In Part 1 I looked at the various elements that need to be in place in order to maximise your horse’s chances of success when transitioning from shod to barefoot, and in Part 2 I talked about some of the issues that might arise after the shoes come off.
So, if removing the shoes brings so many issues, why am I still pro-barefoot?
When barefoot, the hoof acts almost like another heart, helping to pump blood back up the leg. Horses don’t have any muscles in the lower part of their legs (movement here being effected by tendons and ligaments) however the action of the frog coming into contact with the ground and the hoof wall naturally flexing with the impact of each step, forces the blood round the extensive capillary system and back up the leg helping to remove waste products and to deliver the oxygen and vital nutrients that the tissues need in order to be healthy.
Shoes are made of solid metal and are applied to the foot when it is off the ground, ie non-weight bearing. This fixes the hoof in its most contracted form. Now, when the horse moves, the hoof is no longer able to flex, the frog has little to no contact with the ground and the weight distribution on the hoof wall is subtly altered. All of these factors affect the horse’s circulation and the pressure and stresses put upon the foot.
In addition there are increased percussive forces due to the hard metal shoe, which are passed up through the bones, tendons & ligaments to the rest of the body causing additional wear and tear on the joints and back. Try holding an old discarded shoe in your hand and hitting it against a wall. Feel that impact reverberating up your arm and into your back… And, unlike us, horses cannot take their shoes off if they feel tight, or even just at the end of a long day. An alternative, hoof boots, (mentioned above) can be fitted with gel ‘insoles’ and can easily be taken on an off as needed, providing comfort and protection when the surface is rough then removed to allow the hooves contact with the ground once more, helping to toughen them up and allowing them to work as nature intended.
A hoof that has been shod for a long time is generally markedly different from one that has never been shod. This photo (left) shows a hoof that has been barefoot for some time. It has a strong sole, wall and bars. Also the frog looks healthy and there’s a nice wide heel with a shallow sulcus.
In contrast this hoof, which has just had its shoe removed, has a contracted heel with a deep sulcus which could allow infections such as thrush to grow. The frog and sole look very different from those in the picture above and the wall appears to be crumbling. There are marks on the sole which could indicate infection or bruising.
I believe that shoes can cause a wide range of health issues, not just to the feet but to the whole of the body. Nature is always geared towards survival and horses have evolved over millions of years to have strong, healthy feet – without shoes. Take the wild mustangs as an example (the model that Jaime Jackson uses in his studies). They have never worn shoes and yet they easily travel over some very rough and abrasive terrain. Some people worry that horses need shoes in order to protect their feet from being worn down when ridden on the road, however this is not the case. Take for example the man who drove a barefoot caravan across the US (Barefoot Horse magazine Issue 7 2015). He actually had to trim his horses’ feet as the wear and tear of the road surface could not keep up with how much the hooves were growing! Also the Houston Mounted Police, who obviously work in urban areas, are now barefoot. As mentioned above the hoof wall naturally grows down about 1cm a month and if the foot is healthy, with a good diet and plenty of movement to encourage good circulation, exercise will actually encourage more growth to compensate for any wear from walking.
Advantages of being barefoot:
- Shoes numb the feet.
- o This means that your horse is less sensitive to pain. This might sound like a good thing, except that pain is there for a reason. It alerts us to a problem and can give an indication of how severe that problem is. Yes, removing a horse’s shoes can make it seem that he is suddenly very uncomfortable, but is this just that an existing problem can now be felt? Without shoes would you actually have earlier and more accurate access to this warning system?
- o It also means that your horse is less aware than he might be of where his feet are. This has implications for his balance and recovery from any slips or trips on difficult ground. It also means that if he stand on your toe he might not realise it!
- Metal shoes can be very slippery, either in wet conditions or even on some dry surfaces like concrete. Barefoot hooves have a better natural grip, combined with the awareness mentioned above and therefore can be much safer for horse and rider. (Shoes with studs might offer better grip but they also alter the balance of the horse’s hoof causing issues for the tendons and ligaments that support it.)
- If your horse develops some ‘footiness’ you will spot it earlier as mentioned above, and you can opt to use hoof boots for extra comfort. These can be used as needed, and can be in a wide variety of styles, depending on the terrain and type of work being done.
Taking your horse’s shoes off is not always easy but there is plenty of support available. If you are lucky enough to be on a natural livery with other ‘barefooters’ don’t be afraid to ask for their advice. Chances are they’ve already been through similar issues with their own horses. If however, you are on your own land, or at a livery which has not yet embraced the ‘natural’ lifestyle, I recommend joining one of the barefoot groups on Facebook (see suggestions below) where you can ask questions and read other people’s experiences. If you get discouraged, or it all seems too much, remember that this process takes time. You don’t need to do it all in one day, one week or even one month. There will be ups and downs and sometimes it can feel that you’re taking one step forward and two steps back as your horse’s soundness varies from day to day, but remember your goal – the all-round health and comfort of your beautiful animal. Of course it’s hard when you can’t explain to your horse that the short term discomfort is for his own good and will be worth it in the end, but generally, in a relatively short time, you will see improvements.
I often hear that horses move more freely when their shoes are removed and even that it’s almost as if they take a sigh of relief to be rid of the restrictive metal. This can seem to be short lived when your horse then realises that he can feel every bump and tiny stone under his feet but think what it would be like for you if, after a long cold winter wearing boots and shoes you decide, at the first glimpse of spring, to go walking barefoot in the grass… How wonderful it feels to have that cool green softness under your feet! How amazing to feel this contact with the earth – until your sensitive skin hits a stone or thorn and -‘Ouch!’ But if you were to persevere, taking care where you place your feet and resorting to light footwear again, temporarily, for the rougher ground, you would find that your feet, too, would soon toughen up and you would be able to enjoy the benefits of walking more naturally.
As with all aspects of providing a more natural lifestyle for your horse (for further information see the whole blog series – links below) going barefoot helps to create a less stressful environment for your horse. This allows his para-sympathetic nervous system to operate more effectively, meaning that his body is able to rest and repair when necessary, enabling him to stay healthy. It will also mean that he is more content and relaxed and therefore happy, curious and open to exploring and learning new things. The transition to barefoot can be a challenge, but I believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term issues. Your vet, being a medical professional who is trained to relieve suffering, might be focused on any discomfort that your horse is currently feeling but I hope that, armed with the information above, you will be able to show them the long term goal of a happier, healthier horse.
Remember that the horse is legally yours and therefore any decisions about its welfare are ultimately yours to make. A vet can only diagnose and advise. It is then up to you to decide what action you wish to take. If you disagree with their view – and it is only their opinion – you can always ask for another vet to take a look at your horse. If you are unhappy with your vet in any way, perhaps it is time to look for someone who you feel is more in line with what you believe to be best for your horse.
If you have any further questions about Track Systems, diet or the health of your horse, please feel free to contact me:
phone: 07980 669303
I also offer workshops exploring ways to keep your horse as happy and healthy as possible, and to deepen the connection between you. For more information click here. The next workshop is on Saturday 24 September. Places are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment.
Useful books and other publications:
Some Facebook groups to explore:
Barefoot Horse Info
Barefoot Horse Owners Group UK
The Barefoot Horse Magazine
The Barefoot Approach to Whole Horse Health
Horse Track System