You’ve read about it, agonised over it, trawled the internet and talked to horsy friends, your farrier and maybe even the vet but you’ve finally decided to take the shoes off your horse and try going barefoot. It’s a big step – all those centuries of tradition and vast array of opinions and myths that surround it. But what are the no nonsense essentials you really need to know?
Firstly, even before removing the shoes, you have to look at diet. Unless you get the diet right you will never have a sound barefoot horse. Again tradition tells us that horses eat grass and grass is good and natural for them. In fact horses didn’t evolve eating the lush, sugary grasses that we have in our temperate climate. Things are made even worse since demand for food has increased and our ancient meadows have been reseeded with single species ryegrasses – great for fattening livestock quickly but disastrous for horses. Compare these pastures to the horses’ natural diet – grass species that populate high arid regions tend to be tall, stalky and dry, sugar content is very low, fibre content very high. The natural diet also encompasses a huge range of herbs, bushes, bark, twigs and scrub. So when thinking about removing your horses shoes it is hugely beneficial to first move him to the poorest quality grazing available. Most livery yards have a starvation paddock for laminitics – great for barefoot horses too. Your livery yard owner will love you for no longer complaining about the lack of grass! Instead of grass feed hay in the field, soaked if your horse is a good doer. Hay is generally lower in sugar than haylage but if you must feed haylage then try and get second cut mixed species bales. Diet, of course, also encompasses hard feeds. If you must feed a ‘bucket’ feed then ensure that whatever you choose is low in sugar and starch. Many feeds that claim to be non-heating have relatively high sugar/starch content – the feed companies have come a long way in providing more ‘natural’ fibre based feeds but you still need to check the ingredient list closely. If the feed contains molasses then it is safer to avoid it and feed something totally molasses free. Adding a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement is also a good idea but again check those ingredients. Alternatively provide your horse with free access to a mineral block in the field but not one of the blocks made palatable by the addition of sugars or molasses! Following these simple rules and feeding a natural diet will give your horse the best chance of barefoot success.
Why is a low sugar/starch diet so crucial?
Every horse owner knows about laminitis – too rich a diet causes the laminae to inflame, causing foot pain, hoof wall separation and lameness. This same process – rich diet, inflammation, foot pain – occurs on a less acute level in many horses, often repeatedly. This process weakens feet – internally as well as externally – and will make a barefoot horse footy. The shod horse will be footy too but you may not notice as his sole is held off the ground by the shoe. How many shod horses do you hear of who don’t like the hard ground? Or have poor quality hoof wall and lose shoes? Or have white line disease and/or thrush? All these are a result of a diet too high in sugar/starch.
Healthy feet come from a healthy, natural diet. No lotion or potion painted, rubbed or brushed on will change that fact. No one is out in the wilds of Nevada painting hoof moisturiser onto the mustangs’ feet yet they have the healthiest equine feet on the planet.
Okay – you’ve looked at the diet, changed whatever is necessary – now what?
Environment plays a huge part in barefoot success too. Again it goes right back to what is natural, how the horse evolved. The whole physiology of the horse is designed for an animal in almost constant motion. In the wild they will travel up to 20 miles a day, every day of their lives. All their systems – circulatory, digestive, lymphatic – need to be on constant movement to work efficiently. Standing for hour upon hour in a stable is not natural physically or mentally and there is no question that equine physiology suffers as a result – colic, stomach ulcers, joint disease etc etc. Strong barefeet require building and growing and that means movement, lots of it. The only reason you should restrict your barefoot horse to a stable is if it is the only way you can cut his grazing down to a level he can cope with. Otherwise he needs to be out moving – getting his circulation growing, building up the strength in his feet. If you can turn out onto rocky, stony, gravely areas even better. Challenge those feet. If you want to ride a barefoot horse over stony paths then his feet need to be ‘trained’ to get used to them. In the wild the mustangs will gallop over rocks, stones and boulders without a false step but they cover that terrain every day. There is a turnout system called Paddock Paradise that replicates, as best we can in a domestic situation, the natural environment of the horse. Rather than simply turning your horse out into that four acre field fence off a track (electric fencing will do fine) round the perimeter. If he wants to get from one side of the field to the other he has to go right round the field, rather than straight across – making him work harder! This is also a great way of restricting grazing. If you own the land, or have a willing landlord, you can add in areas of stone and rocks that the horses have to walk over and sandy areas for them to roll in. Let your imagination run wild! You are building an equine playground. He’ll move more, stimulate his brain more and as a result will be a happier and easier to handle equine.
