‘Why farriers hit horses’, or ‘Where the hell did philosophy and self-awareness go?’

Writing about horses is a strange occupation in that it’s quite easy to lose connection with the real animal if one doesn’t take care. So a couple of months ago I began barefoot trimming a few local horses for friends. It wasn’t really anything new in that I had been barefoot trimming my own horse herd for over 10 years previously. What was new about it was that I got to have a look at the work being done by some local ‘farriers’ – and the consequences. I also got to talk to owners about how their horses were treated, with some interesting results; so much so that I wondered if what they were saying was widespread or merely a localised phenomena. So I asked the members of the Horse Behaviour mail group attached to my Equine Behavior- Homepage web-site; as good a method as any since the members are a truly international bunch,  and have a great deal of experience to draw on.

It turns out that the horse owner’s complaints I had heard are very general rather than localised. Top of the list is physical abuse of horses during shoeing or trimming – typically knee in the belly, strikes with tools such as file and hammer, but also kicks to the body and generally indiscriminate blows. Plus verbal abuse; shouting and displays of anger and aggression.

Now before we go on let’s get one thing straight – this is not in any sense a general attack on farriers – nor am I for one minute suggesting that all farriers are guilty of abuse. Over the years I’ve seen some great professionals do very nice work while showing true empathy for their charges. And there is no question that horses can be very difficult to work with once they develop a negative response to having their feet worked on, nor, equally, is there any doubt that there are inconsiderate owners that do not carry out the regular handling and picking out of feet that is so beneficial in achieving co-operative behavior. But that is as far as I’m prepared to go. The notion that we should keep quiet about these things because it is a difficult job and there are bound to be lapses in patience sometimes is rejected. Nothing about our treatment or management of the horse is sacrosanct or above analysis and question – farriery being no exception.

So, on we go. After finding that such abuse is common pretty much everywhere the next obvious question was why is it so common. There was less of a consensus from the mail group regarding the why of it. Back pain was mentioned a number of times as being a primary cause, with loss of patience being variously blamed on tiredness, work-load and poor behavior of the horse.

Even if we were to accept these reasons as understandable elements of human frailty they still don’t make sense – simply because any horse treated badly by a relative stranger is going to quickly develop an attitude to such strangers in the future – so, if the horse was bad today, meaning that it took more time, caused an aching back and ended up getting a slap about before the job was over it is highly likely to be far worse next time. What if our horse was ‘bad’ because it had reached the point where a little fear had crept in? Any rough treatment received will merely prove that the fear was justified! And next time why should there not be an even greater degree of fear, and associated resistance? Which might explain why there are so many horses that one or more farriers have refused to work on – they simply go on getting worse – more tense, more afraid, less co-operative.

What becomes very clear is that there is not a lot of critical reasoning going on – the human can but doesn’t and the horse probably would, if only it could, but can’t.

But then there is nowhere near as much logic being applied to treatment of the feet in general – particularly in terms of shoes and their impact.

I looked at the first ‘outside’ horse because the owner was having problems with a recurrent left shoulder lameness and general health. On inspection there was a considerable size difference between one front foot and the other. The left, smaller of the two, was black, the larger a white hoof. An immediate indicator. White hooves are softer and more likely to spread or collapse. The black hoof was very upright – with a pair of high, buttressed heels that resisted all my attempts to get them to flex under hand pressure. The white hoof was ‘belled’ out, a distinct flare running around the foot but most prominent at the heels – which showed all the typical signs of collapse. The farrier that had been shoeing the horse for a couple of years had told the owner that the size difference was due to an abnormal left foot, thus ignoring all the signs of a classic case of contracted heels. The shoes had been made such that they had slipped inside the hoof during wear, causing the heels to become locked in position. Little wonder then that over time the loss of shock absorption in the foot, and attendant increase in percussive impact transferred to the whole limb had produced a persistent lameness.

This shoe inside the foot thing is one of my pet obsessions – and I have great trouble walking away from any horse whose feet I have just seen to be in that pitiful condition without looking for tools to remove the shoe. Anything that shouts WRONG quite as loudly would be hard to imagine.

But the biggest question for me was how on this green earth a trained farrier could possibly miss one of the most well known foot problems associated with shoeing? To the extent where they would suggest that there was an underlying abnormality! What does that say about their training?

Now whether farriers are certificated or not is really neither here nor there – an uncertified farrier may still be very well trained and knowledgeable, while a certified farrier could be a brute that has not bothered to keep their training or theory up to date. In the UK it is illegal for any person not qualified to shoe a horse – but quite ok for anyone to trim a horse’s hooves if no shoe is attached. Which seems quite reasonable – however most other countries, including New Zealand, do not legislate at all, and perhaps they should. Otherwise, as things stand, it becomes the owners obligation to ensure that the person working on a horses feet is knowledgeable and trustworthy, which, in turn, implies that the average owner must become sufficiently well educated in the structure and operation of the foot to know what should and should not be done. And, as far greater damage can be caused by shoeing, owners of horses that are kept shod need to be even better informed and more pro-active in overseeing and dictating what is done – whether the attendant farrier likes it or not. And, from the feedback I received, it is very clear that a good percentage of farriers do not like to be questioned, as if doing so were some kind of insult!

