Barefoot Horses Work For Pete Ramey

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Pete Ramey specializes in laminitis and corrective trimming, using a sensible approach to both barefoot horses and using steel shoes when necessary. He is known for his quest to teach horse owners more about hooves and understanding how they function.

What set you on the path to specializing in rehab, lameness and barefoot trimming'

I guess it was my own personality that brought me to rehab. I was always a sucker for injured, abused or neglected animals. I’ve taken in injured dogs, cats, birds, deer, rabbits, pigs, calves, goats . . . anything that needed help, really.

As a farrier, I became interested in the barefoot vs. shod debate, which is alive and well for performance horses, but for the rehabilitation of hoof problems' It’s no contest. Hoof problems can be fixed better and more completely without the steel.

What does it mean to ”read” the hoof to determine what it is trying to tell you'

Every trim is different. Even a pair of hooves on the same horse often have completely different needs. It is too easy for professionals to fall into habits: Doing the same thing over and over. I fell into this trap five or six years ago by trying to take care of over 600 horses. At one point I realized that 20th horse of the day was not getting the attention to detail it deserved.

You can learn to accurately read sole thickness and see the slightest wall separation, rotation or sinking by simply knowing how to look. The ripples in the wall tell a story that goes back six or more months. They tell of dietary imbalance, sickness, bad trims. You can see gait imbalances and evidence of body issues by reading the wear pattern on the bottom of the hoof. Most horses will wear one area of every hoof perfectly. It will be the part of the hoof that is used the most. The rest of the hoof will overgrow between trims. This worn area gives important clues about how the rest of the foot should be trimmed for the individual horse and the terrain.

Have you ever watched a horse move and been able to see that something wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was' Then, when someone else says, ”He’s not flexing the left hind stifle” you can immediately see it, too. Reading the wear pattern in the hooves can be that ”other person” standing over your shoulder. You can see any alteration of gait by reading the wear of the hoof (or shoe).

Confession time: This became an important ”trick” I used in clinics. With a microphone on and 100 people watching (mostly farriers, trimmers and vets), I would have to evaluate the movement of each horse. This was stressful for me — embarrassing to have someone yell from the crowd that I missed an ”obvious” injury. So I started picking out and evaluating the hooves before I watched the horse move.

Then I knew how the horse was going to move before it took a step: Heel first, toe first, paddling, back-sore, favoring some injury . . . All critical for the trimmer to spot, because they affect how the feet should be trimmed, reflect needed adjustments to the diet and lifestyle, and often show a need for veterinary care, massage, stretching, dental work, a different saddle. The list goes on. Performing ”a trim” to the horse is rarely the whole cure.

Are shoes always bad'

No. In fact I believe that almost every horse needs hoof protection to be available when needed; but we do have healthier materials than the metals. I strongly feel that equine foot wear should be free to evolve. The horse world is remarkably resistant to change.

Think of human athletic shoes for a moment. When Nike introduces a new air-filled, shock-absorbing sole, Reebok doesn’t get mad about it. They start working on a gel-filled sole that performs better. The farrier world needs to open its mind to this kind of innovation. Human athletes eagerly await the next technological advancement, while the equine world seems to meet innovation with contempt, suspicion and ”that’s not the way grandpa did it.” For some reason this feeling seems strongest where hoof care is concerned.

If a vet tells a client that their horse has damaged a ligament and needs six months off, she is a hero for making the discovery and the owner usually complies without question. If a vet tells the same client that the horse’s coffin bones have dropped 5 mm and the horse should be barefoot for six months, she is ignored or even attacked. The same goes with nutrition. How many veterinarians would dare tell a horse owner that they need to permanently remove the fat, laminitic horse from the 30-acre pasture'

Back to the question: With metal shoes, specifically, there are two serious problems that I consider impossible to get around. The first problem is the vertical rigidity. The hoof is designed to bend, twist and conform to the ground. On uneven terrain or in a turn, the foot should flex vertically at the heels (actually the whole foot ”twists” or distorts). This is an important shock absorber and also reduces the stress on ligaments, tendons, muscles — the entire body (similar to tires on a truck, this is the front-line energy dissipater).

