What’s the best age to start trimming foals?” It’s a question I hear a lot as foaling season approaches.
In the wild, foals have to start moving with the herd within hours of birth, and their feet quickly adapt to the terrain. Domestic foals typically live in cushy pastures or paddocks, so foals can develop long toes, club heels or medial-lateral imbalance due to crooked baby legs. So, the question remains, what’s the best age to start trimming foals?
I perform the first trim when foals are a few days old. That way, I know I am doing all I can to give them the best start possible for a lifetime of soundness. It’s also important to control any hoof imbalances while the foal’s joints and muscles are developing. What could end up being a severe club foot can, if managed regularly, be a normal hoof. I request that all clients have their foals vet-checked as early as possible, so that both the veterinarian and I are aware of their initial condition. Occasionally, a foal has a serious physical imbalance” in a foot, or has crooked legs, and it’s good to have a vet monitor his progress.
Investing in the future
I trim foals at their dams’ sides for no charge until they are three or four months old, as long as the owner does some handling in between trims to keep the youngster tame. If an older foal becomes undisciplined, I ask the client to work on more intensive handling, or to consider paying me for the trimming. Most clients are eager to keep me trimming for free.
Babies need regular handling to stay compliant. Ideally, that handling should be done quietly yet quickly, so as to not stress their very short attention spans. Youngsters’ hooves can be handled in less than five minutes (for all four feet), and if that’s done three or four times a week, it’s great training for the future.
Offering clients free baby trimming is an incentive for them to invest time in handling, and ensures these young horses grow up with great feet and manners.
The first trim
My primary objective with the first trim is to accustom the colt to my touch, and teach him to stand on three legs when asked. I run my hands all over the baby, touching every inch of skin, and lift each foot.
Most foals have itchy hindquarters and withers, so I teach them that scratches are rewards. I don’t feed treats because it gets horses agitated and makes them impatient, and this is even more likely with foals. They love to be scratched, though, so for the first trim or two, I often have the owner stand with a tail brush and softly scratch the withers as I work. This can have such good results that I get the feet picked up and checked without any resistance.
Once I’ve picked up all four feet, I use the fine side of the rasp to once or twice rasp the tip of each toe, very lightly. Days-old foal feet are very sensitive, so that’s all I do. The point is to get him familiar with the vibration. I’m not trying to remove any wall; it’s all about training at this point.
Restraining young horses
When trimming foals, I was taught to use a figure-eight butt and chest rope for restraint. For the first trim, I use a cotton lead rope that starts behind the withers, runs down the shoulder, across the front of the chest, crosses back over the withers, below the buttocks (and above the hocks) and ends up back at the withers. The handler can use the crossover point like a handle to keep the baby from lunging forward or backward.
Even though I use a rope, I instruct the handler to keep it slack whenever possible to get some of that first trim done at liberty.
When I’m restraining older foals, I like to work in a pipe stall with their dams. I take ten minutes to teach them simple yield-to-pressure aids until they drop their heads a few inches and yield forward when softly urged to do so. I use lots of scratching and vocal encouragement to communicate my approval.
To start the trimming, I run the lead from the halter over a smooth bar (like a pipe stall rail) and back to me. I never tie young horses! The lead is just to keep the foal somewhat straight until I pick a hoof up. Once the foot is up, I drop my end of the rope close to where I can get it quickly if the youngster moves away.
I trim the majority of my horses at liberty or with a “ground-tied” lead rope. I’ve found horses generally behave better when it’s just the two of us, with no handler. I suspect this is because horses are easily distracted, and having a handler gives them a “toy”, someone to pester. If it’s just me, alone, they often relax or go to sleep.
When training becomes trimming
Some colts have a bit of toe length or high heel to trim at one month old; it depends on the individual. One client has a stallion with a significant club, and we’ve been able to keep his foals balanced by gently working with their feet every two weeks.
I have several youngsters who were knock-kneed for the first month or two. Slightly thinning the lateral (outside) wall at the base (from less than ¼” down to the ground) allows that edge to wear at the same rate as the medial (inside) wall. This ensures the coffin bone doesn’t become distorted by the unequal pressures of the wall.
Determining a schedule
I trim young horses on a normal five-week schedule, similar to mature horses. If the young horse remains easy to handle, and if I have other horses to trim at that location, I offer discount rates until the horse is two years old, and sometimes older.
Getting a good start on your youngster’s handling and trimming will make things infinitely easier as he or she gets older. A good attentive trimmer can help correct and prevent any imbalance issues that may arise, helping to guarantee your equine friend will lead a healthy, sound life. That’s all anyone wants for their youngster!
Linda Cowles is a professional trimmer in Sonoma County, California. She is the author of HealthyHoof.com and a founding member and Vice President of the American Hoof Association (AmericaHoofAssociation.org).