Most alternative therapies can equally be described as natural therapies – side stepping the use of drugs or surgery to aid problems using natural, non-invasive methods. In other words working with natures own healing powers as opposed to bull dozing nature out of the way in favour of human inventiveness. The equine has evolved over millions of years without intervention from man – nature has produced an incredible, adaptable creature whose number one instinct is to survive. This survival instinct means that the horse’s body is pre-programmed to do everything it can to heal itself in times of injury or illness. As human beings we can aid this survival instinct and help the horse use what nature has already provided or we can believe we know better than 64 million years of evolution.
Most natural therapies are well publicised but one that is perhaps not so well known is removing a horse’s shoes and going barefoot. Barefoot for sound and healthy horses is fairly widely known about and often hotly debated – there are many barefoot endurance horses out there competing, from the lowest levels up to and including the World Equestrian Games, but barefoot as a healing tool? That may be a new one for many people.
The fastest growing area that barefoot is being used in is the treatment of navicular and navicular syndrome. Traditionally the diagnosis of navicular has been the beginning of the end of a horse’s competitive career. Ridden careers have been prolonged by the use of remedial shoeing and drug treatments but a ‘cure’ is simply not possible. However by looking again at the causes of navicular and navicular syndrome the exponents of natural hoof care have found that removing shoes and rehabilitating the feet can bring horses back to full soundness.
It’s important to understand what is actually happening when we talk about navicular and navicular syndrome. Navicular is generally taken to mean the condition where there are changes to the navicular bone seen on x-rays/MRI scans. Navicular syndrome is taken to mean where no bony changes can be seen but the pain is located in the back of the foot/heel area.
Traditionally it was believed that navicular began with the bony changes – the causes not quite understood but thought to be from lack of blood supply to the bone, poor circulation and a long toe/low heel hoof conformation. However research has shown that the condition begins not with the navicular bone at all but rather with soft tissue damage at the back of the foot, most usually to the deep digital flexor tendon and/or impar ligament. The damage, if left untreated, eventually results in degradation of the navicular bone. In a research study undertaken by Dr James Rooney of the American College of Veterinarian Pathologists he found not one single case in which the damage to the bone was beginning of the condition. Prior damage to the tendons and ligaments was always present.
What causes this damage to the soft tissues in the back of the foot?
For this we have to consider the natural locomotion of the limb. The hoof has evolved to most commonly land heel first. When this occurs the deep digital flexor tendon is tightened by the descending fetlock joint. As the foot then rocks forwards towards breakover the deep flexor tendon is loosened. However in an incorrect toe first landing the descending fetlock joint tightens the tendon just after impact. The heel then rocks downwards tightening the tendon even further. This exerts a far greater force on the whole system than nature ever intended and over time leads to damage of this pulley system – tearing of the impar ligament and damage to the deep flexor tendon. Navicular syndrome!
So why do some horses land toe first?
The digital cushion is the nerve centre of the foot – most of the proprioceptors are contained there, it’s how the horse feels his way and is therefore a sensitive area. The digital cushion needs to be strong and well developed in order to protect the nerves. If the digital cushion is weak and under developed the horse will feel too much and start to land toe first to avoid the pain.
A strong digital cushion requires stimulation and circulation. From the moment a foal is born the development of the digital cushion should begin. Unfortunately most foals spend their lives on unchallenging surfaces – grass not rocks – so the development of the digital cushion never gets the kick-start it needs. Once the youngster is shod the situation can never improve. The shoe prevents the frog contacting the floor and the whole foot from expanding and contracting. This lack of expansion and contraction, contact with the ground and reduced circulation means the digital cushion never develops as it should. And once the horse begins to land toe first the situation becomes an even more vicious circle. Sooner or later the toe first landing will cause soft tissue damage and the horse will begin to exhibit lameness.
So how can barefoot help?
There’s nothing magical or mysterious. Simply by allowing the hoof mechanism to function as nature intended, restoring the circulation to the foot, allowing that expansion and contraction and stimulation from contact with the ground, the digital cushion begins to develop strength. Once the digital cushion strengthens the horse can start to land heel first again, the soft tissue damage can heal and be prevented from reoccurring. The process of achieving a strong foot consists of slow work on a variety of hard surfaces, in-hand at first if necessary, increasing the length of time and distance covered as you would in any general fitness program. Hoof boots can be used in the beginning if the horse is ultra sensitive or has extremely damaged feet. Trims to the feet are done as and when necessary to ensure the foot is balanced but nothing ‘remedial’ is done via a trim as the hoof will grow exactly as it needs to in order to become sound.
