The challenge of going barefoot with your horse – part 2

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:

  1. lifestyle
  2. diet
  3. working with your horse
  4. trim

When points 1-3 are covered, and you’re ready take your horse’s shoes off, what happens next? Well, this will depend on the health of the horse and his feet. How long has he been wearing shoes and how much has this affected the various layers of tissue? If a horse has been shod for a long time this will probably have impaired his circulation and caused his frogs to atrophy. If this is the case then he will probably require a longer transition period.



This photograph shows a contracted heel with a deep cleft that can harbour bacteria leading to infection. It also indicates that the tissue is not as healthy as it could be meaning that the hoof might not be growing very well. A healthy hoof grows at about 1cm per month meaning that it can take about 9 months for new tissue to grow down from the coronet band to the ground. If the tissues have been compromised, this growth rate can slow down to almost nothing, however when the shoes are removed and the diet and lifestyle improved they can recover and in time proper growth should be re-established.

In the meantime the hoof might need to get rid of toxins that have been collecting. This can – and probably will – result in abscesses. These can be very painful while the pressure is building within the hoof however this quickly passes when the abscess bursts. This is a natural process and if possible should be left to do its own thing. Digging it out could actually introduce foreign matter leading to further complications. The body knows what it is doing and its aim is always to return to good health in order to survive, therefore it is best to allow the process to run its course as naturally as possible. Once the abscess has burst, keep the foot clean (using a simple salt or apple cider vinegar soak) and poultice to remove the infected material. The wound should then recover by itself.

If your horse has been suffering with laminitis he will probably be veryunhealthy-hoof-side footsore. Depending on the severity of the laminitis, and the length of time it has been present, there could be visible signs such as ‘rings’ on his hooves, lack of concavity of his soles and under-run heels / long toes, due to the distortion of the hoof capsule.

Taking the shoes off at this point will reveal the extent of the horse’s discomfort. Shoes can actually mask pain, in that they reduce the circulation to the foot, and therefore its sensitivity, however they will not help to heal the laminitis.

Your vet will probably prescribe pain killers at this point, and possibly even recommend re-shoeing your horse, however the final decision is yours. Using pain killers can mask symptoms and even contribute to the condition they are supposed to be helping, due to the effects they have on the horse’s metabolism. Of course you do not want your horse to suffer, nor do you wish him to go off his food, but this needs to be balanced against the detrimental effects of medications such as ‘bute’.

Jaime Jackson, in his book Founder Prevention and Cure the Natural Way recommends a 4-day cycle where you only medicate the horse, as necessary, for 3 days, then give him 1 day off to allow the medication to work out of his system and review how he is doing. Gradually reduce the medication until he no longer needs it. He also recommends allowing the horse to move around freely. At first your horse might need to be encouraged to move and might only be able to take a few short steps, but this should be done frequently throughout the day until he is more comfortable and able to move on his own. Box rest and confinement should be avoided where at all possible. If necessary put down mats or a softer surface for your horse to walk on initially until he is no longer in so much pain. Movement is an essential part of the healing process as it encourages good circulation which helps to remove toxins and bring much needed oxygen and nutrients to the tissues in order for them to heal.

Horses with painful feet often appear to get relief from standing in cold water. The cooling affect must be soothing to their inflamed tissues. Wild horses do this naturally as it is hydrating for their hooves and helps to keep them strong.

When your horse is comfortable walking on soft ground you can gradually introduce other surfaces. Initially he will probably show signs of ‘footiness’ on harder or rougher surfaces. Hoof boots can be a useful support here allowing time for the stronger hoof to grow down and his feet to toughen up. There are a wide range of boots available in a range of fittings. I recommend contacting Liz Hapgood of The Hoof Bootique. She stocks a wide variety of boots and is able to talk you through the measuring and selection process.

Something else that often worries horse owners is the shapes that a hoof-flaretransitioning hoof goes through as it gradually finds its way back to balance and health. Flares, cracks and flaking are common. This is another reason to use a qualified Barefoot Trimmer as they will be able to reassure you and advise you on any further ways to support your horse. They also have an in-depth understanding of hoof balance and so will be able to ensure that your horse is as comfortable as possible, no matter how strange his feet are looking!

As mentioned above, the hoof grows at about 1 cm per month so after a short while it is possible to see the new, healthy wall growing down. This can be at a very different angle from the old hoof and results in a ‘broken hoof-pastern axis’. It can look a little odd at first (see below) but it is a very encouraging sign that your horse’s hoofs are beginning to heal themselves. It is worth taking pictures at intervals so that you can track his progress and look back to see how far you have come. As the new hoof continues to grow down it can appear that the lower section might snap off, however this is unlikely to happen as the horse does not roll his foot forward over his ‘toe’ area as we do, but rather lifts his hoof straight off the ground.


In Part 3 I’ll be looking at what you can do if your vet insists on reshoeing your horse.


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