Why Barefoot Doesn’t Work for Horses
It seems many people are giving barefoot a try these days, but all too often, I hear of someone giving up, becoming convinced that barefoot just doesn’t work for their horse. They find that their horse’s hooves are just too sensitive, especially on rough terrain. So shoes are nailed back on and all seems well once again. But what they may not know is why barefoot didn’t work for their horse in the first place.
If you’re simply going barefoot because it’s the latest fad, it’s easy to give it up when the going gets tough. I’ve never been one to follow the crowd though, and I didn’t go barefoot with my horses to be trendy. I went barefoot when I became convinced that it was the only way to have a naturally healthy horse. I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve witnessed the detrimental effects of horse shoes and I’m not going back there again.
I don’t want to judge people who do shoe their horses though. I know most of us are just doing what we think is best. Or maybe just doing what we’ve always done–simply because we don’t know any other way.
But, shoes, plain and simple, are not healthy for horses’ feet. The entire hoof as well as the structures inside it become weakened when a metal shoe is nailed on and left in place for any length of time. Shoes do not allow for the natural contraction and expansion of the hoof that comes with movement and weight bearing. This, in turn, impedes blood flow in the hoof. The truth is that shoes really don’t allow for any part of the hoof to function as nature intended.
Horses are meant to be barefoot. It’s the unnatural ways in which we manage them that make them unable to do so. If we provide the most natural lifestyle we can for our horses, they can develop and maintain naturally healthy hooves. But it’s also going to take some effort on our part.
We have to look at the whole horse if we want barefoot to work–especially his diet and lifestyle. There are many pieces that need to be in place in order for the hooves to be healthy. Take just one piece out, and the more likely that barefoot just won’t seem to ‘work’ for your horse.
Here are a few reasons why barefoot doesn’t work for horses:
1. Too much sugar and starch in the diet. Horses did not evolve to eat the lush green grass or the high-starch feeds that many consume today. They evolved to eat sparse, dry grasses that were low in sugar in starch. Most of us know that a sudden overload in sugar/ starches can cause laminitis, but even steady, lesser amounts of these two components in your horse’s diet can cause hoof sensitivity. A diet comprised of mostly low-sugar grass hay (12% NSC or less) is the best way to support healthy barefoot hooves.
2. Not enough movement. If your horse is in a stall or small pen all day, he’s not getting enough movement (unless you happen to be riding several miles every single day.) In order to promote circulation and toughen barefoot hooves, movement is crucial. Allowing your horse to live with a herd in a pasture or a Paddock Paradise will increase natural movement.
3. Mineral deficiencies or imbalances. Zinc and copper are deficient in most horses’ diets, and these happen to be two very important minerals for the hoof. Another common issue is that of too much iron, which can block the absorption of whatever zinc and copper the horse may be getting. It’s also important to provide both major and trace minerals in the correct ratios (see this post for more information on mineral balance).
4. Your horse is pastured on soft or wet ground. We can’t expect our horses to fare well on rocky or rough terrain when riding if they are only exposed to soft ground at home. It’s just not going to happen. The only solution here is to add some varied terrain into your pasture or loafing areas (pea gravel is a great way to do this) and/or gradually increase your riding time on rough terrain on a consistent basis.
5. Not trimming frequently enough. The whole idea of the barefoot trim is getting a tough and functional sole and back of the foot. If the hoof walls and/or heels are consistently allowed to overgrow, this just isn’t possible. Most horses aren’t going to get the wear that they need to keep the walls in check on their own so trimming on a frequent and consistent basis is CRUCIAL! I trim my own horses at least every four weeks.
6. Your horse has been in shoes for too long. There’s a chance that if your horse has been shod back-to-back for most of his life, he may not ever be completely comfortable barefoot. I have one like this. Kady wore shoes year-round for about eighteen years before she came to me. She’s also insulin resistant. Although she is barefoot now and okay in the pasture, she needs boots when she’s ridden anywhere besides the arena.
So if barefoot doesn’t seem to be working for your horse, hopefully, this post has given you some insight as to why. Barefoot isn’t just about pulling the shoes, but providing the foundation for healthy, strong hooves. Don’t give up though–the benefits of barefoot are worth it!