Like many farriers, Larry Stevens spent years trimming and shoeing in the same sequence. He preferred starting with the left front foot, then the right front. Then, he repeated the order with the hind feet. He’s left-handed and thinks this might have been the subconscious reason for this preference.
But after working with some problem horses and with youngsters who hadn’t had their feet handled much, he learned that changing the order was often the key to his safety, and also in making the horse more manageable from that point on.
A prime example of this interesting theory is packaged in a 9-year-old half-Thoroughbred mare named Scarlett, who belongs to a client that Stevens has had since 1986. The client has two other horses who are a cinch to shoe. But this particular mare is nervous, short-tempered and often combative.
To add to the woes, she requires a lot of work because of the need for special pads in front and a problem with one hind foot. Because she once kicked a stall wall and fractured her left rear coffin bone, she wears an egg bar with side clips and a rim pad. Stevens averages about an hour and half to shoe this mare, but Scarlett doesn’t want to hang around that long.
An accomplished horseman, Stevens started working as a full-time farrier 21 years ago because he wanted to be his own boss. Before that, he was involved in the forestry industry. But as with most farriers, self-employment became his key to job satisfaction. Stevens lives in the southern Oregon town of Myrtle Point and has clients both inland and all along the coast.
Reverse The Shoeing Order
Looking back, Stevens recalls the many times he shod Scarlett in his normal sequence. After 45 minutes went by, she was out of patience and just wanted to be gone. The mare would get extremely cranky. Stevens’ original order was to do the right hind foot last, but once in doing this, he fell victim to the mare’s cranky attitude just when he was about to wrap things up.
“She blew up on me at the very last minute,” he remembers. “I took her right hind foot forward to clinch the nail heads and she violently moved it back in a kicking motion. It hyper-extended my knee.”
Stevens was thrown onto the concrete barn floor and the pain in his knee was excruciating. At that moment, he decided that from now on he wanted to be at the front end of this mare when she lost patience. He decided to work in reverse order and start with the back feet. He admits that a farrier can still have problems at the front end, but feels there is a better chance of maintaining control.
Since he’d made the decision to shoe this mare’s back feet first, he also decided to put into play a theory that he’d had for years – figuring out which back foot was a horse’s dominant side, and working accordingly. Over the two decades he has been shoeing, he has studied this concept with young horses.
“If you work on the less dominant hind leg first, then the baby seems to accept it better when you go to the dominant foot,” Stevens says. Twenty years ago, he would always trim the front feet as usual on a baby, and when he’d go to the back he would automatically start on the left hind foot first, just out of habit.
But he began to notice some babies would immediately fight hard when he picked up that foot. “I’d put that leg down and go to the right hind foot and they were just as good as can be,” he says.
After he trimmed the right hind, going back and doing the left was no big deal. Why? Because in this case, the left hind was the dominant leg.
Horses who fought him on the right rear, he says, were “dominant right-sided.”
Whichever foot is dominant, Stevens explains, “That is their power puncher. That’s the one they defend themselves with. So, when I go first to that foot and ask them for it, they’re fearful because I’m taking away their number one punch. They’ve got to learn to relax and give that to me.” Doing the non-dominant leg first helps in that relaxation process.
This is especially good to know with any horse, particularly when there is a problem and you decide to change the order in which you normally work.
Stevens says it stands to reason that horses are like people, in that they favor one side over the other. He has found that most horses are dominant on the right rear leg, and it isn’t just when they’re being trimmed. Every time he has figured out through handling which was the dominant leg on a baby, he’s also noticed this to be the same side that the baby will lead with when it’s out loping.
Ideally, a baby will soon learn through early and correct handling that it’s all right to have either hind foot picked up in any order. Yet, there are some older horses that aren’t as eager to surrender.
Putting Theory To Work
Stevens realized that Scarlett’s right hind was her dominant leg. By originally doing that foot last, when the mare was out of patience, that is why the trouble started. She was thinking, “Outta here, guy! I’m tired of this, and you are trying to take away my number one power puncher, right when I feel like using it!”
Dominance often teams up with other problems to produce a horse who is just plain tough to work on. Stevens recalls one horse he trimmed for more than a year, because the customer wanted to leave the horse barefoot. But one day, she asked him to shoe the gelding.
This was a mature horse and Stevens didn’t have a history of what had been done to it prior to the time when he originally began trimming it.
“That day I came out and first put the front shoes on with no problems,” he says. “Then, I went to shoe a back foot and as soon as I started to pound on the shoe, the horse freaked.”
Patience Pays Off
Stevens sensed the horse wasn’t by nature a bad animal. He told the owner, “Sometimes, it’s just the metallic sound that throws them off.” The horse hears it coming from behind, and it bothers him more than when it happens up front, where he is more aware of the source. Stevens gave his suggestions to the owner.
“We’ve gone really well so far with the shoeing we’ve done,” he told the owner. “Now, do you want us to stay here and fight this horse and force him to accept these back shoes? This won’t teach him anything positive.
“Or, would you like to work with him every evening yourself for a while, when you come out to groom and grain him?”
He gave the woman the shoe he had intended to nail on the first hind foot. “It was already shaped to the foot,” he says. “I told her to work with the horse every day by first tapping on each bare back foot with a hoof pick. When he accepted that, set the shoe on a hind foot and lightly tap the metal with a hoof pick or small hammer.”
The owner did this religiously, and 2 weeks later, Stevens was able to put on the back shoes in 20 minutes. The horse has been fine to shoe ever since.
While Stevens does work with a difficult horse or two, it’s because they belong to long-time clients. But he has reached a place in his career where he can refuse to take on shoeing a horse for a new client, if it’s a horse that reverse order, or any other methods, won’t prevent putting him in danger.
“I learned years ago that you can’t conquer the world,” he says. “You’re out there to do a job and to provide a service for the people by taking care of their horses’ feet. But if the horse is totally unruly because it is just a nasty animal, as a farrier you’re the only one that’s going to call the stop time.”
When he sees that a job is impossible to accomplish, he tells the owner frankly that he’s there to shoe the horse, not to train it.
If an owner can accomplish some training with Stevens’ direction, such as the shoe tapping to get a horse to accept it, and daily general handling of a horse’s feet, that just might make things easier.
But if a horse is rank, or the owners don’t want to cooperate, they will get a good view of the back of Larry Stevens’ truck as it exits their driveway.