The metal shoe’s elimination of this vertical flexion creates a more dangerous, unstable situation for the horse. Honestly, I think metal shoes should only be used as a part of a temporary cast for P3 fractures, etc. The rest of the time, I always seem to find a healthier way, whether it is epoxy, boots, pads, impression material, casting material or combinations of each that allow proper function of the foot.

The other big problem with metal shoes is that they must be positioned beneath and attached to the hoof wall. This sets up a situation where the entire horse is literally hanging from the laminae. This is a problem for any horse, but disastrous if the horse is also laminitic. Nature intended for the entire foot to work as support for the horse. The laminae are simply not strong enough to do the job alone. In my opinion, the only reason why traditional horseshoeing works at all is that the shoe packs with dirt and supports the horse through the sole, bars and frog much of the time.

Horseshoeing has come a long way, though. Modern techniques that use epoxies to provide solar support are a huge step in the right direction from the horse’s standpoint, but they tend to be expensive and also significantly reduce traction. So horse owners tend to shy away from filling the sole of the shoe, even when the farrier and vet insist it is needed. Even with this improved methodology, the presence of the shoe eliminates normal wear and allows the wall to quickly overgrow, lifting the ”support” from the sole and causing a peripherally loaded situation soon after the job is done.

What we need are better boots. The bottom of the foot needs constant pressure and release. If you try to achieve true solar support with a nailed-on shoe, the pressure is co nstant (pressure without release) and the sole’s corium is at risk. Equine footwear should evolve into something more similar to our own.

Horses should literally have hiking boots, football cleats, track shoes, crampons and bedroom slippers available as needed — and the health of routine trimming and barefoot turnout in between.

Through all of this ”shod vs. barefoot war,” it still amazes me that every farrier text I have read clearly says that back-to-back shoeing is harmful and should be avoided — that horses should be routinely trimmed and turned out barefoot during the ”off” season. Some texts even recommend shoeing for a specific event and then immediately pulling them off.

The truth is that if people really followed this fundamental principle in the real world, damage from shoeing would be much more difficult to find. But in my opinion, the one and only advantage of steel footwear makes them persist--they are usually more convenient than booting a hoof before each ride.

What are the most common hoof pathologies you see' How do you approach them'

I specialize in laminitis. Most of my clients come to me with P3/hoof capsule rotation and/or sinking. The first and most important task is the diet. I typically take all of the treats, grains, feeds and green grass from the diet. I then start from a base diet of free-choice grass hay that tests below 10% NSC, a custom mineral mix that balances that hay (plus extra magnesium), loose salt, a cup of ground flax and vitamin E oil. From there I usually have to make adjustments to the individual situation.

Also on day one, I actively seek radiographs, anti-inflammatory and pain meds from the vet, but do like to see the horse get off the meds as soon as possible. This also has the added benefit of getting a ”favorite” veterinarian on the case in the event that additional veterinary/medical care is needed as we go.

As for the hoof care, every case must be treated uniquely, but my basic philosophy is to remove sheer stress on the laminae by unloading the hoof wall and loading P3 (and the lateral cartilages) through the sole, frog and bars. I then use padded hoof boots or padded hoof casts to get the horse comfortable enough to voluntarily move.

What advice do you give for problems with hooves chipping or cracking'

Diet, diet, diet. Assuming that the horse has been barefoot and under routine, competent hoof care, has freedom to move, lives in a clean, fairly dry environment, you can almost count on dietary problems when you see poor hoof quality.

As for hooves that chip or peel apart in layers, custom mineral balancing is usually the key. I’ve come to believe that this is as important as carbohydrate management. For years I only blamed the sugars, but I couldn’t help noticing that some ”rich” pastures supported healthy hooves, while seemingly identical pastures nearby destroyed every hoof on the property. I started testing the grass and found serious mineral imbalances in all of the ”problem” pastures. On top of that, the ”randomly chosen” mineral supplements or blocks the horse owners were buying often made the imbalances even worse. So far every time I have tested the forage and provided custom supplements that balance the diet, the hooves have improved.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of competent hoof trimming, trim frequency, hygiene, environment and fungal invasion. Each can be critical factors. But most of the time if you don’t fix the diet, you can soak, patch, pick, shoe and trim indefinitely and you’ll keep coming up with incomplete results.

