The Barefoot Horse - Balancing the Why, When and How
By: Patty Stiller, CNBBT, CNBF, CLS, CE ~ Copyright © 2010
Many horse owners today are considering permanently taking shoes off their horses. These decisions stem from many factors. Some of these decisions are financial, while many are based on information presented widely on the internet and in equine publications. Unfortunately some of this information is not based on good science, although it is presented as such.
As a full time hoof care provider for three decades, my experience has shown me that for many domestic horses barefoot is an appropriate and successful hoof care option as long as all the parts of the ‘formula for success’ are present. I weigh all of the many factors to help horse owners make the appropriate decision for that individual.
First and foremost, we need to consider that we are not keeping most of our domestic horses in Nature’s environment. An environment that promotes optimal development and maintenance of the hoof from birth is one reason why feral horses have such great quality hooves. We have also bred the optimal hoof quality out of many domestic horses, in our pursuit of other traits. Feral horses are naturally selected for good hooves.
Common Reasons for Shoeing
So let’s consider the reasons most domestic horses have been shod. First, we shoe for extra protection from excess wear, or harsh terrain. Second, we shoe for alteration of traction. A couple of examples are adding more traction for a barrel racing horse, or creating less traction on the hind feet for reining horses . The next reason is shoeing to alter or enhance gaits for certain disciplines. And lastly, therapeutic shoeing is often used to most effectively treat hoof injuries or pathologies.
The largest group of horses from the above list that can be successful without shoes are those who have been shod simply for protection. It has been believed for years that we had to shoe a horse just because it was being ridden. That is simply not true. Many horses have an inherently good enough hoof that when the hoof has a chance to toughen up properly it can go without shoes. However we must consider the horse working in very harsh terrain, such as sharp granite rock that can puncture or crack even the best hoof. Horses being asked to work in that kind of terrain usually need shoes no matter how tough their hooves are.
Next consider the issue of traction. In many performance disciplines the horses’ purpose is to make the owner a paycheck or win the blue ribbon. If the horse does not have the right kind of traction added to his feet, they may not be able to do that job safely or as good as the next horse. So some horses must have that altered traction to do that particular job well. On the other hand, many show horses like dressage and western pleasure horses have no traction issues. Shoeing these horses is just tradition and usually unnecessary. As long as the horse has sound hooves, works only in groomed arenas, and does not require speed, hard turns or sliding stops, he usually does not need shoes.
When it comes to altering or enhancing the gait of certain show disciplines, certain shoeing practices are unfortunately still used today and are very detrimental to the horses hoof health (in my opinion). However if a horse can be assisted to move at his best natural gaits given his conformation, I will shoe him for that. I only shoe them in a manner that does not inhibit the function of the hooves and can improve poor hoof form and health in the process. I use the principles of Natural Balance in all my shoeing to achieve this.
Let’s also consider shoeing when we have to treat hoof injury and pathology. Many hoof problems do indeed stem from improper shoeing. However the biggest myth in the hoofcare industry today is the notion that all hoof problems are a result of ALL shoeing. In reality, the right kind of properly applied shoeing can not only treat many hoof conditions faster than barefoot, but can “jump start” a poor quality hoof to better form and function so it can get ready for being barefoot later. By using the right kind of therapeutic shoeing, a poor quality hoof can be assisted to get stronger much faster than trying to treat it barefoot. And if the horse was working before, he can remain in work during the treatment. Eventually he can enter into a bare foot state with a better hoof and thus go without a long painful “transition” period.
Also when considering hoof injuries we need to think about severe injuries such as fractured bones inside the hoof, severe traumatic hoof cracks, and severe founder. In my experience those must be shod in some therapeutic package to best treat them initially. Trying to do otherwise is like trying to stabilize your broken leg without a splint and may not be in the horse’s best interest. However the ideal end goal is to get them back to barefoot, which may or may not be possible depending on the injury.
Good Barefoot Candidates
So as you evaluate your horse’s individual situation, does it appear that your horse seems to fit the criteria for going without shoes? Are there still other factors to consider? You bet!
There are horses for which going barefoot is a ‘no brainer’. Then there are those who are a “maybe”. And there are some who simply can not.
