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Barefoot Benefits for Your Horse

Before you begin a barefoot-transition program, consult a veterinarian and farrier who know your horse. They'll evaluate your horse's foot health and advise you on what problems to expect. If you pursue the "natural" route, attend several seminars with experts before signing on to a guru's program. Here, Hiltrud Strasser, DVM, checks a clinic attendee's horse.

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 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.

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.

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