To use or not to use food when the farrier comes to trim your horse’s hooves, now that is the big question. Some people will tell you to avoid feeding your horse food/treats, especially when you have a professional coming out to provide a service. Others will encourage you to give your horse as much as he wants to eat and to feed often. What do you think is the better option? Can food help to keep a horse calm or will it increase frustration and lead to an uncooperative horse? The answer is both, it all depends on how you use it. If used incorrectly it can increase your horse’s frustration and may increase aggression, but if used correctly it can help reduce anxiety, reduce boredom, improve willingness to pick up a hoof and in certain cases it can even reduce aggression.
Before attempting to use food we first need to check with the farrier
When you consider using food when your farrier comes, ask first. Most farriers won’t mind what you use, as long as the horse stands still and cooperates. But sometimes your farrier won’t appreciate it when you feed your horse when he’s busy trimming, since some of the food will usually end up on the farrier along with some horsey slobber. So, before you start feeding your horse food, just check with the farrier and make sure he/she is fine with it. We want the best for our horses and the most positive experience, but we also want to take into consideration the hard-working professionals who put in a lot of effort to help keep our horses happy and healthy.
The biggest mistakes we make when using food during trimming
Before we start adding food to the mix, we have to know the horse we are working with. If you know your horse can be pushy around food, you don’t want to start feeding your horse food while the farrier trims the hooves. This will likely turn into a fight really quickly since your horse will not yet know how to behave calmly around food, this has to be taught first. For horses unfamiliar to positive reinforcement training it’s really important to teach the foundations of this type of training first, teach them the rules of the game and which behaviours you want to see and which not. If we don’t lay this foundation, we can see frustration levels increase which can turn into aggression if we’re not careful. This doesn’t mean our horse is being disrespectful or trying to dominate us, it simply means he doesn’t understand the new type of training yet. We won’t expect a child to learn the contents of a book without first teaching him/her how to read, similarly we can’t expect a horse to be trained with food or to “behave” around food without teaching him how the training works, and without establishing a way to communicate.
Secondly, we also have to educate ourselves and have to have a large toolbox of strategies we can use beforehand. When it comes to feeding while the farrier works on the hooves, we can use different feeding strategies according to what works best for our horse, continuous feeding and variable duration schedule is just two. When one doesn’t give the desired result, we can experiment with others. But we have to do this BEFORE the farrier comes. Usually when things go wrong it’s because we failed to practice the behaviour before the farrier came, and only brought food into the mix on the day of the appointment. This is the biggest mistake we can make because then we don’t know how the horse will react, and the horse is also not prepared for the situation.
“Usually when things go wrong it’s because we failed to practice the behaviour before the farrier came, and only brought food into the mix on the day of the appointment.”
Thirdly we have to know our horse and know which TYPE OF FOOD to use with each individual horse. This is another big reason why things can go wrong when we use food during trimming. If we use a treat/food that’s high value, meaning it’s very sweet and the horse really likes it, then the horse can become very excited or sometimes even anxious to obtain that treat. This can also happen when the horse perhaps didn’t have access to food and then we give food while the farrier trims the hooves. We can avoid this mistake by again simply practicing beforehand and getting to know our horse. Then we can choose the appropriate treat that will have our horse focused but not so excited and anxious that they don’t want to cooperate or stand still.
If we set our training up correctly and prepare our horse beforehand, using food during trimming can have some amazing benefits
Food can be such a wonderful tool to use when we use it correctly. One of the biggest benefits is that it helps to create an enjoyable experience for the horse. When we couple something the horse enjoys, like food, with a behaviour such as picking up and holding up a hoof for trimming, then positive associations are being created in the horse’s mind. He then starts to associate the activity of picking up hooves with the food and starts to enjoy when the hooves are trimmed. This makes him much more willing and cooperative which makes it more pleasant for the farrier to work as well.
It can also serve as a different way to motivate a horse to pick up hooves when the hooves or body is in pain. Sometimes when a horse has to go through rehabilitation or simply has some pain in the body that hasn’t healed, then he can be very unwilling to pick up his hooves because of that pain. Using food can provide an alternative way to motivate him to pick up his hooves, while still making the experience as positive as possible.
Thirdly we can use food and positive reinforcement to overcome different types of struggles when it comes to hoof trimming, such as a horse that doesn’t stand still, or one who kicks or continues to yank away his hoof. For addressing issues like this it’s always best to work alongside a professional positive reinforcement trainer who can help you and your horse through these issues, and it should be done before the farrier comes. We should never try to address issues on the day of the farrier appointment as this will add unnecessary stress for you and your horse, while making it very unpleasant for the farrier to do his/her work as well.
In conclusion it’s an absolutely wonderful idea to use food during trimming, but we need to know how to use it and prepare and practice beforehand. We also have to remember to take the hoof care professional into consideration and ask whether they would mind if we use food, and remember to explain to the farrier your reasons for why you would like to do so and the benefits to him/her. Most farriers would be very happy if they can have a cooperative horse to work with, whether food is involved or not.