While I believe that any horse can successfully transition to the barefoot lifestyle, I'm not pushy about it. As a horse owner you need to draw your own conclusions and step into the world of barefoot hoofcare with an open mind once you're ready for it.
I regularly trim horses with hooves that blunt my rasp. But it was a journey that got them here. When I meet a horse for the first time they are often overweight, limp on anything harder than grass, have hooves riddled with bacteria, abscesses, and soft horn.
Every coin has two sides, and barefoot hoofcare is no different. If horse owners are not committed to the foundational principles of natural hoofcare, they cannot expect their horse to be truly successful when going barefoot. That doesn't mean there will be no improvement after shoe removal, but you won't reap the full benefits.
Yes, barefoot hoofcare is an amazing way to keep your horse, but it does come with its own unique disadvantages.
What does it take to succeed?
To experience barefoot hoofcare at its best, one needs to embrace a holistic approach to how you treat your horse. No more life in a stall, diet often needs to be altered, the use of covers questioned, trims made at regular intervals, and ideally horses must be given an opportunity to move at will in a herd environment. Owners who overlook these elements will find their horse may struggle going barefoot.
Beyond this, what else helps create a successful barefoot horse?
Commitment. Although I find there is an ever growing acceptance of barefoot, for it to truly succeed and prove its merits it requires unfaltering commitment on behalf of the horse owner.
This means you need patience and dedication. Good things take time, but there's a second part to the equation! They take much longer if the conditions aren't right. If you choose to go barefoot and you want to succeed, take a good look at your horses diet and ask yourself, "does this look natural?" You may need to make some dramatic changes.
Develop an attention to detail. Its often the little things that make the biggest difference. The power of observation is a skill that can be nurtured and is an invaluable tool to possess. How does your horse react when you change their diet? Do they behave differently in one paddock compared to another? Does this happen every time and is it a persistent affect? How does your horse move before a trim is done, and what happens afterwards? Is the horse tight in its body? What is causing this pain and how does it impact motion? What do the wear patterns on the hoof tell you? These are all questions that give indications to the overall health of your horse if one is prepared to look for the answers.
There is also a degree of personal skill and past experience involved. The key is to be open to learning! If its your first horse you're transitioning its helpful to have someone you can look to for advice, take the time to connect with a qualified barefoot trimmer, or a friend who's already been through the process. That way when you hit a difficult moment you have someone to turn to.
What are the drawbacks?
Put a shoe on a horse and you mask their true condition and state of health.
But take the shoes off and it can feel like Pandora's box has just been opened.
Shoe removal is just the first step on the road to recovery. While some horses respond extremely quickly and without complication, others adjust slowly and go through a period of inflammation and detoxification.
The biggest drawback to going barefoot is failing to do it properly. Being unprepared and ignoring holistic change undermines the entire lifestyle. Hooves need longer to toughen up, horses take longer to heal, and you may end up spending more money than you need to. Make sure you do your research, ask the right questions and do what you can to prepare. Arm yourself with reliable information and be dedicated to searching out answer whenever there is a doubt in your mind.
Understand the transition period. This is the time between taking your horses shoes off and seeing them fully sound with functional hooves. I've heard stories of people who've taken the shoes off the week before eventing to give them the "barefoot edge" only to find their horse unable to compete. The result is misunderstanding and horses who never got a fair shot at barefoot before the shoes went back on. Its likely they may never get a second chance. Be smart about making the switch and do it at a time that is appropriate. And in truth it is the trimmer at fault in situations like this, as professionals they have an obligation to warn the owner about the realities of hoof transition.
Like people, horses are individuals. They have their own strengths, weaknesses and recovery times. Generally speaking the state of the hooves at the time of the first trim will be a good indication of how long the transition period will take. Poorly maintained hooves, damaged or deformed hooves, internal organ function, dental hygiene, and poor diet can extend the transition period dramatically. Give the horse a fair chance and do whatever you can to create an environment for healing.
