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Mare Kicks Out When Cleaning Hooves

16 August 2011 One Comment

Mare Kicks Out When Cleaning Hooves
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

My five-year-old mare sometimes tries kicking at me when I lift her hooves to clean them. Sometimes she just shakes her leg (someone told me that they do that to steady themselves). I just hang on until she settles down but don’t like her striking out at me. Sometimes she acts hateful (if not in crossties I see her teeth come my way) when I first take off her blanket. Other than that she is sweet and sensible. Obedient (unless she’s feeling frisky or spooked) when lunged or ridden.
How do I help her develop better habits? I have also had times when I lacked confidence (I’m working on that) and I know that has an effect (she is trying to boss me). Whoever you can forward this to, I would appreciate it!


I think what you’re experiencing with your mare is a two-part situation. First, let’s talk about your mare “kicking” at you when you clean her hind feet.

I see people get into combat all the time when they go to pick up their horse’s hind feet. The scenario is usually the handler runs their hand down the leg, the horse picks up the foot and then the handler instantly wants to take the horses leg stretched out behind the horse. Some horses then start “kicking” or “jacking” the foot in and then out, almost like they are kicking, but they really are not. When a horse first picks up their foot, they usually do like to pull their leg “in” and up first, contracting the tendons and tightening the muscles. This can be the moment when the handler thinks that the horse is going to then kick at them, so they get in a “pulling match” with their horse’s hind leg. If the handler just waits a few seconds instead, they will find that once the horse has done the contraction of their leg, they then relax the muscles, tendons and ligaments and will “offer” to let the handler take their leg and foot stretched back. Where the combat comes in is when the handler doesn’t allow the initial “pull-in”. Try picking up your mare’s foot and when she picks it up, don’t get into a struggle with her. Let her pull her foot and leg up and “in” and allow her to tighten and contract her muscles, ligaments and tendons for a few seconds as you lightly hold her leg. After a few seconds, she will probably begin to relax and release her leg to you and then you can smoothly draw it back out behind her to clean her hoof and she will have relaxed her leg enough to let you do it with no problem and no fussiness. Make sure that when you go to pick up her foot, that she is standing square and in balance so that she won’t jerk and pull her leg because she feels as if she might fall over. Also, make sure that you never pull her hind leg out to the side. This can stress and cause pain in the stifle area and will cause a horse to “jerk” their leg because it hurts.

Another reason that we sometimes see a horse “jack” and kick their hind leg is because they are what is called “tight-behind”. What this means is that the horse is not comfortable having their hind leg extended and stretched out behind them for hoof cleaning, trimming or shoeing. I see this more often in Thorobreds and sometimes in the higher-strung breeds such as Arabians or Saddlebreds. I believe that there are two reasons for “tight-behind”. One is that some horses are just very sensitive through their stifle joints and/or hocks and it hurts them to have their leg pulled out too far behind them. This pain may be due to a previous or current injury to the stifle or hock, and if the horses’ behavior persists, a conscientious owner may want to have their veterinarian check to make sure that there is nothing wrong in the hind legs. Another reason that I believe is that horses are “tight-behind” is because they have a very intact flight instinct and they aren’t comfortable relinquishing their ability to flee by “giving-up” their hind leg and foot completely. If their foot is being “held captive” stretched out behind them, they feel that they can’t “get the heck out of Dodge” if need be. What I do with horses like this is not pull their hind leg out behind them when I clean their feet. I let them go through the pull-in-and-contraction phase and then when they relax the hind leg, I just let them hold it underneath themselves in a relaxed stance as I clean the foot. This method is actually a lot easier on me too because it doesn’t stress my lower back as much as if I get underneath a horse and rest their leg on my thigh as I clean the feet. I’ve only had a few good farriers in the past 30 years that could “read” a horse and know by how the horse acted if they were “tight behind”. If the horse was “tight-behind” because they were tense or fearful, usually over a period of three or four shoeing sessions, the shoer would be able to get the horse to trust them enough to draw the foot out behind them so it was easier for the shoer to do his job. But initially, these few good farriers would allow the horse to hold the foot underneath themselves more and do their work that way until the horse learned to trust them.

