From coast-to-coast, natural-horse promoters are advising horse owners to pull their horses' shoes so that the animals may enjoy the comfort of the barefoot life. You're tempted to do the same, but you're not sure if it's a viable option for your horse. Before you take the plunge, slow down, and learn a little more about your horse's hooves. The payoff might spare your horse a lot of pain - and keep you in the saddle.
Here, we'll take you into the front lines, where hoof-care professionals are working to serve the needs of both horse and rider. To help you make a sound decision about your horse's feet, we've enlisted the help of two top experts:
Lisa Simons Lancaster, PhD, DVM, is a farrier and hoof researcher. She's the author of the landmark book, The Sound Hoof: Horse Health from the Ground Up (available at www.hoofcare.com). An avid rider, Dr. Lancaster conducts research on internal hoof structure at Michigan State's Equine Foot Laboratory.
Tia Nelson, DVM, of Helena, Montana, has been a farrier for 26 years and a barefoot hoof-care proponent for most of that time. Her interest in hooves sent her to veterinary school; her clients' horses were barefoot when barefoot certainly wasn't cool. She's particularly interested in the effects of environment and hard ground on the hoof's ability to self-maintain its shape and strength.
With the help of these experts, we'll give you seven steps to keeping your horse sound while making the barefoot transition. Along the way, we'll describe the dangers of radical trimming. We'll also give you a checklist to whether your shod horse might be a good candidate for living the barefoot life , a glossary of terms used in the article , and a resource guide to hoof boots, which many trail riders use to protect their horses' hooves on harsh terrain. But first, here's a bit of horseshoe history.
Every list of Western civilization's great inventions includes two pieces of horse equipment: the stirrup and the horseshoe. The stirrup enabled mounted warriors to balance themselves in battle, and even loose a crossbow or heave a spear from the back of a galloping horse.
The horseshoe, we might assume, enabled cavalry units, chariots, and supply wagons to move mighty armies across the landscape. Horses, of course, could already move great distances, left to their own devices. The horseshoe was actually an equalizer tool, enabling armies to round up soft-footed local remount horses from wet, low-lying regions and keep moving across mountains and deserts.
If a horse is left alone in his own home environment, pastured on a uniform, firm surface similar to ground on which he works, and properly conditioned to the work demanded of him, he'll probably live a sound life without shoes. However, we continue to shoe our horses to serve our needs; horseshoes act as a safety net in case the hooves aren't acclimatized or tough enough for the task at hand. Horseshoes help a horse to perform at the convenience of the owner, without hoof conditioning.
But today, image is everything. Metal and even plastic horseshoes don't fit well in the image of a back-to-nature horse as prescribed by many leaders of today's natural-horse movement. Bitless bridles and treeless saddles suggest that riders are more comfortable on the trail, so shouldn't we remove those ancient steel crescents from the hooves? Aren't those nails a barbaric harbinger of the Middle Ages? Read on for answers that may surprise you.
Here's a checklist to help you evaluate whether your shod horse might be a good candidate for living the barefoot life.
• You've enlisted the aid and involvement of a professional farrier - either one who usually shoes or an experienced trimmer - and a veterinarian who agree that your horse is likely to succeed without shoes.
• Your horse is healthy, fit, and young to middle-aged. He's neither overweight nor underweight, and isn't handicapped by limb or hoof capsule deformities. (Note: Older horses may require more time to adapt, but they're often most deserving of the shoeless life.)
• You're a healthy, fit, observant rider with time to exercise your horse daily and provide hands-on care. Or, your horse is cared for and ridden by someone who shares your interest in trying to trail ride without shoes.
• You give your horse ample turnout, preferably with good drainage and firm ground similar to the terrain on which you typically ride.
• You plan to pull your horse's shoes in the beginning of fall, as you head into a time when your horse may have a lighter workload.
Step 1: Consider the pros and cons. Of course, your horse can survive without his shoes. As mentioned, horseshoes are a human convenience. For example, you might create a need for extra protection by deciding to take him on a once-a-month 10-mile trek in the mountains over rock and shale. Horseshoes are also a handy support and therapy option for horses troubled by lameness or injury.
Barefoot considerations: There are two primary advantages of pulling your horse's shoes: One, you might (but not necessarily) spend less money maintaining his feet, and two, his feet won't be damaged by repetitive shoeing. The latter is especially true if the quality of shoeing, shoes, and nails used have been substandard.
