Q&A with Hoof Care Expert, Lisa Agius-Gilibert
What is one of the most common hoof issues you see as a trimmer and how to you go about correcting it?
Ninety-nine percent of the hoof issues I come across are diet related. Either the horse has been living with sub-clinical laminitis for a long time (those horses who don’t seem to cope without shoes), or the hoof horn quality is poor because of a lack of, or imbalanced minerals, mostly copper and zinc in my area. Working with the owners to achieve a balanced diet can be the most difficult part, especially if the owner is quite happy with their current diet and likes the horse to carry more weight than what might actually be healthy for the animal. I’ll introduce the Body Condition Scoring chart and have the owner assess their own horse while I am there trimming it so they come to the conclusion themselves that as bit less weight would be ideal!
I’ll also talk about the endocrine system, the digestive system, refer them to a nutritionist etc. Having trusted sources of information and being able to translate the science into a language the owner can relate to is important to me as a trimmer, and is important to my long time clients. I often get the feedback that no one has ever told them these types of things before, and it blows me away because my results are so much better when looking at the hoofcare from a whole-horse approach. Why on earth wouldn’t other hoof care providers do the same? My long term clients value that information and really stick by me because they know I will let them know if something isn’t working for the horse’s hooves.
As for hoof issues that might not be directly diet related, I come across a lot of seedy toe and white line disease (which I would argue IS diet related in a lot of cases!). The way I deal with it is with resection to clean margins, (no matter how large that might be), then packing with Artimud or Hoof Stuff and having the owner treat topically with iodine 2-3 times per week. Often in tough cases I’ll encourage the owner to buy some Artimud to use. Without resection in my area, it is really tough to grow out seedy toe and WLD – I have never seen it happen. But by resecting we can get rid of it on day 1, and if the owner is good with topical treatment between trims, I find it very rarely returns.
I have found a great little product in Australia called Hoof Mate, which is a chlorine dioxide tablet that you drop into water and then soak the hoof in, using an enclosed hoof boot for 30 minutes. It created a ClO2 gas that can penetrate quite deeply. It kills the infection very quickly and with repeated soaks 2-3 times per week done by the owner, we have been able to get on top of some pretty nasty hoof infections, without harming any live tissue. In the U.S.,I think you would use White Lightning soaks however we aren’t able to import that product into Australia.
The other issue we see a lot of in my practice is low or negative palmar/plantar angles. I have a two-pronged trimming approach to these types of feet – I will map the foot, see where the foot wants the breakover to be, then aim to bring the foot back there either in the first trim if I have room, or in the first 3ish trims. These guys usually have run forward heels and folded-over heel tubules so I will also slipper these heels the first 1-2 trims too. We usually have them in the lower end of “normal” (around 3-5 degrees palmar angle) within a trim or two, as long as there isn’t any other mitigating factors such as upper body issues or laminitis etc.
I know you recommend a variety of “hoof protection” services from boots to glue-on or even nail-on polyshoes. Can you explain how you decide which type of hoof protection is best for which horses?
For me, barefoot is best. Most of my career I was able to help most horses with barefoot trimming and boots for protection, but there were about 2 out of 10 horses that were extra tricky and left me scratching my head. A few years ago, Sarah Kuyken from Innovative Hoof Care Australia brought Daisy Bicking to Australia for a series of radiograph, hoof mapping and glue shoe clinics and when I was exposed to her stuff I was blown away. Every situation Daisy talked about made me think if a horse on my books who could be helped by her glue on techniques and I started the long and frustrating path learning how to glue shoes on horses feet. A VERY expensive process that humbled me, but I am fairly confident now with my glue technique and have seen amazing results.
Choosing to use a poly shoe depends on a few factors. The nail on shoes I mainly use for competition horses during the competitive season, to reduce concussion and help protect soles in our dry-baked Australian summers. For glue ons, I have used these on competition horses too, and they do wonderfully in them, but glueing is quite expensive in Australia due to the cost of importing materials and glue.
When trimming a hoof, you can always take more material off, but you are limited with what you can to do affect change because there’s little to no capacity to add back material. For glue on packages, I mostly use these in situations where I need to build depth for the horse, or where I need a mechanical change in balance, or where I need to reduce leverage beyond the insensitive hoof capsule.
For building depth, these are usually laminitic or chronically thin-soled horses. These guys HATE being nailed because of the concussion and I think it is unethical to do so in most of these cases. For mechanical balance change, this can be part of a derotation-process, or where I am struggling to build caudal foot so the horse is still negative or low palmar angled, or where the horse has a significant medio-lateral imbalance that the hoof capsule has been trying to compensate for for too long and has broken down and needs help. For these horses, using an acrylic glue, I can build the glue height to where I want it (e.g. more glue in the toe for a derotation) and I can also push down on the shoe in strategic places once it in on the foot but before the glue is set (e.g. pushing down on the toe so that there is more height in the heels for a low palmar horse).
I have also chosen to glue on horses that seem to have otherwise healthy feet but the whole foot is so far in front of the limb that on radiograph you can see the pedal bone itself is very long in the toe and not much palmar P3 to give structure to the back of the foot. I come across this a lot with big heavy thoroughbreds and I don’t know if it is the breeding or what, but they suffer for their conformation, with poor caudal development and navicular issues. The biggest thing for me with glue ons in this situation is the ability to set the breakover as far back as the horse needs it to be, so that there is 50/50 support around the centre of rotation even at the end of the shoeing cycle. These horses appreciate this SO much, and I have limited ability to do this barefoot/booted/nailed. I simply LOVE glue!
From your experience, can you explain how diet/environment influences the health of hooves?
