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Is it Time for Horses to Start Going "Au Naturel"?

Beautiful Trakehner horse running through the summer meadow

Horses are one of the most beloved of all animals and what little girl growing up does not dream of having her own pony?

My husband and my children all learnt to ride when they were young, while my own connection with horses was to attend regular race meetings with my father in different parts of Kenya when I was growing up.

Now we are living in an English village, it is lovely to be surrounded by different ponies and horses, and even a shire horse is regularly led past our home. I had always imagined that horses and horseshoes went together without question and that it had been the same since man first started to use horses in their daily lives but now I am coming across another way of thinking – horses going barefoot.

Are the old traditions of caring for horses the best way?

Interestingly, the author of one post I read says:

Don't assume just because people have been doing something “for a long time” that it's necessarily the best thing to do. Take horse feeding for example, many folks grain their horses routinely and give them free access to green grass because they believe it is good for their horse. Is it really? How about blanketing horses when it's cold or keeping them inside a barn. Is it really the best thing to do for the horse? Lots of traditions in the horse world are being questioned, and for good reason. How about horse training, look at how the “natural” training methods have revolutionized common misconceptions in the horse industry over the past 20 years, or so. Almost no one “breaks” horses any more. So, why should a horse's feet be any different? It's alright to question traditional horse hoof care versus natural or barefoot hoof care. We should always be open to a "better way" of doing things and be willing to learn.”

So what are the advantages of barefoot hoof care?

Peter Ramey in his article says: “It's not about the foot alone; it's about improved overall health. Recent blood-flow studies show that the horse's foot gets at least twice as much circulation when he's barefoot on yielding terrain, as compared to when he's wearing a metal shoe. The back part of the foot is designed by nature to flex, twist and distort with uneven terrain and turns, helping to reduce stress and prevent injury to joints, ligaments and tendons. Metal shoes prevent most of that twisting and flexion the hoof was designed for.”

What about carrying riders and the need for shoes for support?

Peter Ramey responds: “The added weight of the rider does have an impact - it creates a need for more energy dissipation and shock absorption. And that's the whole point of moving away from steel as a means of protection. We can provide protection through a firm-but-yielding impact by working a horse on bare feet or in padded boots. At the same time, this provides maximum support, because the whole foot is working as a unit rather than having the weight of the horse hanging from the laminae and the hoof walls.”

He adds that excess wear is rare when bare hooves are properly and routinely trimmed and that sometimes quite the opposite happens in that properly trimmed bare hooves typically grow so fast they need to be trimmed every four to six weeks. He says that sometimes, what people mistake for excess wear is actually excess growth, which then leads to chipping and breaking of the hoof walls if the hooves aren't trimmed often enough.

What are the disadvantages of shoeing horses?

According to this source, these are some of the disadvantages...

1. Iron shoes prohibit the natural bio mechanics of the horses foot. Once the shoe is nailed in place the sole, frog and hoof wall can no longer work together properly to naturally support the horse. The sole and frog are elevated off the ground and only contact the ground if the earth is soft. The hoof wall becomes the principle (or only) hoof structure supporting the horse's weight. This greatly increases the risk of severe lameness issues such as; laminitis, founder, abscesses and more.

Barefoot hoof, lateral view. Coronet band (1),...

2. The hoof's ability to pump (pull and push) blood into the horse's foot is severely limited because the frog, sole and hoof do not interact by expanding and contracting with the horse's weight naturally. Lack of blood flow limits the hoof's ability to regulate temperature and heal itself.

3. Too much sole is often removed in horse shoeing to “relieve” the otherwise constant pressure of the shoe against the sole. Removing the sole weakens the hoof.

4. The horse gets less traction on many naturally hard surfaces with iron shoes which translates to more fatigue and less sure footedness on varied terrain.

5. When shoes are nailed on, there is a risk of quicking (driving a nail into or too close to sensitive or live hoof material) and this sometimes causes lameness or can lead to infection.

What are the advantages of hoof boots for bare foot horses?

Apparently, these are invaluable to use if a horse is lame or in danger of becoming lame (such as riding your horse in rough rocky terrain without first building a strong hoof). Hoof boots like iron shoes keep the horse's hoof from becoming stronger by “protecting” it from hard ground and if not used properly can inhibit the horse hoof from reaching its potential.

Although hoof boots can play an important role in hoof rehabilitation, once the hoof becomes healthy and strong the boots need to come off so that the horse can build even stronger hooves. It is important that a horse's hooves need to be exposed to hard ground a little at a time until the horse can build a strong healthy foot. It's the only way barefoot hoof care can ultimately build “fear no rock” type hooves.

Without hoof exposure to hard rocky ground the hoof will never reach its potential and become truly strong and healthy.

Personal experience from my own cousin

Susan lives in Colorado (with just such rocky terrain) and has her own horse.

I asked her what she thought about horses going barefoot.

Her reply was: “It depends on the horse. I tried to have mine go without shoes but, with the rocky terrain here, it hurt him. He has joint problems and when having him shod, the farrier places his front shoes specifically to help his balance and make him put the pressure in different areas. I think if a horse is always ridden on very soft ground he could go without the shoes but if he is always ridden on tarmac, it is too hard on him. Also, if the hooves of a horse are white, they are much softer. My horse has white hooves so that is another factor.”

One bare foot experiment

In Houston, Texas, there are forty horses from all breeds and backgrounds who work eight to ten hours every day on the asphalt, concrete and marble of downtown Houston. All barefoot! They are all thriving, healthier than ever, with vet bills cut in half. In addition, most of the Houston Mounted Patrol horses work the streets bitless (but that is another story!). The success of this program has now caused other mounted patrols around the country to go barefoot. You can read more of this story here.

In conclusion

Katherine Blockskorf when writing about the pros and cons says:

"While there are those who will argue vehemently for either side, many horse owners agree that any decisions about hoof care should be made based on the needs and uses of an individual horse. Most farriers would agree that most horses used for light riding do not need shoes, and many are shod unnecessarily. There are those who have had great success with barefoot trims. The same could be said about those who keep their horses shod. It's important to remember that there are good and bad farriers, and good and bad natural trimmers and that health of a horse's hooves may not be determined entirely by one or another method, but by the quality of the care it is receiving."

I love the clip clop noise of a horse's hooves coming down the road but does a barefoot horse still make that sound?

If you love and admire horses yourself, how do you feel about horses and horse shoes?