However, many horses "left" barefoot are also neglected. Many unshod broodmares and older horses don't receive adequate professional care, leaving their feet cracked, diseased, and misshapen. This "barefoot" image tends to make veterinarians and farriers skeptical when owners proudly announce that they want to pull off their horses' shoes. (Note: For the purpose of this article, a farrier is a professionally trained person who cares for a horse's hooves, with or without shoes.)
Sound, barefoot trail horses have hooves that are managed, not neglected. Over time, the conditioned hoof becomes thicker and more robust, with a wide leathery frog and open heels. But it takes a magic formula of nutrition, exercise on firm surfaces, circulation, and judicious trimming to achieve this highly conditioned state.
With or without shoes, there's always a risk your horse could go lame. No one can guarantee that your newly barefoot horse will be sound by a certain date, or that he'll be able to handle a certain trail or distance. Only time and conditions will tell.
Note that until the 1990s, most horses in northern climates went barefoot in the winter. There were few winter shows, few indoor arenas, and only horses that had foot problems or really needed to work wore snow pads. Today, snow pads, traction nails, and anti-slip shoe modifications are de rigueur. Indoor arenas are also more common, and some think horses are safer in winter turnout if shod for traction; thus, many horses are shod all year.
Until the year-round shoeing trend, an owner decided in the spring whether or not to shoe the horse. Some delayed shoeing until summer, when the ground hardened. Others decided to shoe one year and not another, as the horse's level of use changed.
Shoeing considerations: Many new horseshoes are on the market; there's an entire new class of products classified as "soft shoeing." Varying densities of plastic polymers can now be combined in a single shoe to give support and cushioning where needed. The future for synthetic shoes looks bright, even as new forging and casting techniques make top-of-the-line steel horseshoes available with clips, wider heels, toe wear inserts, and even inner-edge traction.
Keep in mind that horseshoe-material quality and application affects a horse's foot. Some farriers charge more than others, but use inferior shoes and nails. Others may charge less and yet use higher-quality materials. A highly skilled farrier may get excellent results from an inexpensive shoe because of his or her foot-preparation, fitting, and nailing skills. Conversely, an unskilled or rushed farrier may damage a horse's foot by applying an expensive imported European horseshoe that's a size too small.
Before you jump to the conclusion that shoeing is an evil practice, keep in mind that you're responsible for your horse's soundness and fitness, qualities you must nurture over your horse's lifetime. You choose who'll shoe or trim your horse, and who'll treat lameness or health problems. You're responsible for your past choices, as well as their long-term effects.
If your horse's hooves have been misshapen by years of wearing shoes that may or may not have been properly fit and applied and changed or reset at a recommended interval, don't panic. Your horse's heels didn't contract overnight; you just learned to recognize the signs of long-term "over-shod horse syndrome." But don't let anyone make you feel guilty; a good farrier can help correct your horse's problems with or possibly without shoes.
Step 2: Consult professionals. Across the country, more trail riders are successfully enjoying their barefoot horses over tough terrain. What's their secret? They have a team of knowledgeable professionals helping them through the process. And, as we learn more about managing this transition, the process should become simpler.
In the meantime, do you have the resources you need to help your horse? To make sure, see the "Barefoot-Transition Checklist," below. Pay special attention to the number-one item: enlisting the services of a professional farrier and veterinarian who agree that your horse is likely to succeed without shoes. Find professionals who'll return your calls and agree to see your horse whenever necessary; close proximity is key. Don't count on online friends or company representatives with products to sell. Their advice can be valuable, but they can't evaluate your horse in the flesh.
Many barefoot opinion leaders are sincere practitioners with plenty of information to share, and you can learn from them. But beware of anyone who prescribes a "one trim fixes all" approach to every horse or someone whose experience was gleaned from a weekend course. Don't let a novice trimmer learn on your horse.
Never underestimate the value of a professional opinion, whether it's from a farrier, a veterinarian, or both. If your current veterinarian/farrier isn't interested in your shoeless goals, ask for a referral to someone who is. Chances are, he or she knows who's good at keeping barefoot horses sound.
