Hoof Shy

A hoof shy horse is one which resists (or is frightened by) having it hooves touched, lifted or worked on. There are three possible causes of this:

  • Lack of education. The hoof is a vital but easily injured part of a horse. Consequently, unlike other parts of the body, horses have a natural aversion to having their hooves touched. This can be easily overcome with proper education, which normally starts at a young age.
  • Bad experience. A horse which has been hurt while having a hoof handled (e.g. burnt by a farrier) may become hoof shy as a result. This is a behavioral problem, which may require reeducation and de-sensitization treatment to correct.
  • Pain or injury. If it is painful for a horse to lift a hoof, it will of course resist doing so.

Lack of Education

If a horse is hoof shy due to lack of education, this is a simple matter of providing the correct education. If you are not experienced in training horses, one should seek professional advice as well-intended but  uneducated attempts to train a horse can cause more problems than it solves, potentially resulting in behavioral issues which are much more difficult to correct.

It is normal for a young horse which has never been educated to be hoof shy. This can be easily corrected as part of the broader foal training. It is also possible to solve this issue with older horses, but as horses become older their training becomes more difficult and training more time consuming, so it is preferable that this is done at a young age.

Bad experience

A horse which has had a bad experience, for example an injury or fright while being handled, can become resistant to handling as a result. For example, a horse which is injured while having a hoof trimmed or shoed. Likewise, a horse which is frightened while being handled (e.g. overly rapid and aggressive attempt to train a foal to accept hoof handling) can become resistant to handling as a result.

Such problems can be corrected, but require time, patience and a good understanding of horse behavior. If you unsure, professional advice is advised. The main approach is de-sensitization, which consists of a programme of gradually re-introducing the horse to the item or action it is frightened of, in a series of steps over time, while providing the horse positive encouragement (e.g. food treats, cuddles) so that it gradually learns that having a hoof handled is a normal, safe and pleasant activity rather than a frightening and dangerous one. 

Pain or Injury

Technically speaking, this is not 'hoof shyness' as the horse does not have a behavioral issue with its hoof, it simply is trying to avoid pain. However, it is often mistaken for hoof shyness so is worth consideration in this section. If a horse which previously has not objected to having its hooves handled suddenly becomes difficult, this is the most probable explanation.

The most common problem is an injury to one hoof, which is put under increased weight when another hoof is lifted and consequently increased pain. In the case of an injury to a front hoof, the greatest pain is caused by lifting the other front hoof. Likewise, in the case of an injury to a rear hoof, the greatest pain is caused by lifting the other rear hoof. One should note that in the case of hoof injuries, it is not the injured hoof which the horse objects to having lifted but rather the neighboring hoof. Consequently, to determine which hoof is injured, try lifting each hoof in turn to determine which hoof the horse is most resistant to lifting; the injured hoof will be the one neighboring (which the horse will have the least resistant to lifting as taking weight off it reduces pain).

There are many different causes of hoof pain, from permanent issues such as chronic laminitis, illnesses such as a hoof abscess, or simply a rock or other matter trapped in the hoof. The first step is simply to lift the affected hoof and examine it. If it is dirty, use a hoof pick to remove any stones or other items. If this does not cure or allow identification of the problem, one should arrange a prompt examination by a veterinarian to determine what the issue is.

Another possible cause is injury to the leg, in particular a joint. In this case, which hoof the horse resists having lifted will depend on the nature of the injury. If the nature of the injury is that increased weight causes pain, then lifting the neighboring hoof will result in the greatest resistance. However, if the nature of the injury is that flexing a joint causes pain, then lifting the affected leg will result in the greatest resistance. To check for possible leg injuries, one should first visually inspect the leg for any wounds or swelling. If none are visible, then one should slowly run one's hands down the leg, feeling for warm points, especially at joints; one can use the neighboring leg for a comparison of temperature. If a minor injury or swelling is identified, the horse should be confined and have restricted movement to allow the injury to heal; if there is no improvement within a day a veterinarian should be contacted. In the case of more severe injuries (especially if the horse is limping badly) the horse should be confined and a veterinarian immediately contacted.

Aside from hoof problems (the most common issue) or leg injuries (second most common issue), problems elsewhere in the body could make lifting a hoof or leg painful. For example, injuries to the spine or back can result in pain when a hoof is held off the ground, due to the redistribution of weight and consequent twisting of the back. If one cannot identify and correct the problem oneself, then contacting a medical professional for assistance is appropriate.

In conclusion:

  • If a horse resists having one hoof touched or lifted but not the others, this is a sign of an injury/illness rather than hoof shyness.
  • If a horse is difficult with just one hoof, try cleaning all the others first. If could just be a stone or other object stuck in one of the other hooves which is the problem.
  • If the problem cannot be identified, consider calling a veterinarian, especially if the problem is severe or if the problem does not quickly improve with confinement.