For two weeks in October, I returned to Pennsylvania to take care of hoof trimming clients, a trip I plan to repeat regularly. While there I went to work on three horses whom I first met just over two years ago and saw regularly for a year or so until financial and other difficulties made them and their owner disappear from the scene for a while.
Because this little herd runs on hilly, rough ground, the lack of trimming for almost a year was not as harmful as it might have been. The thoroughbred had had abscesses this summer (probably due to a bout of laminitis combined with long toes), but he'd broken off most of his excess hoof wall since then and was acting pretty sound.
Now these were the horses who really taught me about asking the horse's permission. The first time I went, the thoroughbred was extremely anxious, had nervous diarrhea, cowkicked, and wouldn't stand still - despite obviously being a sweet, cooperative horse. His buddy, a paint gelding, escaped from his owner's grasp and would not be re-caught when he saw the trimmer was here. The dominant mare grudgingly let me work a little after I got bossy.
I knew when I returned the next time that something had to be different, so I worked out a plan, described in a previous post. This plan, in a nutshell, if you don't wish to go back and read the whole thing, basically means allowing the horse to refuse to give its foot. It doesn't mean letting the horse eat grass or wander off, but it does mean the horse gets to keep its foot on the ground if that's what it really wants. Using this approach produced a dramatic difference, and I was able to get a lot of work done.
Now, I've had my ups and downs with these horses since then. Sometimes the thoroughbred is ouchy with laminitis and finds it much harder to stand on three legs. When his feet have gotten sore, he has reverted to having nervous diarrhea. The paint has stringhalt, which has gotten progressively worse, so although he tries to let me work on his hind legs, he often finds it too difficult. The mare has an ongoing stifle issue which causes her discomfort when I pick up one of her forefeet. However, we never regressed to the situation of my first visit, and I tried to continue to implement my principles.
When I went back this time, I wasn't sure how we'd all behave. Having overcome the initial hurdle of how to work with them, I fear I had perhaps regressed somewhat to a git-r-done way of thinking. They, on the other hand, had no doubts at all. They had remembered our m.o., and despite my uncertainty, they were able to show me how to behave. The first gelding began by assuming an air of unassailable calm. He stood there radiating Zen waves, and absolutely would not pick up any feet. His demeanor was so convincing and kind, that I had no choice but to remember that he was demonstrating proper behavior rather than being "stubborn." Pretty soon, when I returned to ask again, he picked up a foot. He then allowed me to finish both forefeet and to rough out his hinds (harder for him, as it means putting weight on his recovering fores).
The second gelding did exactly the same thing. He began by saying some sort of equine version of "om," did his pranayama breathing, and wouldn't pick up a foot. But only for a little while. He too allowed me to finish his front feet. His stringhalty hinds were too much for him, and although he gamely lifted them for me, the lift would turn into an involuntary flexion, and he was unable to let me hold them. They chip and break well, and look pretty good, so hopefully this is not a problem. The mare was not quite so steadfastly serene, but I remembered my manners, and she was kind and helpful in return.
I look back with gratitude on the time spent with these horses and feel I can, even now, tune into their stillness and plant my own feet more firmly onto the ground. They remembered the proper way to trim, they embraced it and made it their own, and were able to offer it back to me.