The Benefits of Going Barefoot with Horses
For years, my husband, who attended farrier school in his late teens, would tell me I didn’t need shoes on my horses. I was convinced that I did. So we made a lop-sided compromise–we kept them shod for the majority of the year, but pulled their shoes in winter when I wasn’t riding as much. I assumed his advice was based mostly on the fact that he didn’t want to shoe my horses (it’s hard work after all!) And that may have, in fact, been part of it, but I also think he was on to something.
Years later, after attending acupressure school and becoming interested in holistic horse health, I began a quest to learn more about natural trimming. I researched online, read books, watched dvds, and spoke with barefoot trimmers to learn as much as I could. The more I learned, the more I realized that not only were shoes unnecessary, but that they were creating and/or perpetuating many of the problems I was seeing with my horses’ feet.
Of course, my idea at first was to find a competent barefoot trimmer in my area since I wasn’t sure that my husband would listen to all my newfound knowledge about properly trimming a horse. When finding a trimmer didn’t pan out (and with my husband’s encouragement), I took matters into my own hands. I learned to trim myself! I’ve been doing it for several years now, and although it’s hard work, I must say I really enjoy it.
Transitioning our horses to barefoot requires somewhat of a paradigm shift on our part–a change in our basic assumptions about horses and their hooves. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the hooves are weak and need to be protected, especially in the case of performance horses. But what if that protection is the very thing that keeps the hooves weak? What if shoes only mask the problems that we don’t really want to deal with? These are the questions I began to ask myself.
When you learn what a healthy hoof should look like, you begin to see that applying shoes is merely a practice that we’ve been conditioned to believe is necessary. It’s been done for so long that many people haven’t thought to question it. But many people are questioning the practice now, and many horses are making the transition to barefoot.
Of course, the success of going barefoot requires more than just proper trimming. It requires thinking of the whole horse–his diet, lifestyle, and the terrain on which he lives. Diets high in carbohydrates and not balanced in vitamins and minerals, stall confinement, lack of exercise, and other factors all play a role in our horses’ hoof health (as well as their overall health.) If you fail to address any one of these factors, chances are that barefoot won’t seem to “work” for your horse. But if you do address these factors and make the transtion to barefoot, the benefits can be enormous!
Here are just a few of the benefits of going barefoot with horses:
- Increased hoof circulation–the barefoot hoof can function as nature intended it to, by expanding and contracting with each step, which in turn pumps blood into and out of the foot. According to results of blood flow studies peformed by Dr. Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD, the horse’s foot gets at least twice as much circulation when he’s barefoot on yielding terrain, compared to when he’s wearing a metal shoe.
- Increased shock absorbtion–which reduces the chances for joint and tendon damage; and
- Allowance for healthy expansion of the hoof (which inturn helps to eliminate problems like contracted heels and thrush).
There are many success stories about laminitic, navicular, or other horses with lameness issues returning to soundness after going barefoot. I recently came across an article in Dressage Today which highlights the success of a top-level dressage horse’s transition to barefoot.
My biggest barefoot success story is my twenty-something-year-old mare, Kady, who was in shoes her entire life. She has a “bad” hoof from an accident long ago and always seemed to suffer from on-and-off lameness issues. It was thought that she could never go barefoot. When she came to me about two years ago, she also had extremely stretched toes (or “duck” feet, as Pete Ramey would say). I wish I had thought to take a before picture. Her feet look great now–and she is sound to ride!
If you’re looking for more information on barefoot and natural trimming, here are some good resources:
- Going Barefoot: Seven Steps for Success
- Pete Ramey’s website
- Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You by Pete Ramey
- Under the Horse–10 disc dvd set by Pete Ramey
- Horse Owner’s Guide to Natural Hoof Care by Jaime Jackson