Does it seem crazy to toss your horse shoes? The need for horse shoes evolved in the middle ages when horses were brought in from pasture to live in barns protected within the castle walls. Instead of constantly moving around on the variety of land found in the pastures, they stood in their muck, destroying their once rock hard feet.
From what we now know, horses do not need horseshoes and in fact they impede gait, health, safety and longevity. Case in point: Alexander the Great pillaged and plundered on his barefoot stallion, Bucephalas. The horse lived until the age of 30!
According to the current research (Bowker), the health of the horse hoof is based primarily on environment,not genetics. From Arabians to Quarter Horses and all the Heinz varieties in between, every single horse has the potential, with the correct environment and trim, to have perfectly hard and useful feet.
There are some excellent reasons — both for the rider’s safety and the horse’s health — that owners should seriously consider tossing their horse shoes. This is not just a question of hooves. Every day we natural trimmers see near miraculous improvements in overall equine health. Amazing what adequate circulation will do!
A hoof moves!
If I were to outline a horse’s shod hoof on a cardboard, then pull the shoe, wait 15 minutes and re-outline, the shape of the hoof would have enlarged. Over a longer time the hoof remodels in many ways. Over a period of time, given a supportive environment and a quality trim, the foot will reshape to its natural size and in the case of the front feet much rounder than a shod foot. To grow a healthy and functional hoof takes time. Some of the variables are: pathologies present, how long the horse has been in shoes and whether the hooves has been routinely “rested” from shoes. But keep in mind most horses I trim are functional and ready to ride with correct care from day one because they wear padded Easy Care boots for as long as they need them.
When a horse with a natural trim (based on the wild horse model), first loads his foot, the heels connect with the ground. Energy immediately transfers through the internal structures to the back of the foot (heels, bars, frog and sole). Like a wave moving from heels to toe forward, energy expands and mildly twists the foot along the way. At some point, the entire loaded foot is weight bearing: inner wall, sole, frog and heels. The slightly concave sole flattens on the ground creating what has been described by one researcher as an “hellaceous suction action”. This explains why horses with barefeet are so surefooted. The hind feet, with significantly more concavity in their soles, act as incredible suction cups for the animal. (Think of a toilet plunger!)
When the hoof is shod and caste in steel, it does not move correctly. In fact it hardly moves at all. Imagine your own foot. When you try on shoes, you are sitting with an unloaded foot. Of course you stand and move around to see if there is room for your entire foot, toes included. However horse feet are shod in an unloaded position and of course the shoe doesn’t move. Every single farrier text recommends deshoeing the hoof for at least 7 months and admits that a barefoot is always best for the horse. Fortunately for your horse, we natural trimmers know how to make that a reality, year round, for the health of your horse. In my experience, most farriers do not know how to transition horses to barefoot health.
Does it matter that the hoof looses all natural movement?
Absolutely! When the foot loads and unloads, blood is forced through a complex of small vessels (plexus) whose primary job is shock absorption. The blood-loaded foot serves as a cushion for forces of compression (weight of horse) and concussion (ground to foot).
Many years ago, Dr. Strasser theorized that the hooves acted as four additional hearts to augment the horse’s primary organ. This is no longer the current view. However, ideal blood flow and volume, which includes the perfusion of the plexus in the hoof, remains a critical part of equine health.
Photographs of the arterial system of a barefoot horse show a dense and complex collection of vessels. The comparative hoof of a horse that has been shod for many years has significantly less vessels. The result is inadequate blood flow and volume.
Additionally the proprioceptors in the back of the foot are inactive as they no longer have contact with the ground. Proprioceptors are nerves that tell the horse where her limbs are in space. Riders plagued with hoof insults like tripping, knocking, forging, hitting fences and taking bad steps should consider the challenge their horse has of working with inadequate blood flow and nerve response.
Everyone is familiar with the sad tale of Barbaro. He was an athlete. He competed in metal shoes with unnaturally long toes and high heels. Within the hoof capsule, his coffin bone, rather than being parallel to the ground, was tilted into the sole. With minimal blood flow in his hooves he trained hard and fast. This herd animal was housed in solitary confinement, feed unnaturally high protein hay and bolus, sugary grain. When racing in the Triple Crown, he was equivalent to a human 7 year old. His training began when he was a toddler. Welcome to horse racing. Would we ever treat human athletes like this?