Part of this hoof issue has to do with our general attitude to the ‘specialists’ or ‘experts’ that we deal with. Such is the complexity of equipment in an average house, or of the average 1500cc car, that we have an ever lower expectation of knowing enough about how they operate to do anything other than use them. If they go wrong we take them to a specialist, who we must trust to tell us honestly what requires doing, whether it is the way we have been using the device that has caused it to fail, and to know how to make an efficient repair. There is every reason why this should become common practice across our range of activities – including those involving horses -and just as you don’t generally expect to be knowledgeable enough to know your veterinarians business neither do you expect to be an expert on the horse’s foot, right? Wrong. The structure of the horse’s foot is not so complicated that it should be beyond any owner to learn with a short amount of study. In fact since a large percentage of the lameness that results in loss of use under saddle occurs to the lower leg such knowledge should really be considered an essential element in the maintenance of what is, after all, a very expensive resource.

So – owners – if you are not already able to visualize the internal structure of your horse’s foot, and what it should look like externally you have some studying to do! The good news is that there is no shortage of material on the subject. My all time favourite book, and author, is “The Lame Horse: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment” – by Dr James Rooney – also very good is his web-site at: http://www.horseshoes.com/farrierssites/sites/rooney/index.htm, and, unlike so many ‘authorities’ in this money conscious age, the site contains 28 articles, all of which are free! Another excellent author on the subject that is well worth reading is Jaime Jackson; The Natural Horse, Horse Owners Guide to Natural Hoofcare. And, last, but by no means least, Pete Ramey ; Making Natural Hoof Care Work For You.

In theory, at the very least, once we owners have educated ourselves about the equine foot we are able to take some control over the process of trimming. Farriery, like any other service sector occupation, operates on the basis that the customer is entitled to get the service they want, carried out in the way they want. Of course in the past this relationship between owner and farrier has been greatly affected by supply and demand, such that owners have often had to put up with rough handling or a less than satisfactory job rather than risk upsetting and potentially losing them. The movement towards ‘natural’ hoof care is beginning to alter that balance significantly. No doubt it helps to have an experienced barefoot trimmer set your horse’s feet up to begin with, but once this is done it is quite possible for the average owner to keep them that way by regular weekly tidy up. In that respect natural hoof care has been another of those little democratising waves in horse management that has put what was previously the realm of an expert into the hands of the enthusiast.

I’ve digressed a bit here, the point I was trying to make was that the ‘supply – demand’ relationship has changed, with the result that it is no longer necessary to accept brutish treatment from hoof-care professionals. In truth it is a zero-tolerance approach to abuse of horses that will get it stopped.

  Now we’ve looked at this up to now from the perspective of horse and owner – so what about the farrier? The emotions that spur anger are well known – frustration being a common precursor. Horses represent a potentially endless supply of frustration for any one of a veritable host of reasons, plus being masters in the use of passive resistance. It requires very little, perhaps just the postural tonus of stress, for the horse to react.

It is also a truth that very few farriers introduce themselves to the horse or to settle it before work begins. But you have to remember that this is one of those situations where relative strangers operate in the ‘intimate’ zone – equivalent say to us being visited by a dentist, and what’s more one that doesn’t either introduce himself or communicate except with demands. Such encounters have been clinically proven to result in an increase in the components of stress, which, in this case, affects both the horse and the farrier. If a farrier picks up even a little cumulative stress with each horse it must surely have an impact on patience levels by the last!

What we are looking at is the need for what used to be known among doctors as ‘bed-side manner’. For the horse to relax it is essential that attention is paid primarily to its perception. Of course this suggests that the stranger, be it farrier or vet, should be aware of their mood, stress level and body language and be able to exercise control over them. They should also be aware of those same things in the horse – and know how to manipulate the horse’s perception so that it co-operates willingly. 

Taking time out to get some endorphins going with a little massage is likely to be rewarded with a more pleasant working experience with the feet. Perhaps there has also been a tendency in the past to expect the owner to do this kind of preparation – the idea being that a completely relaxed and co-operative horse is presented to the farrier – trouble is that the farrier remains a complete stranger.

So quite apart from the technical knowledge and dexterity with tools there are a bunch of other demands – among which is an important basic requirement yet again – philosophy.

Philosophy is often misrepresented in such a way that it appears to have nothing to do with every day existence. Yet philosophy is merely a tool for getting to the truth of things. Without exploring exactly what the truth of any particular matter is it is not possible to go to the next step – which might be to look for solutions. But if it isn’t generally taught, except in Universities, how does society at large get to learn how to use a very important tool as part of daily life?

One of the things that Philosophy is definitely not is an enemy - to be used only by the wise to confound or mystify the rest of us. Nor is it the property of 'intellectuals' only – it is part of our culture and it belongs to all of us. Whether we exercise its use is another matter - and, of course, that is our personal choice to make. But without it there is no clarity and no reliable way to find the truth of anything. And with the growing amount of spin in use - by our politicians, media, self-promoters, and commercial interests of all shapes and sizes - there has never been a time when we needed it more to separate truth from vested interest and ideological agendas.

Just as we talk about 'perception modification' for changing horse behavior there is surely a need for a change in the way that philosophy is perceived by handlers. No, it isn't seen as either cool or useful - but it darned well should be!