Interview with Vet and Barefoot Advocate, Dr. Tomas Teskey
Dr. Tomas Teskey practices large animal medicine and surgery in Arizona, with the majority of his work focused on horses. He has taken a special interest in equine podiatry over the last few years, becoming a passionate proponent of the barefoot horse.
“The Unfettered Foot, A Paradigm Change for Equine Podiatry”, his article published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science (February, 2005), sparked serious questions within the veterinary community about natural hoof care and its benefits over conventional hoof care, and was followed by other numerous published articles. Dr. Teskey introduced this exciting information to the veterinary students at his alma mater in Colorado in February of 2006, and has lectured worldwide on the equine hoof, including Queensland, Australia in March of 2006.
Can you tell us a little bit about the events or circumstances which led to your own paradigm shift regarding horses’ hooves?
I met a gelding nearly 14 years ago that recovered from founder in his front hooves with the help of natural hoof care specialist, Martha Olivo, and his open-minded owner. He was dead on his feet as far as I could tell—his coffin bones were protruding through his soles—my veterinary medical training did not provide a framework for anything except a grave prognosis. Even if he were to recover, it would only be a “salvage” operation at best—I was ready to draw up the euthanasia solution and place him in the ground.
On the other side of that perception (the other side of the Universe, as far as I could tell) was Martha and this willing owner. Inside me was a glimmer of willingness, too. Some shred of space left inside me that was open for a miracle, a different possibility, a different outcome. I found myself trusting Martha and her confidence—she indicated she had worked with horses like this before that fully recovered. So I helped where I could: drugs for pain and local anesthesia to allow for his first trim, and a continued willingness to believe that something else might allow this horse to heal. There were frequent visits, free choice grass hay, other horses around, an owner that spent tremendous time and effort, and a horse that never lost that spark from his eyes. In seven months, he was recovered and cantering about his habitat–the same one where he became sick and nearly died. I could do nothing except be humbled and amazed in my ignorance, wondering how it was I didn’t know so many basic things about how a horse could heal themselves.
Soon after that, I was studying with Martha and Courtney Vincent, a trimmer in southern Arizona who was also having tremendous success with horses labeled as “incurable”, and I learned for the first time how the lower limb and hoof of the horse was built, how it functioned, how it sensed the environment and how it allowed horses to do what they do. I was amazed again. We dissected dozens of hooves, trimmed hundreds of horses, fitted boots and pads, nursed more horses in crisis, and provided support to more and more owners becoming aware of the possibilities. I continued to meet farriers, trimmers and horse owners that knew infinitely more than I did about horses and their feet. It had served me well to admit I didn’t know how to save that first horse, so I kept that same space open for business—that has made all the difference in my life with horses. When I trusted in others and this idea that horses knew how to heal themselves, I was able to learn. Watching the confidence these people had with helping horses stay healthy, and their willingness to share with me what they had learned is a gift that I am grateful for and cherish with a smile.
Since those early days of my real-life education, I have been continually provided with examples of horses healing from the ailments that have been labeled as “incurable” by the most respected and famous veterinarians and master farriers: Horses fully recovered and performing after foundering in all four feet, racing after fractures to their coffin bones, running tremendous endurance race miles on their own feet, jumping soundly barefoot after completely regrowing hooves that show no symptoms of navicular syndrome, and having fun on trails year round in the Rocky Mountains, all without any interference from a steel shoe.
And I realized that the profound lack of faith and disservice to horses had its foundation in something so simple: ignorance breeds misconduct. What my mentors have taught me is that the horses are the teachers, and they know how to heal if provided with some basic ingredients that complement their nature. The evidence was overwhelming, and it manifested through love and concern and trusting in the nature of the horse. I realized the prevailing fear-based paradigm had never worked for the horses—it antagonized and hindered them solely for our own agenda. And so I decided to sign up for a lifetime education with horses. I enjoy visiting with others who love horses and I desire to provide them what they need to be responsible stewards. The result is a relationship with horses that is fulfilling and enjoyable—one that enriches our lives and theirs.
What would you like all horse owners to know about their horses’ hooves?
I would like owners to know that their horses’ hooves are their direct connection with the earth, vital to their well-being in every way. Horses are of the earth and must be in contact with the earth to be healthy. Animals need the earth and the earth needs animals—this coevolution has been perfected over millions of years.
Metal shoes between a horse’s foot and the earth effectively cut off this connection and promote slow and certain disease—every time, without exception. Steel is an absolutely unsuitable material to protect hooves that are dynamic and alive. They don’t protect hooves in the slightest, they damage them. We now have materials that complement the hooves, allowing them to function as intended and honestly heal from damage caused by steel shoes.
Horses and their hooves are changing sculptures over time, and we can learn how to respectfully shape them using both habitat and tools. Horses love having beautiful, well-formed hooves, sound in structure and function. Learning how to care for horses involves caring for their feet, and provides a great way for us to be a responsible partner. I would urge anyone interested in horses to investigate how the hoof works, and to empower themselves with the knowledge that will keep horses happy for a lifetime. The hoof and the horse are easy to understand, and there are more and more opportunities all the time to attend workshops to learn how to care for them.
Can you tell us about your ‘barefoot management program’?
