Living the Question

“Why can’t my horse behave for the farrier?” Sarah isn’t the only one who asks this question.

Picking up feet might be one of the most under-rated skills a horse can have. It’s inconvenient for us that a horse must be a prey animal, but it’s their nature. Horses will always be horses. We may think we’re asking if we can clean their hooves, but we’re really asking if they are willing to surrender their ability to escape and put their sacred hoof into the control of a traveling predator who smells like other horse’s hooves. Is that much different than you cantering without a bridle? Trust is a question that is never really settled. If your horse is willing or even shut down, it’s easy to take hoof care for granted. If it’s a problem, or what I like to call a conversation, then it may produce as much anxiety for the owner as the horse. Bring a farrier into the mix and anything can happen.

But Sarah was asking all the right questions. “Is it an emotional or physical difficulty for him? What can we do to help him?”

When a horse has a challenge, it’s usually caused by a combination of a few things. I’ve known farriers to pick fights with horses which can leave an emotional mark. Pain is a common reason, but pain can be a bit nebulous. Is the hoof hot or is his shoulder sore? Is he sore from compensating for a different hoof? Pain from ulcers is a good enough reason to make a farrier visit an event. And then if the situation has gone on for a while, some of it is a combination of memory and habit that adds up to worry. There are so many ingredients in this moment that looking for a guilty culprit isn’t the point. Focusing on what isn’t working is a negative start, serving only to isolate the horse with his faults.

Anxiety is a natural a component of a horse’s nature; it’s what keeps them alive. If you look at it that way, it might not even be about his feet.  It’ll take some sorting out to find answers to all the nebulous questions but in the meantime, we can help him. Sarah’s idea was that I join them for her farrier visit. Sarah’s farrier is willing, we set a time and I’m there via messenger on the phone, so I can see and be part of the conversation. We say our hellos and affirm that we are all on the same page. We want to help Bear. We’ll include him in the conversation, too, listening to his calming signals.

We start slowly because horses all agree that’s a good idea. Bear gives us a tiny try and he is roundly praised. It isn’t much but now we’re in the conversation with him. Sarah’s farrier gets credit here, too. She is the lead negotiator. It’s so much easier to say we want the best, but trickier to act that way. Most of all, Bear isn’t isolated; we’re not scrutinizing him like coyotes. Instead, Bear has a squad of mismatched, mid-life cheerleaders who do more breathing than hopping up and down screaming.

Now is a good time to remind you, even if your horse stands well and seems calm, that most likely his heart rate is up, his blood pressure has changed, as well as his cortisal levels. Anxiety is the natural state of a horse and being stoic doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful. When was the last time you pulled your own anxiety out and gave it a scratch?

Sarah says, “You [Anna] don’t have THE ANSWER but you recommend just doing two hooves each time she comes to trim, plus some other good recommendations.” I always start youngsters with two feet per visit. Yes, it costs more. The farrier must make two trips. It’s inconvenient for the humans but we’re working for a life skill that goes against a horse’s nature. We are setting a course for understanding. We need to show some willingness to be invested as much as the horse is. Bear is older; he has a life of experience in the balance and re-training requires patience. We start at the beginning again, and give the horse the time he needs to change in his mind.

Was having me there a miracle cure? No. There are no miracle cures and if a horse trainer says different, red flag! Trust isn’t one of those things we can buy off the shelf.

Over a year later, Sarah says, “As Marcia [the farrier] and I go along, we are LIVING the question. We don’t have THE ANSWER (yet). But we work a compromise. Perhaps someday this will no longer be an issue for Bear. But until then, I am cool with just LIVING the question. I don’t have to have the solution to carry on.”

As much as we like answers that are tied up with ribbion, the world is more chaotic than that. Ask any horse. What if the “problem” is us being too narrow-minded and hurried to see the resolution? What’s the rush; if he lives to be thirty-five, the conversation will evolve. Living the question is a way to say it’s all a work in progress. Isn’t that exactly where we all are? Where we all want to be? Imperfectly perfect while living out our lives?

