Since our special report on the barefooted horse, the natural-hoof movement has continued to pick up steam. Barefooted, booted horses now dominate the world of endurance racing, where traveling at speed over rugged terrain is the norm. You can also find shoeless horses in many other lines of work and areas of competition, including Western performance.
First, let's cover some basics with a man who's been instrumental in driving the move toward barefootedness: Pete Ramey, one of the world's most experienced and respected natural hoof-care practitioners. A farrier since 1994, Ramey became intrigued in 1998 by what he was hearing about the overall health benefits of going barefoot. Once he started using the specialized trim modeled after the wear patterns of horses in the wild, he began to see its value in hoof rehabilitation, which has become his specialty.
Today, he advocates a holistic approach that includes feeding and exercise in addition to the barefoot trim. The horses he works on often are those deemed beyond hope by veterinarians and conventional farriers. Literally hundreds of horses suffering the effects of founder and navicular disease have been returned to health by the methods he advocates.
A much-sought-after clinician, Ramey has a 10-disc DVD series, "Under the Horse," which features both classroom instruction and live trimming. The series is in keeping with his goal of educating as many people as possible--owners and hoof care practitioners alike--about the benefits of the bare hoof and proper management.
We asked Ramey to talk about why the barefoot lifestyle might be right for your horse.
Horse&Rider: What are the key benefits of a shoeless foot?
Peter Ramey:It's not about the foot alone; it's about improved overall health. Recent blood-flow studies by Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD, show that the horse's foot gets at least twice as much circulation when he's barefoot on yielding terrain, as compared to when he's wearing a metal shoe. The back part of the foot is designed by nature to flex, twist and distort with uneven terrain and turns--it helps reduce stress and prevent injury to joints, ligaments and tendons. Metal shoes prevent most of that twisting and flexion the hoof was designed for.
HR: Going barefoot is natural for wild horses, but don't horses carrying riders need to wear shoes for support and to keep their hooves from wearing down?
PR: The added weight of the rider does have an impact--it creates a need for more energy dissipation and shock absorption. And that's the whole point of moving away from steel as a means of protection. We can provide protection through a firm-but-yielding impact by working a horse on bare feet or in padded boots. At the same time, this provides maximum support, because the whole foot is working as a unit rather than having the weight of the horse hanging from the laminae and the hoof walls.
Regarding excess wear, when bare hooves are properly and routinely trimmed, it's rare. In fact, I've seen it only a few times, on horses with severe angular deformities or chronic "toe-walkers." Ironically, what we do sometimes have is the opposite problem: properly trimmed bare hooves typically grow so fast they need to be trimmed, ideally, about every four to six weeks. Sometimes, what people mistake for excess wear is actually excess growth, which then leads to chipping and breaking of the hoof walls if the hooves aren't trimmed often enough.
HR: Many believe that although going barefoot can be theoretically beneficial for horses, their own horse, because of feet that "aren't good enough," could never do it. What would you say to that person?
PR: Every horseshoeing textbook I've read (and I've read all or most of them) clearly states that we farriers should avoid back-to-back shoeing, and allow shod horses a barefoot period during the "off season" to allow the hooves to heal. But the books fail to teach how to actually make a foot improve during that bare period. It's simply amazing how much a competent trimmer and six months of barefootedness can improve most hooves.
So I'd say to that person, "If your horse has great feet, let's debate about whether or not he should be wearing horseshoes. If his feet are poor, however, get the shoes off."
Beware, though, because although there are professionals who truly are skilled at both farriery and natural hoof care, there are plenty of great horseshoers out there that simply don't know how to trim a bare hoof into a healthier situation. I know because I was one of them, myself. Do your homework in selecting who cares for your horse's feet.
HR: Does the kind of terrain your horse lives on, or that you ride on, make a difference as to whether he can go barefoot?
PR: For barefoot riding (without hoof boots), it's usually important that the riding terrain reasonably match the living terrain. For instance, a horse that lives on soft pasture and spends time in a stall can almost always be expected to grow a foot that will comfortably perform in the arena or for light trail work. The same living terrain will rarely forge a hoof that can work on gravel roads and rocky trails. To quote Dr. Bowker, "Bed your horse on the terrain you ride."