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Routines and Repetition

Twilight used to have a real issue allowing me clean his feet. He would dance around, grab his foot out of my hand, paw the ground and even try to walk off on three legs. He would also drop his shoulder while I would be holding up that leg. A few years back I resolved the issue with loads of patience and training and I thought the problem was solved for good.

Then I got back from being away for a week and suddenly he was back to his old habits. Not standing, barging and grabbing his foot again. I decided to see if I could apply a pattern to solve the problem and I set about building a little routine for him.

I set him up to be successful by preparing myself to be as predictable as possible for him. And so we did the same thing every day. I would come to fetch him from his stable, (or out in the field) walk him to exactly the same spot in the yard and do his feet.

I would always start at the same foot, the front left. I would use the exact same hoof pick (shown to him before I began) and I would always start at the exact same part of the hoof, methodically working my way around, working from the outside in - so lateral side, to toe and then back up to the medial side of the underside of the hoof. After I had finishing picking the hoof with the hoof pick, I would put it down and grab my double sided hoof brush (soft bristles on one side, hard bristles on the other side). For this brush my pattern was - soft bristles first, brushing down from bulbs to toes, followed by a gentle exfoliation, quarter to quarter (side to side) with the hard bristles, every time. Then I would move to the back left hoof and repeat the same pattern. Then the back right, finishing up with the front right - each foot would be done in exactly the same way and I would move in an anticlockwise direction around the horse. (Only because I found this easier in terms of the lead rope position.)

I made sure that every single time I brought him to this spot that my hoof care kit was ready and waiting - the tools I needed unpacked and sitting on top of the kit. I made sure that my energy, process and routine was exactly the same each time. I simply asked him to do the same thing, in the same sequence, in the same way, each day. I too, did the same thing, in the same sequence, in the same way, each day. This way my question each day was the same. And he knew what the answer was before I even asked it, because we had built a pattern. He knew the pattern and therefore the question and the answer.

As each day went by and we repeated the pattern, he became more and more relaxed, until about 8 sessions of repetition later, he walked to the spot and lifted his feet and the whole clean took less than a few minutes.

Within each step of this pattern were many micro steps for me, such as constantly reading and interpreting his body language, and making any necessary adjustments on my part, such as slowing down, pausing, allowing him to move and rebalance if he needed to. I'd tweak the pattern if necessary, come back and try again.

I had to immerse myself into the hoof cleaning and be present with what I was doing, rather than just going through the motions. An important part too was making sure that I stayed aware of any other horses in the yard who had also been taken to the same area to either be groomed or tacked up and reading the dynamics between Twilight and the other horse and making any necessary adjustments (like moving him slightly further away.) If horses are uncomfortable with another horse, they will not feel safe to lift their feet - as with one foot up, they cannot move away and respond appropriately if the more dominant of the two horses tells them to move. It is important to respect the natural hierarchy of the herd, whilst at the same time letting your horse know that you would not put him in a challenging situation, and adjust where necessary.

As hoof cleaning is part of a daily routine both before and after a session, this pattern is also part of our bigger daily pattern, and if I am trimming the horses, I will come back at the end of the session, clean their feet again (following the same steps as above) and then do some trimming. I trim my own horses now, and I try to trim them little and often if I feel they need it.

What this pattern did was give Twilight a ton of predictability. The pattern alone would not have worked if I was tense, distracted or irritated, so a key ingredient (in all horsemanship!) is the human's perspective and calmness during the whole pattern. After a while (repetitions) he came to expect and know the process. This happens, before this happens, she does this, then she does that. I have found that applying patterns to horsemanship really gives our horses a sense of certainty, ease and security. And I find that adding patterns to an already solid base of good horsemanship can only deepen trust and connection.

I hope you found this helpful!

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All my best,

Lara xoxo

The Gift of The Horse

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