Do some horses just have poor quality feet'

Certainly some individuals have more potential than others. Some breeds have heartier hooves than others. Just as I could never condition myself to run a four-minute mile, some horses could never be ridden without some form of hoof protection. But birth defects and faults in breeding are too often used incorrectly as a convenient excuse. Usually the real problems come from the dietary issues already discussed, from misguided trimming, from back-to-back shoeing and perhaps most importantly from a lack of early development.

Robert Bowker, VMD, discovered that protective tissue in the back of the equine foot is undeveloped at birth and will remain weak and sensitive throughout the horse’s life if the tissue is not adequately used. Constant movement and stimulation is necessary to properly develop and sustain this tissue. Use it or loose it. He has found great developmental differences between equine feet, depending on their use throughout life. Keeping foals in stalls, failure to trim their feet, early shoeing and soft terrain can seriously reduce the horse’s hoof quality and cause excessive sensitivity or weakness that persists throughout life. It is easier for us to blame the horse for its hoof problems, but in my opinion, rarely accurate.

What is the most challenging hoof problem to work with'

When dealing with laminitis, the biggest challenge has nothing to do with the hoof or the horse. The owner usually makes or breaks it. Out here in the real world, it’s simple: Some horse owners will go the extra mile for their horse and some will not. I’ve already told you about some of my protocol. I put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the horse owner. I didn’t make up the rules, I just live by them. If I could do it without the owner’s help, I would. So usually my biggest challenges come from trying to help the horse anyway. I have kept many foundered horses alive and relatively happy with just trimming alone, but I know I’ll never really fix them because they are living on the same pasture or same feeding program that ripped them apart to begin with.

What do you think are the most important attributes for a hoof-care professional to have'

Simple. The hooves in their care consistently get better and better as time goes by. I know this sounds too idealistic, but the horse world has mistakenly accepted the deterioration of hooves over time as being normal. I’m here to say that it is not normal. A horse that has been under routine, competent hoof care should die of old age with healthy feet.

As already stressed, though, this goes way deeper than a good trim. The professional should be willing, able and educated enough to help the horse owner find the real root of hoof issues when they do come along. They should be honest with themselves and paying enough attention to notice when a horse is getting worse over time, rather than better.

Hoof problems almost never happen overnight. Early detection is critical and facing a horse owner with ”Plan B” requires the professional to be able to swallow a lot of pride. This ability is the most important attribute to look for.

What is the best way for an owner to tell if their hoof-care professional is doing a good job'

There is only one way to tell. Horse owners must educate themselves. Some of the most experienced farriers and trimmers literally wound the horse with every trim. Anyone can sound brilliant when they are talking to someone who knows nothing about a subject. I mentioned earlier that neglected horses with thick soles are often easier to deal wit h. I’ve seen the work of farriers in almost every U.S. state, and in a dozen different countries.

The most common mistake I’ve seen everywhere is the routine removal of sole from P3. This is a particularly important epidemic with chronic laminitis cases. When the laminae fail, either the hoof capsule rotates, the wall flares from P3, or the horse sinks through the hoof capsule (depending on the mechanics in place at the time of lamellar failure). In each scenario, the hoof will start to appear too long. Too many professionals will then try to shorten the foot by rasping the sole away. I have seen literally hundreds of horses on death’s door with a paper-thin sole and rasp or knife marks still visible on the thinned area. Over time, the corium becomes so damaged that the horse loses its capacity to grow a proper sole.

There are other factors to chronic thin-soled horses, but it’s disturbing to realize that neglected, foundered horses almost never have trouble building a good sole. In horses that founder under routine care, the sole is usually the absolute crux. That’s something to think about.

Another common scenario is a post trim toe-first impact that often lasts a week or two after horses are shod or trimmed. This is usually caused by excessive thinning of the frog, sole and bars at the back of the foot or trimming the heels too low. Toe first impacts wreck the laminae, constantly flare the walls, thin the sole and stress ligaments, tendons, bone and muscle.

These are just the most common of many examples there are out there. No horse owner can evaluate their professional’s work unless they develop their own deep understanding of the equine foot and its care. Horses need their owners to understand how they tick, so I chose owner education as my war.

Horse Journal staff article.