I'm glad I permanently removed my horses' shoes a few years ago. Since then, I've learned a few things about helping my horses transition to barefoot trail riding.
A horse saddle switch that I made at the same time was well-intentioned, but off the mark. (See "Limping Along," Cactus Country, September/October '05.) The horse saddle problems were detected and soon corrected, although it required professional help and a new saddle. Here's an update.
My decision to remove my horses' shoes was based on saving money, improving the structural health of their legs and feet, and avoiding losing a shoe on the trail.
My tough little mare, Natalie, never needed any hoof protection after her shoes were pulled. My 2-year-old gelding, Clementino, has never worn shoes; he just gets his hooves trimmed. I pony him several times a week on rocky trails - proof that it's easiest to condition a young horse for a lifetime without shoes.
My other two horses, Porcelana and Alegro, have presented challenges in their shoeless transition. When their shoes came off, they walked gingerly, just as you'd do if you've always worn shoes then tried to walk barefoot on rocky ground. Alegro showed signs of soreness, as detected by my equine body worker. (See "Aches and Pains," Cactus Country, May/June '06.)
Both horses needed hoof boots. Courtney Vincent, who trims my horses' hooves, helped me fit Porcelana and Alegro with front-feet boots - horses don't usually need boots on the back feet. (Courtney has trained with natural-hoof-care pioneer Pete Ramey of Hoof Rehabilitation Specialists.) But I feared that the boots could be difficult to apply and remove, and might fall off during a ride.
Last spring, Courtney encouraged me to try the Renegade, a new boot in the testing stage. (Visit the company's website for product-release details.) This boot is easy to apply and has never come off during a ride. I keep a rubber EasyCare Comfort Pad in the bottom of each Renegade boot for extra cushioning to help prevent soreness.
Courtney also recommended that I put down several inches of pea gravel in my horses' stalls, and provide more turnout time for them on bedding sand/gravel. According to Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD, professor of anatomy at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, gravel helps hooves adapt to being without shoes.
Since Alegro was still sore on rides, even with hoof boots, Courtney suggested I contact Carol Grubb, who's based here in Tucson. She specializes in saddle-fitting, and her own horses are shoeless. She traced an outline of each horse's back, then asked me to saddle each one.
I'd already purchased two saddles that I thought would better fit my narrow-backed Paso Finos. Although my purchases were well-intentioned, Carol demonstrated to me-by pressing on the saddles against their backs, then observing how the horses moved under saddle-that the new saddles didn't fit well and were causing soreness.
She recommended an inexpensive, lightweight, Cordura-nylon Western saddle, with full Quarter Horse bars, from Big Horn Inc. (One online distributor for Big Horn saddles is Horse Saddle Shop, www.horsesaddleshop.com. But you can find other sources via Internet?search engines. Also, check out?your?local tack store.)
I also acquired special pads to put between the saddle and saddle blanket to help cushion Porcelana, a former broodmare whose spine is like a ridge along her back.
Carol cautioned me not to buy a saddle with a seat bigger than 15 inches, because my horses aren't big enough to carry the weight of a person requiring a larger seat size. Veterinarians say that, in general, a horse can comfortably carry 15 percent of his body weight; a horse's conformation, bone structure, and condition may affect this rule-of-thumb percentage.
With an equine weight tape, I determined Alegro weighs approximately 970 pounds; 15 percent of 970 is 146. I subtracted 20 pounds for tack, leaving 126 pounds. I weigh less than this, so the Big Horn saddle works perfectly.
Carol Grubb offers saddle-fitting clinics based on research conducted by BALANCE International in England. This research focuses on saddle design and a saddle's impact on a horse's health, soundness, and natural movement. BALANCE representatives tour worldwide with information relevant to all riding disciplines; however, it doesn't demonstrate Western trail saddles.