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Website last updated June 2013 by Catherine Bell

Working Barefoot Horses

Why do we put shoes on horses? When you consider the millions of pounds spent on developing shock-absorbent trainers for human athletes, why are horses still expected to perform using a shoe made of metal? Is it any wonder why so many young horses develop arthritis or why so many domestic horses do not live as long as they should? (e.g. according to the Report of the FEI Veterinary and Dressage Committees' Workshop, the average age of horses slaughtered in Germany is 8-10 years)

There are many conventional answers to these questions:

We have bred poor feet into domestic horses
- but feral horses have domestic ancestors and 6000 years of domestication is very short compared with 60 million years of evolution.
Domestic horses are ridden and have to cope with the weight of a rider
- does the rider really make so much difference? Pregnant mares carry a lot of extra weight too.
Domestic horses are ridden on roads
- have you seen the terrain that some wild horses live on? (http://www.hoofrehab.com/wild_horses.htm). Roadwork is actually vital to build up a strong working hoof. But it needs to be part of a conditioning programme.
My horse is sore without shoes
- that would suggest there is some pathology present. I'm afraid I believe that if a horse is not sound without shoes then he is not sound. That's not to say that I think all horses should have their shoes removed - it depends.
Everyone on my yard uses shoes
- sigh.... peer-pressure is often one of the biggest obstacles. But you need to try to put the horse first.
My farrier/vet says he needs shoes
- a tough call and in some cases this may well be the case. But going barefoot is not about taking the shoes off and seeing what happens. It is about performing a highly-tuned trim in conjunction with an appropriate conditioning process, environment and diet.
I'm not able to give my horse 24/7 turnout
- this is not actually necessary for a healthy barefoot horse. In some cases it may actually be detrimental if the horse is standing in mud or has access to lush grazing all the time.

What to do if you are interested in taking your horse barefoot - a step-by-step guide:

  • Read some of the literature, books and on-line sources.
  • Read some more of the literature. Look at the work of different trimmers. How do they all compare? Distinguish between "politics" and genuine differences between the trims!
  • Learn to recognise a healthy hoof - depending on the horses you have access to, you might not find many!
  • Learn to recognise pathologies - shows, markets etc are good for this!
  • Quote
  • Find some professional support - pro-barefoot farrier or speciaist barefoot trimmer who is committed to a non-invasive approach.
  • Ask questions. See some of his/her comfortable and working equine clients.
  • Be ready with some hoof-boots - there is a good chance your horse will need some in the early stages, especially for stoney surfaces.
  • Only then - remove shoes and begin conditioning process. You might want to remove hind shoes to start with - hind feet are typically much easier to take barefoot. You should also consider the time of year - if the ground is very hard or very muddy then it is perhaps not a good time to start going barefoot.
  • Listen to your horse - accept that he might want to walk on the softer/less stoney part of bridlepaths. That may involve being on the lookout for low-hanging branches! You might have to stop using some bridlepaths if stones are unavoidable, or use boots.
  • Don't progress to tarmac/concrete until he is happy on grass. Don't progress to stoney surfaces until he is happy on tarmac/concrete. The rate of progression will depend on you/your horse/your trimmer/the degree of pathology present.
  • He will need lots of roadwork to apply the necessary stimulus for promoting thick, healthy, strong walls and a tight white line. If the wear does not appear to cope with this then you may need to reconsider the trim your horse is receiving (perhaps a second opinion is in order) and/or reduce your workload temporarily.
  • Read yet more of the literature and go on as many courses by different practitioners as you can.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2006