for the greater good? Can you make the experience meaningful and exploratory, like what Jini did with the semi-feral Audelina and her 5 mega doses of yucky wormer? Or do you need to slow down and recommit to your principles, trusting that what needs to happen will happen in due time and, well, listening to your horse? The balance, and sometimes the compromise, is up to you.
I’d love to hear from you any thoughts on trimming youngsters, but even more than that, any experiences you’ve had walking the tightrope between what “needs” to happen and what “wants” to happen with your horses – so comment below or send me a message!
A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer – these are some of the hats Kesia Nagata wears when she’s not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.
4 thoughts on “Baby’s First Trim – Barefoot Trimming for Foals”
Good timing! I don’t have a foal, but I have a mustang who’s never had his hooves trimmed and I’ve been wondering how to go about this. Without making it stressful for both of us! Any other tips for how to proceed with adult horses? Or should I just do the same as you’ve written?
We’re currently working on (friend and co-blogger here) Jini’s never-before-trimmed adult Belgian crosses, and patience is definitely the word. The best thing I can tell myself is “They’ve never been trimmed before – and another little while isn’t going to destroy them.” While we haven’t completed any full-on trims, I’ve been able to get a look at each foot, remove the worst excess or anything that looks painful, and slowly introduce foot work and trimming as a strange but okay thing we do that always comes with good stuff – some carrot bites, some scratching of favourite itches, lots of praise and some fun. Audelina in particular is fun to work with – because although she’s still worried about having to balance, she’s very curious as to why I want to do this stuff with her and willing to give it a go.
If your mustang is comfortable being touched and you both trust each other pretty well, then yes, I’d start introducing “foot play” more or less as I’ve described with Baby Fly above – just seeing if you can teach him a word and/or physical cue that connects to him picking up his feet. There are lots of ways to do this, and I’m no trainer, but I find if they’re not scared of you, they tend to try to figure what you’re asking for pretty quick, especially if you reward it with your authentic delight. It’s actually a real blessing if the horse has NOT been trained or forced before, so they don’t have fear and discomfort already associated with it. All our horses that came “trained” have been much harder to work with on this than the ones with no associations.
A horse’s feet are his most important possessions if he feels, for any reason, that he needs to fight or flee. It’s actually, to me, a huge marker of trust that a horse would forego his natural instincts and offer up a hoof. So if he’s still flighty and unsure of you, then take a deep breath, sweep “Trimming Anxiety” out of your mind (again, if he’s never been trimmed, and he’s still alive and not crippled, another few weeks or a month won’t kill him either), and focus on getting to know him at his own pace before trying for his feet again. Often our human ideas of what a hoof “should” look like make trouble in our souls when really, the horse is a-okay for now and could do just fine with some gravel or pavement to move over in the meantime.
So what can I say? Follow your intuition and slow down enough to feel into what’s going on in the moment. If you try to trim, or even just to work on feet-picking-upping, it’s good to have a friend you trust there to offer unbiased observations – “he looks stressed” or “I don’t think he has his balance yet” or, better yet “YOU look stressed” or “maybe you should quit for a bit”.
I’d love to hear about your progress, let us know what you experience and observe during this process, and of course we’ll do our best to answer any questions you have.
Love your articles and the way you write 🙂 You do a great job of describing the process and keep it entertaining too 🙂
So lovely of you to drop in and say so, Cynthia! Hope you find what you’re looking for here.