Step 3: Work with your farrier. Most "traditional" farriers declare that they'd rather trim horses than shoe them and are delighted to work with owners who choose not to shoe. However, they may become disgruntled if they feel your horse isn't receiving proper care. They might also object to trim recommendations quoted from a website that aren't suitable for your horse. A farrier who's seen an owner neglect a horse with thrush or white line disease in the past isn't likely to be confident in that owner's long-term commitment to caring for a barefoot horse.
Many farriers also feel that barefoot hoof care is a fad and resent so-called experts who write volumes on a specific hoof structure, without considering the big picture of the whole foot, which is, of course, connected to a living horse. Farriers are taught to look not just at the bottom of a foot, but the way a horse stands, how the foot lands, and the way the leg is constructed. They know that if weight falls unevenly on parts of the foot, the hoof capsule will tell the story. Farriers work to support the foot's attempt to bear weight and move the horse.
A farrier's job is to care for a horse's hooves so that the horse will be useful to his owner for work or recreation. Fifteen years ago, the market was flooded with plastic pads that promised to cushion a horse from hard ground and protruding rocks. Today, some horse owners want to gallop over rocks to see if their horses' bare hooves are tough enough to take the abuse. That's a big change.
Dr. Lancaster questions the "barefoot or bust" pressure that some owners put on their horses. "Like many farriers, I recognize that the bare foot is often able to do the work of a shod foot, and also that barefoot rehabilitation of disease or lameness is often highly effective," she says.
"I was initially inspired by successful barefoot practitioner Jaime Jackson [of Camarillo, California, author of The Natural Horse and Horse Owner's Guide to Natural Hoof Care] to try gearing my practice to barefoot performance horses. In doing so, I've observed more cases than I'd previously thought possible in which bare feet are adequate or perhaps even more desirable than shod feet. And yet, like farriers in general, I recognize that many horses simply cannot do their jobs without shoes."
Farriers may well be disturbed when they see a formerly sound horse limping and are told that the pain is occurring because the horse "can now feel his feet," and there's no plan on the owner's part to treat the lameness, or consult a veterinarian.
Step 4: Consider the trim. Most responsible experts agree that "the slow approach" is preferable to an aggressive trim that may cause lameness. The best trim for your horse is one that takes him a step closer to ideal hoof balance. Taking too much sole, heel, bar, or wall at once can damage the foot, and isn't necessary. Judicious trimming makes the bars, sole and frog share the weight-bearing on a shoeless hoof but it may not be possible, or wise, to recruit them in the first trim.
If your horse feels progressively sure on his newly bare feet as each week passes, he'll be a pleasure to ride. If he fears for his hooves, he'll take short strides, will fatigue easily, and won't be a pleasant or safe mount for anyone.
Step 5: Manage problems. The most common problems in newly bare hooves are a shortened stride, tender soles, and, in some cases, extreme soreness. Your horse may be sore simply because he's using his foot ligaments differently. However, most of the time, soreness results when too much sole, heel, bar, and/or wall has been trimmed away, or the foot isn't level. These problems resolve with time, but require first-aid, such as soaking, sole-packing, and applying a foot wrap. You might even need to have the trimmer return to level the foot.
Barefoot horses can be abscess victims and may even develop laminitis. (On the other hand, some chronically lame horses respond positively to shoe removal.) Another source of lameness is the sudden over-lowering of the heels, particularly on a club foot or on a horse with chronic navicular or heel pain. If you're unsure of your horse's lameness history, arrange a consultation between your veterinarian and farrier; x-rays will likely be needed to evaluate inner structures.
Step 6: Be flexible. Dr. Nelson considers herself a good hand at trimming barefoot horses for her customers, but even she finds her farrier skills meet their match occasionally. "Some horses do not do well barefoot, regardless of how well the owner is paying attention," she says. "It's not anyone's fault. If a horse is reluctant to walk on gravel, but moves willingly on grass, he may've been trimmed a bit short or may not have a tough enough foot just yet. This may or may not indicate that the individual is too sensitive to be barefoot. If he's shifting on the front feet - the hind feet usually don't seem to be much trouble - then a sole toughener, more time, or both may help."
Dr. Nelson also has found that horses with thin hoof walls also have thin soles, thus aren't good candidates for going barefoot. "How a horse adapts to going barefoot is best judged on an individual basis; different horses will be on different timetables," she says. "And some horses may never accept being barefoot. I care for three geldings owned by one family here in Montana: a Tennessee Walking Horse, a Quarter Horse, and a Paint. The Paint hates to be barefoot; the other two seem to care not."