Environment and movement also encompasses exercise. Another myth if that barefoot is okay for horses in light work but if you want to compete, hack out for long distances or on roads, or in fact do any serious riding, then you need to put shoes on. Quite the opposite is true. The harder the hooves are worked the stronger and healthier they’ll get. Movement = circulation and stimulation = healthy strong hooves. The wearing of hoof wall by being worked barefoot sends signals through the nervous system to grow more hoof wall and to grow it thicker and faster. If that wasn’t the case how would the mustangs survive – surely they would end up with no hooves left at all? They always grow exactly as much hoof as they need. They might not be carrying the weight of a rider but how many domesticated horses cover 140 miles in a week?
You’ve figured out the diet, understand about the importance of environment and movement – what next? Now it’s time to take the shoes off.
One of the big debates is should you use a farrier or a barefoot trimmer. If your farrier is fully supportive then absolutely carry on using him. If he doesn’t have all the information about diet and environment then make sure you know yourself exactly what is required. It also helps if you know other people who have barefoot horses – having somewhere to turn to get advice and support is so important. If using your farrier it is also important to ensure they understand about transitioning i.e. the time period between removing the shoes and having a sound horse on all sorts of different terrain. For some horses this can be instant. Others may take a few weeks, others longer still. Taking the shoes off and setting a deadline won’t work e.g we’ll give him six weeks without shoes, if he’s sound after six weeks great, if not we’ll put the shoes back on. Many shod horses start off with a severely weakened foot – the barefoot transitioning period is reversing years of damage and it’s only reasonable to think it will take some time. Even if the hoof wall looks healthy and strong, internally things may not be so great – thin sole, underdeveloped digital cushion, heel bulbs etc. It takes, on average, nine months for a whole new hoof to be grown and some horses will not be 100% until the old, shod hoof, has entirely grown out. It is all too easy to give up too soon. Patient and a long term view are essential.
If your farrier isn’t supportive then it’s better to turn to a barefoot trimmer. The transition from shod to barefoot isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward (though it can be for the lucky ones!) and it’s essential to have support from someone knowledgeable. Using a barefoot trimmer can be controversial as any one can buy a set of tools and set themselves up in business. However there are a number of professional barefoot trimming organisations and anyone who is a member of one of those organisations will have been trained and examined. All the organisations will provide details of their training courses and the standards required gain qualification with them. Trimmers who are members of an organisation have to abide by the organisation’s rules and ethics and if you have any complaints about a particular trimmer you have an organisation to contact with those complaints. Word of mouth is also important – if you know other people with barefoot horses then ask them who they use. A good trimmer will also be happy to show you their own horses and have you talk to their clients. If you are still unsure about your prospective trimmer then ask to see them trim a horse. A good trimmer will have been fully trained in suitable diets, environments and transitioning. They will also be fully aware of all the potential pitfalls and the ups and downs you will encounter along the way – they will know what to expect as they’ve more than likely encountered it themselves with their own horses and those of other clients. Think of the trimmer like a therapist – they will guide you through the good and the bad times!
What can you expect through the ‘transitioning’ period?
Some horses will carry on at the same work level as before, others may struggle at first on harder and stonier ground. If a horse has his shoes taken off and is footy on grass or other soft surfaces then he wasn’t sound to start with and you really need to look at his diet again.