What horses can for sure go without shoes? The most obvious are brood mares, foals, and other totally idle horses as long as there is no hoof pathology to treat. Also included are those who can do their expected job safely, effectively, pain free and willingly barefoot or in hoof boots. When considering hoof boots remember that boots can not be left on all day every day. Therefore, horses that are barefoot must be able to be in their living environments 24 hours a day 7 days a week, pain free without boots.
The environment is the next factor we must consider. In order for a horse to toughen up his bare hooves he needs to be living in an environment that is similar to that which he is expected to be worked in. The hoof will adapt to the environment where it spends most of its time, like the stabling environment. A wet or soft environment creates a weak, soft hoof. A dry, hard environment creates a harder, tougher hoof. Therefore if your horse is stabled in a nice cushy stall with deep bedding, do not expect him to be able to go anywhere except a soft arena without at least wearing hoof boots. All day turn out on a large dry area like an arid, non-rocky field will condition the feet best.
We also have to consider the horse’s inherent ability to develop a strong foot. Despite what some barefoot proponents suggest, it has been my experience that a large component of good hoof quality is genetic. Therefore some horses simply can not get strong enough hooves to withstand any use barefoot, even if given the best hoof conditioning environment. Some research has suggested that some breed types seem to fail to develop critical supportive cartilage in their hooves.*(1) Even though it has also been suggested by the same researcher that the missing or weak cartilage may be adaptable later in life, no studies have been done yet to prove that theory. Therefore if you have a mature thoroughbred with thin soles and weak cartilage inside his feet, he may not be able to go barefoot soundly. Even though some individuals of that type do have good hooves, many do not and are examples of horses bred for traits other than good feet. Unfortunately a man made problem sometimes needs man made help in the form of shoeing.
When it comes to hoof injuries and disease, some are treated successfully barefoot, some are not. The individual situation must be considered. Many barefoot practitioners are having good success treating heel pain, so called ”navicular syndrome”, hoof capsule deformities, and so on without shoes. Their success comes from simply removing improper shoeing and replacing it with proper balancing and trimming of the foot. However, more complicated hoof problems are best treated with a properly applied therapeutic shoeing package. These problems include but are not limited to: severe laminitis and founder, broken bones, torn tendons and ligaments, moderate to severe coffin or navicular bone changes, large hoof cracks, negative coffin bone angles (NPA), and hoof wall infections that require large sections to be removed. While many of these problems heal well enough to later allow the horse to go barefoot, a few will need supportive shoeing forever. As well, tendon or ligament injuries that have required the foot to be wedged up artificially may still need some sort of continued wedge or else more severe damage can be caused.
A Formula for Successful Barefoot Transitioning
So after all this consideration you decide your horse is a great candidate for taking off his shoes. The formula for transitioning him successfully is like a recipe. If you leave out one part of the recipe, the cake fails. So here is the recipe for success I have developed in removing shoes from my qualified candidates over the years.
1) Genetic Component - Be sure the horse has the good quality foot that is a suitable barefoot candidate. If you are unsure, perhaps get some radiographs with markers on them to help verify sole and wall thickness, bone condition, etc. A horse with a history of a very thin hoof wall and sole may not be the best candidate, so be very careful and considerate of your choice.
2) Stabling Environment - The horse owner must be committed to keeping that horse in a large, dry place as much of the day as possible. Also, light riding, leading or driving on hard dry ground helps condition the hooves. A quiet asphalt road makes for great conditioning when the horse can be taken out on it for at least a quarter to half mile a day. Do not soak hooves or use softening oils on them. If you want a good hoof, it needs to be a hard hoof.