In the meantime, Sarah has invented a way of haltering. Or it could be that her horses suggested it and she listened. Either way, it’s a thing of beauty. Bear is leading from behind comfortably; he has more confidence. Best of all, she’s begun riding again. She didn’t know that would even be possible. Recently a longtime friend noted that Cash, her other horse, was so calm that he was almost unrecognizable. The big picture reveals obvious remarkable improvement, even just two hooves at a time.

What if anxiety isn’t wrong but instead an invitation to a conversation? Learning to make peace with the nebulosity of life, while holding curiosity and the willingness to listen to what we don’t like, means the conversation with a horse can continue.

Sarah’s final question is rhetorical, “Isn’t it affirmative to just be able to ‘sit’ with uncertainty?” Yes, because healing starts with acceptance.

A special thank you to Sarah, and all my clients and horses. You’ve been a happy reminder, as I’m top-half dressed in a Zoom lesson, that there’s possibility in this crazy year. Saying yes changes everything.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

19 thoughts on “Living the Question”

  1. Hi Anna. The two-hoof idea is a good one. I wonder if my horse, who I didn’t think minded the farrier until I read this (!) may benefit from it. Kind of like going to the dentist and only getting the top teeth done, then on the next trip the bottom teeth — works for me! Your last sentence was brilliant: “…healing starts with acceptance”. I so often find that your words transcend the “horse world” and cross into the world of humankind, and can and should be used and applied there. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all listened (to each other) more and when in doubt only did “two hooves at a time”?

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  2. Well, you know I’m going to say I love this blog …. for numerous reasons. Maybe Bear’s experience and our 2 hoof approach will help other horses and their humans along their way to easier hoof trims and all the other challenges that arise.

    I am so grateful my horses and I have you as our horse mentor and supporter as we continue to live the questions. Also, who would think virtual horse training would be so rich and helpful ??? Because you accepted the quarantine situation, and said “yes” to technology, look at how far your students have come in the Barn School !!

    I am beyond thrilled that you have a photo of Bear & Cash in this blog !!! Isn’t that what we all want, for our horses to be seen in all their magnificence ?

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    • We do move along like a herd, don’t we? You are my hero, Sarah, for how you work for your horses. Thank YOU, Sarah. and give those beautiful boys a scratch.

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  3. Really liked the “2 hoof” idea. My current 2 horses are both very good about giving their feet so I don’t have any problems now. However, one of my past horses was a survivor from an abusive owner and she would, literally, lie down on my farrier! It took many months of ‘baby steps’, sometimes with only one hoof being worked on during the appointment, sometimes no work would be accomplished. My farrier was a saint to say the least and stuck with us for several years.

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    • Just love hearing about farriers who respect the challenge for the horse. Baby steps are the best, and clearly the memory impacts you today. Thanks for sharing, Susan.

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  4. What a happy story for Sarah, Bear and Cash! “Healing starts with acceptance.” I can relate to that.

    When Hank came to our barn he was the perfect, sweetest horse…as long as you didn’t touch his feet. Farrier visits were dreaded and culminated in the pronouncement that if things didn’t improve, we would have to sedate him. After assessing the situation, my trainer at the time explained that Hank was saying he simply needed those feet for his very survival. Her approach was to start slow. She taught me to release my “grip” the moment Hank thought about surrendering. It started with a slight shift, release; then a cocked foot, release; then a voluntary lift, release. With each tiny yield to pressure Hank was rewarded with a release. After about two weeks we had a breakthrough. When next my farrier came, he could hardly believe this was the same horse who had been so troublesome. And from then on, Hank was truly the most perfect, sweetest horse!

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  5. Anna, I love the comparison of cantering without a bridle as how it might feel for a horse to surrender his only measure of safety. Ferd (my rescue who crowds as an expression of anxiety) has been an unwilling participant of farrier endeavors for 2 1/2yrs. He will allow me to clean all but his right rear hoof. And, that right rear hoof is why my farrier doesn’t work with him anymore. His feet are looking pretty good these days as he eats in an area where we have round river rock and sand around his feeder. I have resisted well meaning advice to “force” the issue because I believe Ferd has made it very clear that this is something that he has to WANT to do or it just won’t work. Acceptance really does allow healing to start. I wish I would have had the benefit of your wisdom from the beginning of my horse life, but now is better than never. THANK YOU Anna!