As for other myths, shoes do not protect your horse’s feet from rocks. Think of all the small rocks a horse will canter over that fit neatly into just a part of his foot. The shod foot simply doesn’t feel the rock. A hardened natural foot, conditioned to run on rocks will go perfectly. If not conditioned, simply boot your horse and off you go. (See Tribe Equus with photos of barefeet doing every imaginable equine job from endurance riding to roping.) As I write, the leading endurance stallion in the United States is barefoot.
Natural trimmers know how to help owners transition their horse with soft, undeveloped hooves to high performance ones. Whether your horse will work on his feet or in padded boots depends largely upon how much movement you the owner can build into her life.
When your horse goes barefoot, with a natural trim, he will regain his natural gaits. I have personally seen high front action and eggbeater action in the hind disappear. Joint issues settle down over time. Your horse, once acclimated, will be more surefooted, because he can actually feel his feet. In time his proprioceptors nerves will begin working again.
How the transition works:
Initially the hoof wall that meets the ground may crack and break off because it is weak and ineffective. Clap your hands. This is a good thing! Your horse will actually sculpt the foot (“carve his own signature”) he wants and needs. You will see strong, tight, new growth descending from the coronary band to replace it. If your horse is trimmed every 4 weeks, any deviation from his perfect foot, like flares, under-run heels and stretched white lines can be corrected before these faults take your horse’s feet in the wrong direction. In cases of pathology (founder), a trim every two weeks for a short period of time is indicated.
Initially your horse’s feet may be sensitive. It is not only the external structures — hoof wall, sole, frog, heels, and bars — that must adapt. All the internal structures —the digital cushion which runs the length of the frog and the lateral cartilages which extend on either side of the coffin bone — must develop. The digital cushion above the frog is mostly fatty tissue in a shod horse. In the barefoot hoof it remodels into fibrous cartilage that can do its job cushioning the foot. The lateral cartridges strengthen and enlarge with use. Embedded in these structures the few blood vessels with expand into a network to act as a shock absorber. Finally the legs will get a rest from a job they are not designed for.
If your horse’s toes have been snubbed off by a farrier, the super corium may have retreated under the horse; he may look like he is walking on coffee cans. (I had one of those.) If his toes are long and the heels have grown long and under-run, so typical of racehorses, it will take a growth cycle (6-8 months) or two to get the hoof in natural shape and balance. The horse will grow hoof to replace what nature wears down or his trimmer has eliminated.
Movement = Wear = New Healthy Hoof Growth
In the meantime your horse will again feel his feet, his stride will normalize, his muscles will adapt to improved gaits, ideal blood flow will enhance his ability to recuperate from injuries and in most cases he will be completely rideable. I recall Jaime Jackson’s excellent advice during my first training class, “Time is almost always on our side.” In the meantime, in padded boots most horses can go all day.
the barefoot or natural horse should live with a herd, move at will in a pasture with fresh water and varied terrain. Movement may be augmented by hand walking and of course riding on whatever ground the horse can tolerate without pain or going anywhere in padded boots. For a one-time expenditure of about $136 (I use boots from Easy Care) you will never have a bruise, no walking on eggshells, just a happy, forward horse. I encourage all clients to ride with boots during the transition and depending on your situation you may want to use them in the front every time you ride. They are easy to use. I boot all four and plan to ride Sunny in them until the research tells me he would be better out of boots and off the half inch pads.
Movement Equals Healing
This is one of our mantras. In nature a horse will walk and graze for most of the day, covering 5-20 miles. Rest is a series of short naps. His natural position that supports ideal body conditioning is walking slowly and grazing, head low or down. This peaceful existence is punctuated with sensory stimulation (including olfactory and auditory) like the howl of a wolf, the nearby movement of a cougar or the screams of a distant herd leader. If you own a farm or can influence the owner where you horse lives, I urge you to contact Jaime Jackson and order a copy of Paddock Paradise (2006). His insights will help you design a horse-friendly habitat.