I have a “living laboratory” of sorts in central Arizona—high desert with varied terrain and live water in streams, divided up in to several pastures. This is part of the “old West” here in the southwest USA, home to indigenous people over the eons and my own ancestors for the last 140 years. Horses arriving start their experience in a track system that encourages several miles of movement to and from food and water every day. There are always multiple horses around to get to know and dance with, grass-based diet with complementary vitamin/mineral supplementation, and some fairly even but varied terrain to work over. Arizona’s climate is ideal for rehabilitating horses. I can observe sole callus developing within days of horses being on the track, positive changes in their attitude, and decreasing lameness. Most horses have shown up due to perceived hoof problems and associated lameness, but there are always other more basic problems that I’ve noted. Correcting the diet, increasing movement, providing for a herd dynamic and careful trimming and dental work all come in to focus for these horses over the first month they are here. Many move out of the track and on to pasture where they join my own horses and others that have come to thrive. They then feed themselves, trim their own feet, and nurture their own psyche within a herd, moving an average of 8-12 miles per day. It takes time, consistency and dedication from experience to move horses towards health, and I have yet to see a horse that didn’t improve on some level after being offered these basic ingredients.
I work with certain horses more or less depending on their situations, and offer ground work and riding work as well. I can generally predict the level of performance a horse will attain after three to four months of healing, giving the owner a good idea of what we might expect, given the extent of their horse’s injuries and disease. It is this work that has been the bulk of my “education” with horses. Everything that I really know down deep has come from watching them in these kinds of situations where they come to their healing after being provided some space.
Are you seeing any kind of a shift among veterinarians and other horse health professionals as far as ideas on a healthy hoof go?
I am mostly seeing the veterinary community trying to “keep up” with this information, playing second fiddle to a finer-tuned clientele that knows more about horses and their feet in this holistic way. Veterinarians don’t enjoy being caught unaware for the most part, so it’s most common for them to dismiss the information rather than admit ignorance and take a closer look. I saw this several years ago and decided that increasing the demand among horse owners would be the best way to send the ‘wake-up-call’ to the veterinary community. Mind you, when the information does enter more of the mainstream, it will be the mainstream’s idea, not likely an admission of any mistakes having been made or any ignorance that existed. I think they will prove it to themselves using their own scientific protocols and studies, using high speed photography and treadmills.
Were they to employ a conscientious trimmer in that pursuit, and even pay attention to nutrition (hey, I can dream big here), they would see irrefutable evidence that points to what horses need to heal and thrive. The horses don’t care HOW this information becomes commonplace, just that it DOES become common. In fact I don’t care how it comes about either—I have no attachment to how it needs to look. I don’t need any sort of recognition to do what is kind for the animals that enrich our lives. Experience with holistic horse care comes with study and dedication and respect for the horse, not from making more money, so it will necessarily take more time to show up in our consumer and gratification-driven societies.
This is an unjust and difficult time for horses on this planet, and we will likely see more suffering on their part, and thus ourselves, before we see a more meaningful paradigm shift in regards to their welfare. That being said, I am utterly optimistic and happy with the progress being made on all fronts. I get emails every day from folks that have achieved new-found health for themselves and their horses. This is a global shift happening–this empowerment around our responsibility for our own health is a critical step towards finding that “voice” inside of us that demands a holistic, common-sense approach to our animal’s health—one that respects and complements their nature instead of consistently antagonizing it for our own agenda.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest health concerns facing our horses today and what can we, as owners, do to protect our horses?
Ignorance is the number one toxic substance. I am adamant about my clients and everyone who attends my clinics to “make this information their own”. If I can plant a seed of interest or common sense or fascination with anyone willing to take an honest look at what keeps our bodies and minds healthy, I will have succeeded in helping all of our animals have a more fruitful, meaningful and happy life.
We have to stop feeding our horses to death if we would say we care about their welfare. Horses haven’t ever in their pre-hominid history ingested the kinds of calories, grains, processed foods or green pasture that they are now forced to eat. Horses need access to high fiber, low starch forage all the time to be healthy. There are many ways to accomplish this, such as using track systems and slow feeders, and the rewards in improved health and vitality are immense. Providing horses with some amount of a varied diet is not easy, but it is necessary to attain that healthier mind and body.
Horses have never been so confined and denied the space to even trot and canter at will, with other horses in a herd environment. What might the “minimum space requirements” be for a herd of horses to be healthy in captivity? It’s much bigger than any barn I’ve ever seen, including the attached round pen. Horses need others of their kind in the same enclosure, with adequate space to run at full speed and interact without having to turn a constant circle. Think the size of at least one football field and we’ll be getting close. They also enjoy having a job, and therein lies OUR opportunity to share time with them and develop that partnership.
The more common paradigm of hoof care that would apply steel to hooves continues to be of major dis-service to the horses. Yes, the steel is the problem, but even more poisonous is the dismissiveness of professional farriery and veterinary medicine to the undeniable evidence that shoeing is harmful to the horse. There is absolutely no blame that needs assigning around this, just an honest evaluation of what is true. What we will see, and continue to need, is increased interest in natural hoof care, such that it becomes the gold-standard. Already there is a great need in most areas for competent hoof care providers. I’ve always noted that the current population of farriers is in the best position to fill this niche, but it remains to be seen whether it can open its heart to the task.
Other important areas of concern are with over-vaccination and overuse of dewormers, with resulting damage to the horse’s immune system. To inject our animals with multiple antigens every few months increases the bank accounts of veterinarians and vaccine manufacturers, and makes a hefty withdrawal from our animals’ immune cell inventory. Again, researching this kind of information is critical if you want to operate from truth rather than fear.
Investigating the advancements in equine dentistry is another area that will pay real dividends for you and your horses. An approach to the horse’s mouth that begins with their incisors will preserve their natural abilities to utilize the forage they evolved to eat. Traditional “floating” of horses’ teeth does not serve them in this regard. Unless horses have the opportunity to consistently graze to feed themselves, their incisors will be out of balance due to lack of wear. Keeping their incisors of a proper length and angle will allow their chewing teeth to stay in balance, and often prevent sharp point and ridges from forming.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Finding support around so many of these subjects isn’t easy. I would like to let people know that I am here to support what they know in their heart and their gut to be true, and I look forward to continuing to learn alongside anyone that shares the intent to keep it real.