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    • Oh Laurie… Ferd may have pain that hasn’t been diagnosed, or maybe another year or two with you and he’ll think differently… you are doing a good job with him. The thing I always ask people who think it’s time to force the issue is how they think the horse got this way in the first place. Best wishes to you and the herd.

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  6. I used this method on my older cat who needs his claws trimmed. Maybe just one nail gets done. Sometimes one whole paw. But each time is taken as it is, all I have to do is focus on the process and not the outcome. That’s my big lesson. Thank you for helping me to accept this.

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  7. Anna,
    I’m delighted that you’ve brought up the farrier subject. Having lived in England all my life, I’d always been lucky enough to use farriers who where highly trained and professional. I can honestly say I never saw any of the difficulties that you describe. On the part of the handler, groom, owner or whatever you might call the person caring for the horse. Hoof cleaning and care is an essential part of the daily routine. I actually pick my horse’s hooves twice a day, maybe a touch OCD.
    Now however, I live in Bulgaria. Where hoof care is a very different story, a long story , so I will just stick to my own experience.
    So, after a couple of years living here I was ready to buy my horse. We had the land and had made part of the barn into a loose box ( I believe you would call it a stall ).
    My mare Karina came from a man in the village. Four years old and a pretty green (Karina, not the man). I knew I had a lot of work to do to train her. The man kindly arranged for a farrier to visit.
    Ironically, the Bulgarians call the farrier ” meastro”. I would call them neither and am too much of a lady to repeat what I would call them.
    The **** chopped into Karina’s front hooves and hammered some Ill fitting shoes on. When I asked to trim the hinds but not shoe he seemed annoyed and inconvenienced by my request. It was difficult as we didn’t speak the same language, I don’t just mean English/ Bulgarian. I mean we did not speak the same language regarding my horse and also he didn’t want to communicate with me. A woman !
    He called another man from the village who held her hind legs with rope so he could hack them with nippers. I don’t think he actually had a rasp. But to be honest I was numb with shock and disbelief. The following day I found and treated laserations on her pasterns, the scars from which I can still see 5 years later.
    It is a long story, so I will cut it short. I have not had Karina shod from that day to this. Slowly, slowly with tiny baby steps I persuaded her to trust me, whilst at the same time teaching myself to barefoot trim. It took a very long time to even pick her feet. One thing I did learn quite early. The idea of restraint terrified her and she would fight any attempt to do so. I put on a halter with a longish line, just in case I need to keep her from walking off. But she is basically loose whilst I work on the hooves. I usually do two, by which time we both need a breather. I’m almost 60 !
    So, she has a bit of hay and I have a coffee. Then we set to and do the other two.
    It has been a huge challenge, for both of us. Now it is a routine that we both know well and neither of us have anything to fear from it. She feels safe in
    my hands and I feel safe holding her hooves.

    I’d love to send you some pictures, don’t know how ?

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    • Thanks, Kati, for this heartfelt comment. I hope farriers like this aren’t the majority, but hearing of an experience like this once kinda ruins you for life, doesn’t it. Thanks for sharing it and sorry, no way to add photos on WordPress,

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      • Thanks Anna,
        Sadly, I’m afraid it is the norm in the poorer countries of Eastern Europe. All I can do is rise above it and look after my little girl.

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        • Certainly sounds like your mare is very fortunate to be with you. Cant imagine how terrifying that was for her – still pretty much a baby at 4.

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  8. Thank you Maggie,
    I certainly do do my best for her. You’re right, at 4 she was a baby. Sadly, in those 4 short years she’d never experienced kindness and understanding from humans. Everything we’ve done together has been a collection of baby steps with lots of patience. Challenging, but hugely rewarding.

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