For the average horse a few weeks of transitioning is to be expected but this doesn’t mean stop working him. The opposite is true but you may need to reduce the workload a little. Gentle hacks at walk and trot on roads is fantastic for strengthening hooves. As the nail holes grow out you will get chips and cracks where the hoof wall round the holes has been damaged and weakened. The hooves may look worse before they get better but a good trim and a mustang roll – rounding the edges of the bottom of the hoof wall – will help significantly. There may also be a time lag between the speed at which the hoof wall is worn away and the speed new hoof wall grows. In time your horse will grow hoof wall at the rate he wears it away but not in the beginning. In this case, and in every case where the horse is struggling, the use of hoof boots is the answer. Hoof boots mean you can keep your horse working and moving but he stays comfortable. There is a huge range of hoof boots on the market now, something to suit every horse. Getting the fit right is hugely important and advice from your trimmer or a boot retailer is invaluable. People jump, hunt, drive, dressage and do endurance in hoof boots. No distance is too far for a well fitted set of boots. They no longer have to be hard to put on, rub or fly off at speed.
Are there any horses who can’t go barefoot? If so why?
You always hear people say their horse could never cope without shoes. The reasons they give are various – breed, colour of feet, age, or simply that when he loses a shoe he’s really lame. None of those are reasons any particular horse cannot go barefoot. All breeds can have strong healthy hooves, including thoroughbreds and draft horses. The road to get there is exactly the same – getting the diet and environment right is the key every time. The colour of the hooves makes no difference either – white feet are just as strong as black feet. The strongest part of the hoof wall is the inner layer – known as the water line. It is unpigmented horn and is always white! Age is also not a bar. The longer a hoof has been shod the more damage that will have been done and so the corresponding time to regrow a strong healthy hoof will be longer but it will still happen. Taking the shoes off older horses can be a huge relief especially to the ones with arthritis. Without shoes they can move much more naturally and often the act of banging in nails is painful to those ageing joints. Finally for those with horses that are lame when they lose a shoe – if you suddenly took your shoes and socks off and walked round outside you’d be hobbling too. You have to give the horse a chance to transition – just as if you threw away your socks and shoes and ran round outside every day for a month. By the end of the month you’d be running round like an Olympic athlete!
But there must be cases where barefoot didn’t work…
Many people have tried it with their horses and given up too soon or more usually without addressing diet. The most difficult cases to transition to barefoot are those horses that are Insulin Resistant. These horses are so sensitive to sugar that to succeed they need to be removed from grass completely and permanently. This means turn out onto non-grass surfaces like sand, dirt, pea gravel, or other hardstanding material. This is not always possible on livery yards but remember even with shoes on these horses are still Insulin Resistant and though using shoes may give the impression they are sound and healthy the issues are still rumbling on underneath. Like putting a plaster cast on an arm where the bone never heals.
Nature has provided the horse with perfectly designed feet to carry it safely and soundly over many miles. If we provide our horses as natural a lifestyle as possible they are all capable of having sound and healthy hooves without the need for shoes. Compromise is always necessary of course but rather than reaching for the metal and nails reach for those hoof boots instead. At the end of the day you can pull the boots off and still have those beautiful natural hooves.
Hajar is a fourteen year old arab gelding. He is an advanced endurance gelding with many completions to his name. He had always been shod without any major issues although was very prone to bad overreaching and slipping on the roads. Natural balance shoeing had been tried but with no improvement. At the end of the 2008 season he started to get some tendon sheath inflammation on the inside of his near fore. This was scanned and no damage found. At the beginning of 2009 he pulled a shoe off in the field, along with a chunk of hoof wall. The shoe was put back on. At the first competition of the 2009 season he overreached badly in deep sand, a wound that took six months to heel properly. At the second ride of the season he presented at the post ride vetting with the same inflammation on the inside of the near fore. Again the leg was scanned with nothing showing but the warning signs were obvious – something was going to go seriously wrong if nothing was changed. After much deliberation and research it was decided to take his shoes off and try barefoot. He was sound on smooth surfaces but footy on gravel and stone. He was fitted with hoof boots and did his first endurance ride without shoes four weeks later, successfully completing 25 miles. Two weeks after that he completed 40 miles in boots – gaining a Grade 2. In 2010 he completed 25 miles in less than two and a half hours and three weeks later completed a 50 mile ride in a good time. He no longer overreaches and the inflammation in his near fore has never reappeared and he hopefully has many competitive years left, including completing the elusive 100 miles in a day.
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.