When you start to correct the hoof, you begin freeing the rest of the body. Organs begin to function correctly, circulation improves, and internal change begins. Horses can blow abscesses as necrotic material is pushed out of their body, eyes become bloodshot as trapped toxins are dealt with, balance can go through a 'wobbly' period as horse suddenly find their feet. Its can be easy to think your horse is on a downward spiral. But as with most healing, sometimes it needs to get worse before it gets better.
With shoes off you can no longer mask an ailment. Pathologies come to the surface, incorrect hoof function is easy to see, and the horse will let you know when something is not right! A shoe can certainly keep a horse moving, but we wouldn't ask an injured man to carry us across the stones simply because he's wearing orthotics. So why do we do this to our companions?
Once the shoes are off, we are faced with the reality of wear patterns. Keep up to date with trims to maintain balance, avoid muscle strain, tripping, stumbling, short strides and a world of other consequences.
Creating the Right Environment
I've mentioned that one needs to create the right environment and change the usual lifestyle of many horses in order to experience optimal barefoot performance. Based on your time, budget, location, and personal convictions, you should consider how best you can provide the following needs.
Diet determines health. The same goes for horses. Providing nutritional variety and a continuous uptake of food that is low in sugar and suitable for the equine body is essential for barefoot success!
Check your pasture, can you identify the grasses, weeds and herbs that grow there? Will there be ad lib minerals and salt available? Is there a way to place food and water that would encourage movement? Consider over seeding paddocks with herbs and suitable grasses to introduce a change over time that favors your horses gut health.
Control the worm cycle. Its no good providing a great diet if parasites leech the goodness from the system. Be careful what chemical wormer you use as they can overload a system (especially if already compromised) and make use of natural wormers such as diatomaceous earth whenever possible.
A horse requires immediate and direct ground contact of hooves. Every correct step brings healing, likewise every incorrect step does the reverse. If a hoof cannot make correct ground contact you may have to help it on the way through use of hoof boots and fitted inserts to stimulate frog contact.
If your paddock has plenty of shelter available keep the covers off your horse. Exposure to natural environmental temperature strengthens the entire equine system and I've even heard stories about conditions such as asthma and windsucking disappearing simply by keeping the covers hanging on the wall.
Keep them moving by providing herd life, space to roam and a place to rest in the open when they need it. Companionship and the room to engage in herd activity nurtures both the horses mind and body.
As seasons change so will the weight of a horse. Its nothing to be afraid of, as this allows the natural fat deposits to be used up as they are intended to be. In turn the horses metabolism stays healthy and is not overstressed.
Exposure to water can be a touchy subject. But from what I've seen in Auckland's conditions where there can be a rapid change from cold and wet, to hot and dry, hooves need some exposure to water. With this rapid change in moisture and humidity levels, the hoof simply cannot adapt fast enough. This shocks the elasticity of the hoof and can sometimes cause the outer wall to develop fuzzy fibers. The result is compromised wall strength.
Lastly, a horse should be in a natural head low posture. This allows the body to move as it should and is essential in developing the correct muscles. With correct posture, even weight distribution is created, which allows the hoof to develop properly.
When you start out you want to give your horse the best chance to succeed. The best advice I can give? Mimic nature.
Contrary to popular opinion, to truly succeed its not a matter of pulling off the shoes. Its about respecting your horse as a whole.
Diet, lifestyle, past injuries; they all play their part. When shoes come off for the first time and the horse feels their hooves, you give them an opportunity for a different life.
Its a wonderful experience to see what was once a lame horse stride with confidence. I hope to see it many more times. True barefoot hoofcare is a team experience that relies on the horse owner to do what they can in their power to help their horse.
Perhaps this is the greatest disadvantage to barefoot.
Yes, a farrier can put on a shoe and leave the horse to their own devices. You're horse keeps moving (even when it shouldn't be), but you have peace of mind.
In contrast barefoot hoofcare requires both practitioner and owner to work together. If they can't walk, there is a reason why. With good trimming practices, holistic horsekeeping, patience and understanding you will give your horse a priceless gift.
You give the gift of health.
But it is ultimately your responsibility.