In my experience, diet and environment plays such a huge role in hoof health that it is one of the biggest conversations I have with my new clients. I always bring it back to species appropriate care. We are so lucky with horses because the equine evolutionary timeline is so well documented. Horses evolved over 50 million years in a specific environment – the modern horse was produced by open grasslands that were high in magnesium, copper and zinc, and with very little energy-dense food sources. So they had to move, quite a bit, over varied terrain, and eat quite a high volume of plant material to get enough energy to fuel their bodies each day. They browsed, not just grazed. They lived in stable family herds with enough room to get away from each other during rare disputes. They mostly walked everywhere, maybe trotted, with cantering reserved for play and galloping mostly reserved for flight from predators.
Domestication looks so different from this in many cases that it really is surprising that horses cope at all really. We keep them in small areas, we keep them alone or in unstable herds, or even in boxes. Their daily steps are greatly reduced. They get fed energy-dense meals and hay from one level – normally meal at chest height, hay on the ground, all on one spot, with all grazing close to the ground and no opportunity for browsing.
Their water source is close to their feed. They finish their feed and hay in a relatively short period of time, with not much grazing (at least in my area of Western Sydney), so they get bored. Paddocks are over-stocked. They pick on each other. They develop ulcers because their empty stomachs continue to produce digestive acid even though there is no food to digest. They live a life where they are chronically stressed due to not having their basic needs met each day. They develop stereotypies to deal with this stress which owners then try to stop using cribbing collars etc instead of fixing the cause of the stress in the first place. This is all before we ask the horse to work for us, compete for us, ignore their basic instincts for us. The simple act of placing a horse within a boundary fence changes his life significantly from what his DNA has grown his body to cope with. It is a lot to ask of a horse!
Chronic stress leads to chronic systemic inflammation, which leads to chronic hoof issues because the hoof, while amazingly over-engineered, is also not fail safe and has a finite ability to counteract all we ask the horse to deal with. Once the feet start to hurt, it just adds to that chronic stress, and the cycle can be incredibly hard to break. Every husbandry decision we make needs to consider the life a horse is meant to live if we want long term soundness in our riding partners. It just has to. I try not to overwhelm my new clients with all this information and often pick one thing to discuss (which is usually diet) so that we can start back on the right track, then start talking about other ways to improve the horse’s life at future appointments.
Even my older clients that have seen good results will often check in with me when they want to tweak the diet, which is great. Now, I won’t pretend that equine nutrition is my thing, because it is not and my only formal education in it is through my bachelor degree. My passion is hooves and outside of a basic diet recommendation I will often refer the client to qualified equine nutritionists for the tricky cases. But I want all my clients in my area on a copper/zinc supplement that is at least double the NRC2007 requirements (and in the correct ratio of 1:4 Cu:Zn), a magnesium supplement, all feeds and hay under 12% ESC+starch (or less than 10% for at-risk horses such as PPID), salt, and a safe source of omega 3. Outside of this I let the owner formulate the ration and if we run into trouble I will refer out.
As for environment, I don’t work on any 24/7 stabled horses as I find my horse-husbandry paradigm just doesn’t click with owners who keep their horses in boxes. I think they think I am too judgey! Ha. But I do have a lot of owners who have limited agistment options and their horses live in small paddocks. We try to increase steps by whatever means possible, even if that is simply spreading the hay out instead of leaving it in one pile. Some clients have even built full-on loop systems into their paddocks, or have become like zoo keepers thinking about enrichment and providing balls, paddock friends, safe treats hidden throughout, poles and rocks, you name it. These are my people!
Can you explain why you prefer flexible materials for hoof protection rather than metal shoes?
I’ll state that I am friends with farriers who work mainly with metal and that I think that good hoof care is good hoof care – even if that hoof care includes metal protection options. Plus there is a time and place for a metal horse shoe (e.g. broken pedal bone requiring complete stabilisation for healing). But for me, each horse I see every day, I run through my head, “what is the best thing I can do for this horse today?” – this very rarely includes a metal solution.
Again, I go back to species appropriate care and think about how horses evolved. Almost every horse that “needs shoes” is being asked to cope with something outside of her capabilities, whether that be heavy work, or chronic stress, or high-level competition where safety is a concern for the rider and so metal shoes and studs are needed. But these metal solutions come with a cost – increased concussion. Peripheral loading. Reduced capacity for hoof expansion. No capacity for unilateral heel movement. All of this interferes with hoof mechanism and biomechanics.
Polyurethane shoes are a compromise between the barefoot and metal-shod solutions. The material reduces concussion, it flexes with the hoof capsule, it expands with the hoof capsule. Some models allow greater unilateral heel movement, some are useful for horses that require more stabilisation is the caudal foot without compromising on other hoof function. They are wide-webbed and most have frog support so there is not the issue of peripheral loading. Basically, poly shoes (and hoof boots too) offer a more hoof-friendly protection than metal shoes, in my experience and for my understanding of hoof function.
For someone who might be completely new to barefoot (or removing metal shoes), what is your general advice for getting started?
Research and education. Be hungry for answers. Be committed to being an advocate for your horses health and mental wellbeing. Build a great team around you of hoof care provider, vet, body worker, trainer, dentist, make sure they use evidence-based principles. Remember that YOU are in control of your horse and what goes on in his world. Start implementing species-appropriate care before the shoes come off – maybe give yourself six months to prepare if you can. The stronger the hoof when you remove the shoes, the quicker the transition. Use poly shoes to transition out of metal before going fully barefoot. Be willing to give your horse some time off if needed, don’t put your own goals and dreams above the health of your horse. And learn to trim yourself!