Barefoot rehabilitation is about growing a strong and healthy foot that can function as it’s supposed to so that it can protect itself from damage. With a strong healthy foot the horse will become sound and able to return to whatever level of work they were performing at before their lameness. There is a caveat here though. Keeping a horse successfully working hard without shoes is not just a case of going through the rehabilitation/transition process and then returning to the same management routine as before the shoes were removed. Changes to the diet are essential, as is regular stimulation of the foot on a variety of surfaces. A low sugar/starch diet will ensure the hooves are well fed whilst only ever working on soft surfaces will not stimulate the digital cushion enough to ensure it remains strong enough to protect that bundle of nerves. Think of the hoof a bit like a muscle – we must keep working it, feed it right and keep it fit to do the job we want it to do. If we neglect any of the three aspects – trim, diet, exercise – then the foot will weaken again and the symptoms of navicular may eventually return. The same applies if the horse is shod once sound. If the feet have been fully restored to health then putting shoes back on will have no obvious short term adverse affects but long term the same process is likely to occur – weakening of the foot leading to faulty locomotion leading to soft tissue damage.
The act of removing the shoes of navicular syndrome horses can be quite dramatic – some will go sound immediately, but for others with a greater degree of damage the process will take longer. Whilst most success from using barefoot to rehabilitate navicular syndrome horses is anecdotal there is a research project currently being conducted in the UK involving Professor Peter Clegg at the University of Liverpool, Jeremy Hyde of Eqwest Veterinary hospital and Rockley Farm on Exmoor. The published results so far are based on 13 horses, 10 who have completed their rehab and three who are at various stages through it. Eight out of the ten have returned to full soundness and are back in work, including hunting and jumping. Seven out of these ten have been reassessed by their referring vet and their improvement and/or return to soundness confirmed. Jaime Jackson in the USA reports that he has never known a navicular syndrome case not come sound once its shoes were removed. The position is slightly less clear where there is significant damage to the navicular bone. Whilst improvement is seen a return to full soundness is probably harder to achieve although there have been reported cases of the bone remodelling following barefoot rehabilitation. However more research is needed in this area.
Barefoot rehab can help other conditions as well as navicular. In fact many people turn to barefoot when everything else has failed with their particular horse. Tendon and ligament problems further up the limb can be caused from the incorrect locomotion of the toe first landing just as damage occurs within the foot. Once correct locomotion is restored and the tendon injury repaired risk of future reinjury is reduced. Other conditions that can be helped are arthritic conditions and joint problems. A barefoot hoof has much greater shock absorption capabilities than an shod hoof due to both the flexibility of the hoof capsule and hemodynamics (as the hoof hits the ground it expands and fills with blood which helps to dissipate the shock waves). This greater ability to absorb shock makes movement much more comfortable for horses with joint issues. This coupled with the increase of circulation in the foot and up the leg – 10% more than in shod horses – can mean that horses previously unsound can come back into full work. It can be a new lease of life for older horses.
Barefoot is showing itself to be a valid and affective alternative to traditional methods. It does tend to be the last resort for many horses where traditional methods have been tried and failed. Perhaps because of this it is even more remarkable that it works so well for so many horses. If you have a horse diagnosed with navicular syndrome then it is well worth trying the barefoot route. Cheaper than drugs and remedial shoeing and time and time again proving more affective. Even the insurance companies are starting to sit up and take note.
Angela Corner is an AANHCP Certified Practitioner and Advanced endurance rider. Rockcrunchers Barefoot Trimming Services, covers The Midlands, Lincolnshire and the North of England. www.rockcrunchers.co.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org. 07580039882.
AANHCP Certified Natural Hoofcare Practitioner and Barefoot Endurance Rider
Full range of services offered:
Performance hoof trims based on the natural hoof model
Full support during transitioning from shod to barefoot
Advice on diet, environment and overall management of the barefoot horse
Advice on the choosing, fitting and using of hoof boots.
Advice on and management of hoof and hoof related problems – navicular syndrome, laminitis, cracks, flares, poor quality hoof wall, seedy toe, forging, stumbling and over reaching.
Fully insured and member of AANHCP professional organisation.