How to Help the Leg Shy Horse
By Jonathan Field
Helping a horse that is fearful and claustrophobic around his legs to become confident and respectful for grooming, veterinary, and farrier work is a delicate process. If done wrong, the result can be a more fearful horse. Horses are flight animals and their legs provide the means for their primary survival tactic. You can’t blame your horse for doing what he feels he needs to do for self-preservation. Yet when they trust us, it’s amazing how many things horses will accept that go against their instincts.
This is why horsemanship experience is important. You need to have a sensitive feel, a quick timed release, and most importantly, an understanding of the horse you’re trying to help and knowledge of why they are so protective of their legs. I’m looking forward to sharing some concepts that can help many horses with leg handling issues.
I start by establishing communication with the whole horse rather than focusing only on the legs. This way I establish a connection, a respect system, and personal space before dealing with any issues. A horse that is worried about his legs can strike or kick a handler in a blink, so establishing personal space is an important first step. When it comes time to address the feet, I start by using a long, soft rope as it allows me to touch the legs from a distance and keep out of range of being kicked or struck.
I use a two-step strategy with a leg-shy horse to help him become confident. First, I simply rub the rope around his legs and have him accept it being placed there. Then I begin teaching him to lead by the legs. This helps the horse replace his fear with positive thought and a yield. I find that by teaching horses to replace their fear with a responsive yield to pressure, they figure out that it’s okay to be touched on their sensitive spots and that feeling of confidence lasts for a longer period of time than with other methods. This confidence not only helps the horse feel better about having things around his legs, but it makes him safer in the event that he gets his legs caught in something; for example, if the horse gets his leg tangled in a fence, he is less likely to panic if he is confident about having his legs touched and controlled.
The horse demonstrating the techniques in this article is relatively good for the farrier, but is very worried about his front legs, especially having anything wrapped around them. I decided to use a 12-foot lead attached to the halter and a soft 22-foot rope held in a loop to help this horse accept handling on his front legs. With this combination, I could maintain control of his head and, in the worst case, I could let go of the rope attached to his leg.
An important safety point to note is to make sure that you handle your ropes correctly. You must not let the rope wrap around your hand, particularly the hand holding the leg rope. Do not coil or even layer it in your hand. It must be able to slip easily through your hand if the horse pulls his foot away quickly. If the horse strikes quickly and the rope is wrapped in your hand, you could be jerked severely, hurting your hand or arm, or even pulling you toward the horse. I hold the rope as if holding a bird – not so tight as to suffocate him, but not so loose that he flies away. Because you won’t be holding any excess rope in your hands, it’s also important to be aware of the ropes on the ground so they don’t get tangled around your feet or legs. Rope management and safety must be your number one priority.
I started with the 22-foot line looped around the horse’s leg, having it touch his leg while I led him forward with the lead rope. You can tell by his body language that he is a bit iffy with the rope touching his leg, but he showed nothing significant.
Leading With the Rope
Next I attached the 22-foot rope to his foot by looping it through the ring at the end of the lead. Looping the ring through the ring this way is important as it stops the rope from binding tighter around the horse’s leg if he jerks it away or pulls back.
I began by slowly increasing the tension on the rope, asking him to yield to pressure and step forward. I held the rope tightly enough to keep his foot off the ground, but loose enough that if he jerked his foot to the ground quickly or pulled back, the rope could slide through my hands without making the horse feel trapped or giving me rope burn.
It’s important to point out here that I did not pull; I held a steady, consistent pressure and waited for him to yield. I also didn’t tug, release, and then tug more. This concept of holding pressure, not pulling or tugging, is one of the hardest horsemanship skills to teach.
Once he realized that I was asking more of him than just having a rope around his foot, he very abruptly pulled his foot close to his body. You’ll notice that the rope on his foot is loose and I am not trying to fight him. I don’t want him to feel trapped and become more worried about this process than he was when I started.
Next, he slammed his foot onto the ground as if to say, “You’re not leading me by the leg!” This is a good example of why you would not want the rope wrapped around your hand, because it would be a very violent jerk.
A Step in the Right Direction
I kept asking him with a steady pressure to lead by his foot. You can see in the second photo that I’ve lifted his foot off the ground. I held it there for 30 seconds or so before he inched forward and took his first step.
That single step was a huge try for him, so I was really happy and gave him a big rub and a break.
After the break, I repeated the process with both legs until he would allow me to encourage him slightly forward with each front foot. Then I wrapped up the session.
To get a horse confidently leading by his feet, I repeat this process daily until the horse has no reaction and leads easily. By teaching the horse to accept the ropes around his legs, and by using that rope to build a communication, he becomes prepared for all kinds of situations and builds trust in me as his leader. As the horse becomes more confident, I will incorporate different things, such as a flag or a muscle massager to prepare him for clipping when he gets really confident. I will continue to check up on these exercises periodically to be sure that the horse remains confident with his legs as time goes by.
All article photos: Robin Duncan Photography
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.