Q&A with Barefoot Trimmer, Marjorie Smith
Marjorie Smith was a pioneer in the barefoot trimming world. Now retired, she maintains the website, www.barefoothorse.com–a valuable resource for horse owners. Marjorie also offers consultations for owners interested in barefoot hoof care.
The following is part of an interview conducted by Šárka Prokůpková (from Czech Republic). It is shared here with permission.
How long have you been educating yourself in relation to hoof care?
I started educating myself in about 1998. I found a book by Jaime Jackson, about the hooves and lifestyle of free-living (feral) horses in the American West, and went to a weekend clinic he taught about wild horse hooves. I had a farrier remove my horses’ shoes and started educating myself. There was no knowledge then, other than the pictures in Jaime’s book, and it took me a year to figure out some basics of balance; much longer to understand the influence of high sugar in the diet, and breakover.
How do you perceive the scale of hoof knowledge in the horse world? Do you meet more horse owners (riders, trainers) who are interested in hoof care or who are not?
I am not much involved in the horse world now. When I was active, some owners were interested, but there is a strong sense of tradition in horse-keeping that gets in the way. I found that many people who become interested in barefoot hoof care have already used alternative medicine in their own health, and are open to “different” ways of thinking.
What is your experience with farriers and their services?
When I have tried to teach farriers how to trim a barefoot hoof, they forgot easily because our way of trimming is nearly opposite to the way they are taught. After a few months, the farriers often revert to what their hands do by habit.
Do you see more horses with healthy hooves or pathological hooves? Do you see more healthy hooves among barefoot horses or shod horses?
I rarely see a horse with healthy hooves, and those have an owner who keeps the horse barefoot, and most often, trims the hooves herself. Hooves apparently cannot be healthy when shod — there is too much restriction of flexion and of blood circulation inside the foot, and the frog is completely removed from ground contact.
[Can you give a] short summary about what have you learned about hooves? How do you understand the principles of (a hoof’s) function?
The hoof needs a lot of internal blood circulation, therefore needs to be free to flex during the stride. Circulation is best when the frog is wide (not squashed to a narrow shape) and the horse’s weight comes down first on the frog. Horse’s weight is carried primarily on the sole and frog; the wall is basically an armor coating for protection. If the wall is allowed to be in ground contact (on a flat surface), the wall will begin to separate. A hoof is almost always in good health if (front feet) land on the heel at each stride. This happens when the breakover is at the white inside layer of the hoof wall; the outer wall does not touch the ground. (HInd legs have a different motion, due to different joints, therefore hind feet almost never have problems.)
What is your preferred method of hoof care based on knowledge you gathered?
Definitely barefoot, trimmed for early (correct) breakover with heel first landing. A very few horses seem to develop thin soles (from frequent farrier thinning?), or from living in flooded conditions. The solution I have found is to put “hoof casts” on the hooves for about two months –several new sets of casts will be needed because they wear out in 2 or 3 weeks. Thin soled horses should only be ridden with padded hoof boots, and if they show tenderness, should not be ridden until they grow more sole thickness.
Do you think that most hoof problems (deformations of hoof capsules and diseases like navicular, laminitis) can be avoided by hoof care or is it mainly genetics that influences health of the hooves?
I have not heard about genetically unhealthy hooves. I think you would have to trim them by carefully observing the results of your trimming, and change what you do till you find a way that works for that foot. I have seen feet that tended to get laminitis and very thin walls, due to a metabolic problem, something about the liver function. I think such a horse should not ever be ridden. Deformation is most often caused by being shod, and especially being on a longer than 3 week schedule. A barefoot hoof that is trimmed with a flat bottom on the wall (the breakover is too far forward) will have similar problems as a shod foot. Navicular seems to be caused by a forward-flared toe and late breakover; this puts incorrect stresses on the ligaments around the navicular bone, when the foot lands on the toe instead of the heel. The forward flared toe can be due to being shod, and/or insulin resistance damage to the laminar tissue. Laminitis is generally caused either by incorrect mechanical forces in the foot, due to shoes; or by metabolic problems due to high-sugar grass and hay, sweetened grains; and/or referred inflammation from stomach ulcers due to infrequent meals (not having forage to nibble 24 hours a day).
Do you think that hoof wall is the main weight bearing structure and thus shoeing is fine for hooves because the lamellar connection are strong enough to hold the weight?
No. The hoof wall is for protection only. There should be minor weight bearing on the inner white layer of the wall, but most weight is on the sole, frog, and heels. Allowing the weight to be on the outer wall over-stresses the laminar tissue and will result in “white line” stretching and separation, therefore to forward flared shape of the foot and late breakover.
Do you think that sole thickness is important or can [a] too thick sole be in the way of hoof mechanism (flattening of the sole arch)?
The horse’s natural sole thickness is correct for that horse’s weight. Feral horses can grow extremely thick soles for protection in rocky country, yet they are healthy. Occasionally, when the horse is not allowed to move enough to flake off the outside layer of sole, it can become too thick. This is easily fixed by scraping the flaky / chalky layer off the sole, down to hard, waxy-looking “live sole.”
Have you experienced rehabilitation of hooves and which cases? (underrun heels, club foot, laminitis?) With what kind of care/trim/shoeing where they fixed?
Yes, I have successfully rehabilitated underrun heels and overgrown hooves (forward flared toe). In forwared flared toes I distinguish the origin of their pathology. It is either caused by poor metabolism and subsequent inflammation (laminitis) or by mechanical stress of the overgrown hoof capsule in barefoot or shod hoof. Sometimes a combination of all. In all cases, the principle of dealing with these pathologies is the same – the right trim. Only in the case of poor metabolism, the solution must also include a change in diet, as treatment cannot take place when there is inflammation in the lamellar connection.
I had no opportunity to work with the club hoof and extremely overgrown hooves that were completely neglected. However, I had the opportunity to observe other caregivers in dealing with these cases. Detailed procedures for dealing with various cases are described on my website. All deformations were corrected using a barefoot trim – putting the hoof in a physiological shape.
Are hoof professionals cooperating sufficiently or do you think they should cooperate more and why? Or is it not necessary? Have you experienced rehabilitation of hooves and which cases? (underrun heels, club foot, laminitis?) With what kind of care/trim/shoeing where they fixed?
My experience was almost entirely with “backyard” horse owners, not show horses or race horses. The combination of vet and farrier working together (or at least consulting) is very hard to stand up to (maintain one’s own best thinking) because they both tend to be men, and there is a double dose of tradition there. So the (mostly female) horse owners step away from, or entirely avoid, the vet/farrier combination, and come directly to a barefoot trimmer. There are a very few equine scientists who are studying the effects of horseshoes on the hoof, and how to trim correctly. (Dr. Robert Bowker is one — he may be retired by now; he also had several colleagues who were interested.) They are greatly in demand to teach weekend clinics.
Do you think that most horses can be barefoot?
Of course, I think all horses should be barefoot, except in unusual situations, such as horses that work on paved roads, which are too abrasive — and in that case you are making a deliberate choice between two problems. Horses that have transitioned out of shoes often need hoof boots to protect the front feet for riding on gravel or rocky trails, for perhaps many years until their feet fully recover. Also, horses with “grass laminitis” or insulin resistance, due to high sugar in the grass, will always need boots on the front feet. Apparently most horses now, are becoming insulin resistant, due to high-sugar grasses that are bred for the dairy and beef industry. (Cows’ digestion is different, they can handle more sugar in the diet.)
For more information from Marjorie, please visit her website.