Horses experience and tolerate all seasons without need for blankets or fly protection. Blankets interfere with your horse’s hemodynamic system; exceptions are made for the sick or very aged equine. As for insects, while in the pasture horses will fend off flies with natural movements like kicking, long stretches for a scratch and head to tail placement within the herd. All this results in wonderful self-adjustments! Fly masks have pluses and minuses. At my place, dragging your friend around the field by his mask is a favorite past time so I don’t use them. While riding, I use all the protection I can find. I have even donned the Bug Armor outfit for my fly-phobic, chestnut thoroughbred.
Sadly, our “domestic” (versus natural) horse is stalled for most of his day, eating hay from a container mounted on the wall, drinking water from a chest high bucket, eating bolus sweet feed from a chest high bucket and separated from the social interaction of the herd. People pay enormous amounts of money to maintain horses in what they believe are the ideal situations. In fact, for an animal of prey, like a horse, the example detailed above is the worst environment we could create. Go visit any fancy barn and you will see stall after stall occupied by a neurotic horse displaying “vices” like wall kicking, cribbing, running their teeth up and down the bars and weaving. It’s an insane asylum.
Transitioning horses from shoes to barefeet is completely individual. Some horses are ridden right out and never look back while others may benefit from the use of protective boots (Boas, Easy Care Boots, Epics, Grips and Bares from Easy Care are currently the off-the-shelf boot recommended by the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners, AANHCP). Comfortable and sound movement with heel first landing is our goal.
What about the rider’s weight on the horse?
In the wild, mares easily gain 20% of their weight during pregnancy. Other horse put on 20% of their weight during the spring and summer and often loose that much in the winter. The difference with adding a rider is that the weight change is sudden. I recommend booting all horses in my area for work. But again, this decision is greatly effected by what is demanded of the horse and the conditioning of his feet. Normally a horse can work beautifully on the ground he is used to. But if a horse is kept in a soft or wet pasture and then expected to work on hard or rocky ground, he will benefit from front boots or the introduction of pea gravel into the environment.
Finally DIET is a critical element of your horse’s health. I would prefer to put this paragraph first, but then it wouldn’t be Barebones on Barefeet! Equines are designed to graze on dry grasses for 18 hours a day. They can not digest fructan and simple sugars. Simple sugars cause carbohydrate stress. Just look around at all the horses and ponies muzzled in the spring. Horsemen know that fast-growing grass in sunny conditions is too high in sugar and can cause laminitis or founder. 99% of the time, founder is a matter of diet.
Other tyrants: molasses found in almost every horse feed, carrots, apples, grains, alfalfa and bolus feeding. Sugar-rich, protein-high (alfalfa) commercial feeds were designed for racehorses and I doubt it’s that great for them. Our pleasure horses don’t need commercial feeds. I will let you do the research for your high performance pal. Unsweetened beet pulp is a good feed alternative. Soak it in hot water for 10 minutes. And of course give your horse all the free-choice, low sugar grass or timothy hay that he can eat. Salt and mineral blocks (although designed for tough cow tongues) should also be available but take time to check out unsweetened free choice minerals and Redman’s salt. A pasture should have a great variety of plants and weeds. It’s not a pristine yard! Seek medical advice for the severely carbohydrate resistant horse, occasionally found in drafts and ponies. Safergrass.org is the best educational site I know on the topic of equine pasture.
ÜTo reiterate simple sugars are the most common cause of hoof wall deformity like flares, laminitis and founder. Excess sugar leads to the release of an enzyme that breaks down the connection between wall and horse. Current theory by Pollitt and others says diet is always the trigger in laminitis; poor trim and shoes will aggravate the situation. Visit Katherine Watts’ site for a full education on grass and hay.
This introduction was meant as a brief glimpse into the benefits of going barefoot with your horse andtransitioning him to a natural and healthy lifestyle. The two go hand in hand. It is not a comprehensive review of all related issues. I hope you will consider this alternative based on the wild horse or natural model for the good of your horse. The AANHCP has a locator board of trimmers. The American Hoof Association also has a list of trimmer examined and certified by the board.