I bought Libby for my non-rider husband and she came to me as a 25 year old with some age-related issues: arthritis, sore hocks, and lameness in her left spavin. Yet she impressed me by making a ten hour trailer ride from northern Ohio and trusting me enough to follow a stranger (me) off that trailer (in the dark) and into her new stall. In the glaring light of day I could see she needed the attention of a good farrier before I could even consider riding her, so all I asked of her in the beginning was to stand still for grooming. She stood well enough for grooming, but resisted picking up her feet. I persisted, and was twice bitten on the calf when I tried to pick up her right fore. A more experienced horsewoman would have known that Libby was saying “OUCH!” but it took me a bit longer to figure it all out.
Over our next four years together Libby grew to love grooming and scratching but was always, no matter what, difficult when it came to lifting her front feet. We went through several farriers (the ones that bullied her and used a twitch were never called again) and by now I had figured out that she was in pain but even a dose or two of anti-inflammatory prior to the farrier visit wasn’t enough to allow her to easily hold those feet up for trimming.
We also weren’t able to ride her because of her physical limitations so she became a companion horse. One day she slipped and fell in a wet pasture and the ensuing shoulder injury combined with the inefficacy of an anti-inflammatory forced me to seek alternative methods of relieving Libby’s pain. Through wonderful luck I found Heather Davis, a body worker whose diligent, patient work allowed Libby to relax and regain long-lost flexion. After several months of body work, Libby could flex much more easily, but then we realized that some of her resistance was seemingly out of habit; a learned behavior of resistance that had, apparently, served her at one time and had now become a roadblock.
This is when we called Sharon to help us open Libby up to the possibility of maybe not resisting quite so much. I mentioned to Sharon that my main goal for Libby was to get her to stand quietly in cross-ties for the farrier. Sharon was working with Libby on the lead line, trying to get her to accept and follow, and clicking and treating for her attempts. Libby soon used all of Sharon’s available rewards, so we moved to scratching as a reward, as Lib loves scratches. The light bulb moment hit: reward this little mare for lifting her feet so that she no longer associates it with pain but with a reward.
Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? And let me tell you the results were immediate and, thus far, permanent. I continued daily to lift Libby’s feet and reward each effort with a generous scratch in her favorite places, and taught my husband to do the same. A couple of weeks later our barefoot trimmer Rocky arrived and we were in position for the acid test. I told Rocky how we had been rewarding Libby so that she could do the same and reinforce the behavior in the same way. Libby was wonderful; quiet and compliant and Rocky was gushing about how much easier it was to work with her.
Lifting Libby’s feet had become a prelude to a scratch rather than a resistance to pain. Her behavior changed because we were able to offer her a reward for each little try, and trusting that we would follow through and reward her every time, she responded positively to us. I’m so proud of my little mare for teaching us all a very important lesson.
Editor’s Note: For more on Libby’s amazing story, read the post I was inspired to write after our first meeting. –Sharon