If your horse fails the barefoot test by continuing to show the above symptoms, reevaluate how the trim is affecting the foot, extend the time, and consult your veterinarian. If this fails, plan to give your horse a few months off, or reapply his shoes.
Step 7: Give your horse time. Your horse will require at least three or four months to show you how well he's truly adapting to his new shoeless life. However, you can and should exercise him as long as he's sound and not in pain. If he's in pain, call your veterinarian. Pain isn't "part of the process"; it can be caused by any number of foot and leg problems, and only a trained veterinarian can advise you.
The Cruelest Cut
A hoof knife is sharp and can cause a great deal of damage if it slips in your hand. Whether made intentionally or unintentionally, a deep cut into a horse's foot can lame him for months or even permanently. Some barefoot advocates believe horses need radical trimming - more like surgery than farriery - to begin their barefoot experience. Once trimmed, they may recommend forced exercise, often against the horse's will. In some cases, this "death marching" is prescribed as a therapeutic treatment for laminitis.
In the United States, humane groups and veterinary boards haven't challenged radical barefoot trimming as veterinary malpractice, although the Guild of Professional Farriers has warned horse owners of potential harm. But in Great Britain, the situation is different. The British Equine Veterinary Association, Farriers Registration Council, International League for the Protection of Horses, and especially the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have all issued warnings to horse owners to not allow their horses to be intentionally lamed by radical barefoot trimming practitioners.
The RSPCA has taken two British practitioners to court on cruelty charges. In January 2006, a hoof trimmer was found guilty of cruelty in not seeking veterinary care for a horse with chronic laminitis under her care.
"Lame But Proud" isn't a banner under which most owners would like to see their horses. Routine hoof trimming shouldn't result in anything but the mildest discomfort, if that. If your horse is lame, contact your veterinarian. Soaking boots may be helpful equipment in the early weeks of shoelessness. Seek veterinary advice on the best way to alleviate painful hoof soles and hoof walls before you start a trimming protocol.
Check references of anyone who offers to work on your horse, and ask to see sound horses that have been under this person's care for at least a year.
Some farriers may be more interested than others in your quest for a sound barefoot horse. Talk to your farrier honestly before you ask him or her to pull your horse's shoes. He or she may give you new information about your horse's feet that you'll need to consider.
Make sure that anyone you hire understands that trail riding is your goal and that your horse's welfare is tantamount. Many "natural" farriers have excellent communication skills and will work with owners to understand the value of daily exercise, turnout, and supportive surfaces. Such suggestions don't replace professional-level horse-handling and trimming skills, years of experience, and an understanding that you wish to ride your horse on the trail on a daily or weekly schedule.
"So why call myself a farrier if my business is limited to trims?" muses Dr. Lancaster, who recently graduated from veterinary college and will be expanding her services. "I have not renounced my intention to shoe. I am not against shoeing. I am not, in the words of many barefoot advocates, a 'former farrier' or an 'ex-farrier' or a 'converted farrier' or any number of other terms implying something 'beyond' an ordinary farrier.
"A farrier's job is to care for the hoof," she concludes. "That's what I've always done."
Should you use a "big truck" shoe-oriented farrier or a "hoof hugger" natural farrier? Competent natural farriers are hard to find in many areas, and some shoeing-specialist farriers may try to convince you that it is easier to just keep the shoes on if you want to keep riding. Weigh your options, and choose the most experienced professional who has the best interest of your horse at heart, regardless of what's on the business card.
Troubles Down the Trail
You finally hit the trail with your sound, barefoot horse. You've followed all the advice, ridden regularly around home, and his feet are looking tougher and stronger than ever before.
But what if something goes wrong while you're far from home? First, if you plan to trailer your horse, make sure your trailer mats are in good condition; don't transport your horse on thin mats or a bare floor. Note that the new Soft-Ride boots with gel inserts (right) are excellent for transporting horses; they'll also provide temporary comfort to a sore-footed horse. However, they're not safe for riding.
Pack the following first-aid items in case you'll need to protect a sore foot: Sole Pack Hoof Packing (a soothing menthol hoof-packing material available from KV Vet Supply, 800/423-8211; www.kvvet.com), a sock or small, disposable diaper, and a roll of duct tape. Also carry a temporary hoof boot (or, ideally, two).
