In my work I often come across people who have made the choice to take the shoes off their horse, only to run into challenges.
Going barefoot is often not for the faint-hearted, but I do believe that it is the best choice for your horse. There are the odd exceptions to this (some horses’ feet have had such a poor start in life or have suffered from years of shoeing and inappropriate diet and lifestyle) but generally, if all the right conditions are in place, the majority of horses can make the transition. Of course this can take time, and the hooves might go through all sorts of weird shapes and variations in comfort levels, however with perseverance they will develop those ‘rock-crunching’ feet you dream of.
So what are those ‘right conditions’ I mentioned? As you can see from the diagram below, removing your horse’s shoes and getting his feet trimmed is only a small part of a holistic way of caring for your horse. Having said that, I would strongly advise using a qualified Barefoot Trimmer to do this job, as they will have been trained on how to achieve the proper balance in a horse’s hoof and how best to work with them through the transition from shod to barefoot. If you don’t know of a trimmer near you, contact Hoofing Marvellous. They have a list of trimmers covering a wide area and can probably point you in the direction of a good local trimmer.
You will see that the basis of this holistic way of keeping your horse is all about providing them with as natural a lifestyle as possible. For those who are not lucky enough to have their own land this will probably be some form of livery. There is a growing number of places that now offer a ‘Paddock Paradise’ or ‘Track System’ livery which seeks to recreate as natural a lifestyle for our horses as possible. (I highly recommend reading Jaime Jackson’s book Paddock Paradise, if you haven’t already, as it will help to explain this system of boarding and how it benefits the horses.)
Track Systems are just that: a track that allows for the continual movement that can be seen in wild horses as they walk around their territory in search of food. This promotes good circulation and digestion helping to keep the horse healthy and fit. Horses kept this way are normally on 24 hour turnout, with field shelters, trees and hedges providing places to seek refuge from sun, rain and wind. The idea is also to keep horses together in ‘herds’ so that they are able to socialise with each other.
The next layer of the pyramid is diet. Horses are designed to eat little and often. They have small stomachs and no gall bladder. They have evolved to extract nutrition from tough vegetation using bacterial fermentation. These symbiotic bacteria work best when the horse eats the right kind of food, ie plants and grasses that are high in fibre and low in sugars. They are very sensitive to changes in this balance which can lead to health issues in the horse.
The grass in many of our fields is high in sugar as it was designed to fatten cows or to achieve a high milk yield. It is actually unhealthy for our horses, especially our native breeds who have evolved to live on wild moorland. Added to this, many of the bagged feeds available for horses contain high levels of sugar, and chemicals such as mould inhibitors and pesticides. For this reason it is best to feed your horse as naturally as possible. Try to source hay made from old meadow grasses that have been grown on land that has not been fertilised or sprayed. It is worth having your hay analysed to see its energy and mineral content to ensure that you know what is lacking in order to provide a fully balanced diet for your horse.
You can also offer a wide range of other plants for horses to forage from. This will satisfy their natural instinct to browse for additional nutrients and can be a healthier way to offer these vitamins and minerals than some of the commercial supplements. (One of my other blog posts gives ideas on herbs and other plants to offer.) If it is necessary to use a supplement, try to find one that is as natural as possible and free from added sugar and chemicals. (If you are in any doubt about your horse’s diet, and whether or not it is fully meeting his nutritional needs, consult a qualified equine nutritionist.)
The third layer of the pyramid refers to training. This is not something that I will go into here other than to say that I recommend finding ways to work with your horse. Find what he enjoys and try to always keep the sessions light and fun. Doing this will mean that he looks forward to your time together and it will keep him curious and open to learning. Any signs of stress or fear mean that he is going into the ‘fight or flight’ response and is no longer open. He is now looking for ways to diffuse or escape a situation that has become uncomfortable to him. If this happens stop the activity that was causing stress and take a break or end the session. If you can, try to end on a positive and encouraging note. Both you and your horse will feel better and be more optimistic about future sessions.
In Part 2 I’ll be looking at what happens after your horse’s shoes come off.