Your second issue involves your mare’s attitude of perhaps wanting to be the leader in the situation, but believe it or not, might also involve the fit of her blanket! I’ve seen many horses react unfavorably to being blanketed and unblanketed because their blankets don’t fit them properly and are in fact causing pain through pinching and binding. They develop a distinct dislike to blankets and it becomes an object of discomfort. The most sensitive areas will tend to be where the blanket fits over their withers, across their chest and also where the straps go under their bellies, or between their hind legs with New Zealand straps. Another area that can be problematic for mares is if their blanket is too long for them and hangs over the back of their rump. If the blanket is too long, as the mare lifts her tail to urinate, the blanket either folds across from one side, or the mare can’t get her tail up high enough because the blanket is inhibiting them and they end up urinating on themselves. The mare ends up wet from urine between and down her hind legs, so this causes both physical and mental discomfort for her. It can also cause chafing and certain fungus growth. Check the fit of your mare’s blanket and make sure that its not too long and that it is fitting her properly everywhere else as well.

If after checking the fit of your mares blanket you determine that there is not a problem in that area, you will need to do a bit of leadership schooling. You need to work on your ability to be clear and consistent in your interaction with your mare. As I always tell my students, “do not try to be your horses friend first. Develop mutual respect first and the friendship will develop from there. Without respect first, there will not be “true” friendship and partnership between horse and human”. So basically what I mean is, always be clear in your requests and consistent in your response with your mare. I love mares because I appreciate a bit of attitude and boldness. However, with horses that want to be a bit bossy shall we say, you need to establish the chain-of-leadership in your “herd-of-two”. Since you know that your mare has certain areas where she may get a bit snotty with you, be prepared to respond. I would tuck a short whip in my back pocket and be prepared to use it as an extension of my arm if need be. As you go to take her blanket off, just go about your business but watch her out of the corner of your eye. If she goes to swing around to snap at you, have the whip in your hand and tag her along the side of her neck. I don’t usually advise people to tag the horse on the nose mostly because I don’t feel that the average horseperson will be precise enough with a whip and also that their timing will be “right on” enough to make the correct impression with the horse. There is nothing worse then slapping at a horses’ face if they go to bite and having the horse turn it into a game of “duck-and-weave”. The horse will have the timing to snap, pull their head back as the slap comes from the human and then snap again. Better to tag the horse on the side of the neck and avoid turning the behavior into a funny game for the horse. Once you have done what you need to do in terms of causing a negative when your mares goes to snap at you, go about your business and leave her alone. Your response to her action should be short and to the point and then go about your business like nothing occurred. If she demonstrates the same behavior again, your response must be clear and consistent again, only the second time, a tiny bit more forceful. Your response will escalate in direct proportion to your mare’s action and the repeat of her action. My bet is that once you “tag” your mare once, maybe twice, she will begin to think that somehow you are reading-her-mind (when in fact what you are reading is her expression and body language) and she will stop the behavior because it leads to a negative response from you. If after the correction she stands well for the unblanketing, praise her lavishly and if you are the kind of person who gives food treat rewards (as I do), then give her a treat for positive behavior.

Being around horses is a “give-and-take” of action and response and by becoming clear and consistent in your requests and responses, you and your mare will develop a positive rhythm in your interaction and will also develop a “true” friendship based on mutual respect and understanding of one another.

Good Luck!

Laura Phelps-Bell

One Comment »

  • Shannon said:

    Hi and thank you. You are extremely informative. I have just bought two thorobreds a mare 14 and her colt now 2 ,and i had the very same issue, I thought they were just ticklish.But both need to stretch and pull several times before relaxing. I could tell for my older mare it was frustrating. She was formally a race horse but i do believe she is in pain I was wondering, What can i do to help her with this? I am working on getting the vet to see her. I just had to have my 2 year old tubed for choking a day ago so moneys are running low right now. Thanks again

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