Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine advice extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with under #askahorse
Amber: Fiona, how does it feel to wear shoes?
Fiona: It’s a heaviness that takes some getting used to. Also, it’s a strange sensation each time the farrier comes if they are adjusting the trim, because it’s like your hoof rolls over the ground differently. If significant changes have been made, we’re prone to tripping for a few days afterward because it just doesn’t seem quite normal to the body.
Amber: I got the sense of when you get a hair cut and take off a few inches, it’s just different, like there’s something missing.
Fiona: Yes, that’s right, except we don’t have the luxury of choosing when we walk – like you do when brushing your hair. It’s not a bad sensation. I don’t mind wearing shoes, as long as the frog still connects with the earth. I’ve had the experience when it takes a few days for the frog tissues to grow back so that they come into contact with the ground regularly, and that’s an unnerving experience. For horses, it’s a form of disconnection and anxiety. We don’t have feeling in the surface of the frog exactly, but we sense much through it. We sense the vibrations of the ground and the other horses around us and the earth and sky, and we know where we are. Walking on concrete or surfaces where the frog doesn’t connect feels strange to us, and can cause anxiety, because we’re not sure where we are anymore. It’s unnerving because we have no way of gauging what’s happening around us through our feet, so we must look around and use our other senses, which puts us on edge. It’s not a pleasant sensation to feel that disconnection, though of course we become accustomed to it. That’s another reason why going outside is so good for horses. It helps us remember who we are.
Amber: We discussed connecting with the earth and coming home to it recently, and you mentioned that horses do so through their feet. Is this what you meant?
Fiona: In part, yes. That’s the literal place of our connection. The hoof itself has some sensation, so if the ground is uneven we can feel that easily. However it is the frog that is the “heart” of our hoof, and it’s important that it remains in contact with the earth for us to truly feel secure. That is how we horses stay grounded, just as I said you humans could.
Amber: Can you talk about the shoe itself? Do you find them awful or painful in any way?
Fiona: I suppose that would depend on the shoe. A light, thin shoe doesn’t bother me. It might bother other horses. It’s certainly easier to walk on gravel with a shoe. There’s something nice about it, like my feet take a sigh of relief. There is more expansion on the bottom of my feet when I am wearing shoes, which I like. If I don’t have them, my heels tend to hurt and feel too tight. But the shoe has to fit, of course. If it doesn’t, it’s murder. Honestly I don’t think people understand how difficult it is when not just your foot hurts, but your entire leg jars with each step in an ill-fitting shoe. I feel it all the way up to my elbows, and it’s torturous to move on.
Amber: I’m sorry to hear that. I didn’t realize it affected you that high up.
Fiona: Yes, our gait is made of synergy in the leg. That is why horses with feet problems get so tight in their bodies. Movement is restricted all the way through them, and they walk more by overextending their tendons rather than using the fluid movement of the joints.
Amber: I am reminded of hobbling along on tiptoes, rather than a swinging stride. Or using only your fingers instead of your entire hand
Fiona: Yes. It’s most uncomfortable. Horses who have moved that way for too long often forget how to use their whole bodies properly.
Amber: That must make for tendon injuries and body soreness. No wonder hoof imbalance has such a large effect. How about the process of having the farrier come and trim your feet, and nail the shoe on?
Fiona: That takes some getting used to. We horses are very protective of our feet because of the reasons I mentioned before. They are integral to our staying alive, so we are naturally cautious of anything that happens to them. Letting humans pick them up and hammer on them takes a great deal of trust – or fear of retribution. It feels like handing your life away to the person in charge when you give them a hoof, so maybe people can use this understanding to have more compassion when we are reluctant to share our feet. Once you are part of the herd and trusted, it’s not so big of a deal, but in the beginning of the relationship, it feels like a violation of trust that you ask for our hooves.
Amber: That’s interesting. We don’t see it that way at all, of course. It never occurred to me that your feet were so sensitive. I will be more respectful in the future. What could we do to help build this trust?
Fiona: Just be patient. Let us know that you won’t force the issue, and that will give us the space to relax. In time we’ll let you have the hoof. If you keep after us, we get nervous because our instinct tells us the threat is real, and often this leads to miscommunication or an altercation. It’s not pleasant for either of us. For a young horse, or even a new horse to you, if you stay within their comfort zone by watching their body language and backing off if they tense up, you show them that you’re not going to force them to give up something they’re nervous about. In time, they learn that it’s safe to offer the foot to you because you won’t abuse it. Incremental steps help us understand what you’re doing so we can relax. If we knew you were only going to pick out the hoof, it wouldn’t be a problem. But we don’t know that you’re going to just pick out the foot, especially if we don’t know you, so we have to learn what you’re about. In our minds, if we’re not sure what you’re up to, you could be doing anything with the hoof once it’s in your hand, and that’s potentially dangerous.
Amber: Is that why the farrier visit can be particularly scary?
Fiona: Scary, perhaps, but mostly stressful. It’s scary if there’s pain involved. It’s merely stressful if it’s a new farrier, or the order of things is changed so that we can’t anticipate what will happen next. Just like learning to let you pick out our hooves, we can learn to understand what will happen with the farrier and not be afraid. But changes in the routine bring up that inherent fear that we might not survive because we don’t know what’s going to happen with the foot.
Amber: What about the nailing and hammering on the foot? Now I’m a little concerned.
Fiona: It’s really not that bad. It would be nice if you warned us first, though, because it can be startling if we’re not accustomed to it. It takes a lot of trust to hold still when that happens, because we stop breathing and instinct rises to take over. The hammering feels kind of funny, a little jarring but not bad, but if you have any pain in your foot at all, it makes it hurt much worse. People could use that to identify if their horse has any underlying issues just based on how they react during the hammering, because it aggravates what ever pain we might have and is very uncomfortable. Perhaps you humans can keep that in mind and use more compassion if we don’t stand quietly – there’s always a reason. We’re not stupid. We know what you want us to do at that point, so if we’re not doing it, you might ask why. Of course that is not so with young horses, but they learn quickly. The nailing process doesn’t hurt, but it’s an odd sensation, like your hoof is tighter and fuller than before. It’s just a little surprising, but not nearly as noticeable as the weight of the shoe. Adult horses don’t worry about this unless they’ve been pricked before, but the very young, do. You might have an older horse with shoes be present when the youngest are worked on, because they can feel our comfort and ease in the process and trust our instincts for guidance. It’s helpful to young horses to learn with another like that, or else they make the decisions about danger or safety with their own instincts, and that rarely turns out well.
Amber: We have the same problem in our species.
Fiona: You should put your young ones with horses. We would help them learn, too.
Amber: I’ll pass that along. Thank you for your connection and for answering my questions. Is there anything else you would like to share about shoeing?
Fiona: Only that people should trust their horses for the feedback they give. So many people wonder about the quality of their horse’s shoeing, and worry that things aren’t well. Look in your heart. Ask us to show you. We will tell. Feel it in your gut and you will know. Most of the time, you are right. We thank you for listening to us in this way. Be well and light and happy, as we are.