If your horse starts to shorten his stride or limp, dismount immediately. Loosen the girth, and detach or loosen any draw reins, martingale, tie-down, or crupper. Examine each of his feet to make sure that he hasn't stepped on a sharp object. Feel for any heat or swelling around the coronet.
Allow your sore horse to show you where he wants to stand. This might be a softer patch of ground, a sandy area, or a firm surface. If you're near a stream or pond, standing him in water may help.
If your horse doesn't recover after a half-hour rest break, use your first-aid supplies to pack the hoof, then secure the sock or diaper over it with duct tape. Or, apply the hoof boot to the foot that seems to be causing him the most pain. Don't ride your horse; lead him back to the barn or trailer.
Artificial arena footing can also cause problems; some is highly abrasive, causing thinning of the hoof sole and wall, which can cause soreness. To avoid this, ride and work your barefoot horse on natural footing only.
Bare feet require the same observant care as shod feet. Examine your horse's feet every morning and night. Place your hands around the coronet and hoof wall, and notice any unusual heat. Run your hand down the back of the fetlock and feel for any elevated pulse. Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a problem.
Also, be aware of any abnormal stance posture, advises Dr. Nelson. "The horse may point, that is, rest a single front foot noticeably in front of its pair, often placing more weight on the straighter leg," she notes. "Or, you may see your horse shifting weight from leg to leg. And he may not want to be 'forward' under saddle." Track your horse's willingness to change leads and turn before and after a trim.
Watch weather and surface changes, as well, she says. "It seems that the terrain the horse lives in all the time is a big factor," she notes. "A soft, wet environment leads to a soft, wet foot. If that's where the horse is ridden, it's no big deal. If not, the horse may end up with solar bruises if you ride on hard ground; start slowly."
Riding regularly will help condition the hooves, but if you're headed on a long ride, consider hoof boots. Hoof-boot design varies widely; look for a model designed specifically for trail riding without steel shoes. You might need to experiment to find the size, shape, and fastening system that suits your horse best. He might need boots on just his front feet or on all four.
Dr. Lancaster warns that hoof boots may not be the answer for every horse. "Despite the belief of barefoot advocates that boots are the 'ideal' substitute for shoes, if the bare hoof isn't up to the job, I haven't found this to be true," she cautions. "I do have clients using boots and they're a terrific option in certain circumstances. But they're not for every owner or every horse. It makes no sense for me to 'renounce' shoeing, especially of performance horses [including endurance horses]."
If you plan to use hoof boots, start with short rides near home. Your horse will have time to adjust to the boots, and you'll learn how to remove, clean, and fine-tune them so that trail use will be easy. Keep the boots clean, and watch for rub marks on pasterns and heel bulbs. You can carry spare boots in case your barefoot horse becomes tender on the trail, but this isn't ideal; he shouldn't learn to associate the trail with pain.
Bar: Continuation of the hoof-wall horn around the heel.
Club foot: A deformed hoof that has high heels and a steep hoof wall, with or without a dish in the toe.
Coronet: The junction of hoof wall and pastern; the "hairline."
Frog: The fleshy triangular pad on the bottom of the horse's foot.
Hoof capsule: The horny covering of the foot, similar to your fingernail.
Hoof heels (open heels vs. contracted heels): Turning points of the hoof wall that may be pinched inward ("contracted") or slope forward ("underrun") from long-time hoof capsule distortion.
Hoof sole: The ground surface of the foot surrounding the frog; the uniform area inside the white line and hoof wall.
Hoof wall: See hoof capsule, above.
Laminitis: A painful inflammation of the lining of the inner hoof wall (called the laminae), often leading to a serious condition called founder and long-term lameness.
Navicular bone: A small bone in the back of the foot, which is commonly injured and subject to pain.
Thrush: A foul-smelling bacterial infection of the frog.
Solar bruises: Damaged areas on the sole caused by internal or external trauma; may not be visible on all feet. Solar bruises in the heel area are called corns.
Sole packing: An application of a soothing buttery mixture to the soles and frogs to alleviate soreness.
White line: The margin between the laminae and the hoof sole.
White line disease: An infection inside the hoof wall.
Fran Jurga is editor and publisher of the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, and writes the informational Hoof Blog, www.hoofcare.blogspot.com.