3) Diet - For example a horse on just grass hay and nothing else may not be receiving enough protein and micro nutrients to grow a good hoof. Every area is different, so research what is available to create a balanced diet for horses in your area. Be sure your horse is receiving enough of the nutrients he needs. Be sure he is getting enough protein and basic minerals that are balanced to compliment your hay along with a balanced ratio of nutrients for hoof growth such as biotin, methionine, copper, zinc, manganese, and sulphur.*(2)
4) Removing Shoes – It is important to take remove shoes in a way that will increase the chances of a successful transition without causing the horse unnecessary pain. Many people have asked a farrier or hoof trimmer to do this and immediately had a very sore horse and therefore gave up. In many cases what happened was that the horse got really sore because the shoes were removed and the hoof was trimmed of all its protective layers of dead growth in the same day. The sole that had been protected by shoes for a long time has not been conditioned to accept the ground comfortably barefoot. Natural Balance developer Gene Ovnicek has said that it is like taking off both your shoes and your socks then trying to go out on your gravel driveway to get the mail. You can’t do that very well. However, by taking off your shoes and leaving on your socks now you can get down the drive without as much discomfort. Therefore, leaving all of the overgrown dead sole and some of the hoof wall on the newly un-shod hoof is like leaving on its socks. It leaves the foot with some protection. The dead stuff will naturally wear and chip off in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, the sole will be toughening to accept the increased load.
Also do not try to remove your working horse’s shoes in the hardest, driest part of the year. Wait until a time he has a chance for a reduced work load, and also the ground may be softer or under snow.
The way I take shoes off horses is to just pull the shoes and roughly map the break over point according to Natural Balance guidelines without cleaning or exfoliating any sole. I bevel the toe to re-create the break over point that was built into the shoes and slightly round the edges of the hoof wall. I then come back in a few weeks and clean up the foot a little more. If there is excess heel on the hoof to deal with, I usually wait until that second visit to minimize it unless it is so bad and going to negatively affect foot function, then it needs some cleaning up. I have found that by approaching it this way the horses that have the right environment and a basically good foot to begin with transition really well with no more than a couple days of very slight discomfort.
It is also very important to wait until the horse has at least six weeks of growth in the shoes before removing the shoes. If the horse was just recently shod, he may have been trimmed short in preparation for the shoes and will likely be in great discomfort without the shoes until he grows more hoof.
5) Hoof Boots - You may consider purchasing a good set of hoof boots to use when working the horse outside his living environment, at least for a while. Most horses do fine with boots on just the front feet. There are many brands of good quality hoof boots on the market now. You can get many boots on one website at www.easycareinc.com. Other brands that not be listed in that site include Delta hoof boots, (www.deltahoofboot.com) Cavallo boots, and Sabre sneakers. Most of the various manufacturers have sizing charts and application instructions available online.
6) Conditioning – Working to improve the durability of your horse’s bare hooves can be enhanced and sped up by several means. One is walking or light riding on dry hard ground, and asphalt. In my experience horses ridden just a quarter to half mile a day on asphalt had the nicest, toughest hooves. It does not stress your horse’s legs to walk on hard surfaces. Dry pastures, hard packed clay, sandy loam trails, and deep smooth ‘pea gravel’ type surface in the paddocks all help. Another thing you can do is paint your horse’s soles with a chemical hoof toughener. “Durasole”, Ricken’s race track “sole freeze”, or plain 7% iodine are examples. All are caustic so follow the instructions and be careful with them.
When to Make Changes
If you have been trying to get your horse’s hooves conditioned to barefoot and he is just not doing well, when should you give up and go back to shoeing him? Pain is the deciding factor. Long term or severe hoof pain can cause permanent damage to your horse’s hooves. Pain causes a chemical constriction of the blood flow to the tissues in the foot. The horse can end up with deterioration of the edges of the coffin bone, or true laminitis/founder. MILD discomfort without boots on hard surfaces may be expected in the first few days, or maybe a week. However, if there is significant discomfort at all, or mild discomfort that lasts more than a week or two, you should reconsider if this horse is a better candidate for shoes, or maybe try a different approach to the transitioning process. Many horses can be shod just on the front hooves and be fine without shoes on the hinds. You may also think about trying a different time of year. If you attempted to take the shoes off in an extremely dry time of year, perhaps you could re-shoe the horse until a softer, wetter time period is available.
Above all, use common sense. As long as you do not leave out any part of the formula, your horse may be a good candidate for going without shoes.
*(1) Bowker et al, The Anatomy of the Ungual cartilage of the Equine Foot, Bluegrass Laminitis Symposium 1998
*(2) American Farriers Journal Special Report, “Diet and the Hoof - Piecing together the Nutrition Puzzle” 2007.