Over the years I've started a number of horses on their barefoot journey. But whether its the removal of an iron shoe, or a barefoot one (which is a whole different story), the transition isn't always straightforward.
So a question that's been on my mind an awful lot is "what does it take for barefoot to succeed?" I'm always meeting horse owners who swear they have tried to take their horse barefoot, and it just didn't work. So, if barefoot is really so wonderful, why are so many people failing at it?
There is an ugly truth that many people simply don't want to hear. But it is one of the first things I tell a new client:
That for a barefoot hoof to perform and remain sound, it must first be healthy.
This means that if the hoof is already unhealthy to start with, it is going to take a longer length of time for them to find comfort on their feet. And as owners we need to respect this healing period.
The good news is that a hoof can become healthy (or at least healthier) through correct trimming practices. So the top priority of your practitioner then is to keep you informed about what to expect and support you on this path, as they guide the hoof towards correct function and form.
Sadly, this is where many fall flat (even I've been guilty of this at times particularly when things get too busy.) Communication is key to any good relationship and without it you as the horse owner have no solid explanation for why your beloved horse is still tender on their feet. If this discomfort continues its only understandable that owners return to the use of shoes. And fair enough.
With that said, the following 7 principles go a long way in developing healthier and stronger hooves.
Consistently Trim about every 4 weeks
Yes, a horse should be trimmed at least once every 4 weeks. This is a practice that nearly every respected barefoot practitioner appears to see eye to eye on.
You'll see better results with trims done at 3 weeks, but very few people can afford to do this option. I no longer accept horses that are trimmed at 5 weeks because these cannot give a fair representation of what barefoot hoof care is capable of achieving. The purpose of regular hoof care is to establish the correct hoof shape while you continue to guide the hoof towards health.
Above all consistency is key. Hoof care is not an occasional event and it must become a regular part of your horses well being. Healthy hoof form is obtained through both consistent trimming in application and time frame.
With regular trimming you'll also be able to identify whether the trim is making hoof shape better or worse. If cracking, flares, or deformation start to happen you may need to consider what is happening in the upper body for this to occur. If the problem persists, you may need to reconsider the competency of the trimmer or farrier you are using.
A well executed trim, done month after month, is the number one key to achieving health and soundness.
Pick out hooves on a daily basis
If at all possible this really should become a regular habit. Picking out the feet on a daily basis gives you the opportunity to note changes and identify any concerns before they turn into a problem.
When cleaning make sure you give the hoof a thorough look over. Its amazing how many stones or other foreign objects are removed from the hoof at the time of a trim. Regular maintenance on the part of the owner will help keep the hoof wall tight and avoid potential lameness hazards.
If your horse is suffering from something like thrush, now would be the time to spray a natural anti-thrush solution to help those feet recover faster.
Know The Trimming Method
There are many choices available when it comes to barefoot trimming methods. But not all of them are equal.
The above image is the result of a very popular trimming method used in New Zealand, however it is not a healthy hoof. This is a classic example of the barefoot horseshoe, and poor minimalist trimming.
On the other end of the spectrum maximal trimming involves the removal of larger quantities of hoof horn and sole material. Unless performed by a qualified professional it can result in severe lameness problems.
Adaptive trimming follows set guidelines done to what the hoof, and the horse as a whole requires at any given time. This has since become my method of choice. Sitting somewhere in the middle between maximal and minimal techniques.
The primary aim of this method is to address the cause of the concern, respect hoof bio-mechanics and move a hoof towards health and soundness. Not to simply mask the condition.
The defining features of this method are a short toe, low heels, functioning bars and a hoof that is both sound and healthy.
Provide plenty of exercise and as much time living in a herd as possible
There are very few people who can provide the ideal lifestyle and environment for their horse. But what matters is whether you provide the best living situation you are able to or not.
The entire reason a horses hooves need to be trimmed is because they are already in imperfect conditions!
The general rules of NHC to provide a natural lifestyle for optimal health could be roughly summarized below:
Provide 24/7 outdoor access, or a minimum of 12 hours out of the stall.
Avoid the use of covers and leg wraps.
Never, ever, keep a horse alone.
Provide low stress training.
Pay attention to your horses physical and psychological state, if somethings not right - listen!
Feed a natural diet.
Minimize exposure to chemicals.
Provide the opportunity for movement to stimulate circulation.
Ultimately we each do what we can, and work with what we've got. No-one has the right to demand anything more from you.
Use hoof boots only when necessary
(but never be afraid to use them)
There is nothing wrong with using a hoof boot when you need to. But they should be used responsibly and never as a tool to mask an ailment for an ongoing period of time.
Hoof boots are a fantastic resource to provide additional comfort to horses especially during the transition period, or when they are going to ride on terrain they are not conditioned to (e.g. pasture horses who are sometimes taken down a coarse stone track.)
Also, boots should never be left on for extended periods of time as they retain moisture, eventually leading to various problems. If boots are required for extended periods you must remove them daily and allow the hoof to dry out again.
Modern hoof boots are always improving and I now know a number of farriers who suggest the use of hoof boots over and above traditional shoeing practices.
Keep the diet simple and natural
Equine dietary needs can be a minefield of information and conflicting advice! Our advice is always keep it simple, feed as natural as possible, and pay attention to your horse.
What goes into a horse will ultimately determine its internal and external state in some way. From experience certain feeds, or sudden changes to a horses diet can trigger a negative reaction that shows itself up in the health of the hoof.
So when making changes to your horses diet do it slowly and know what you are feeding.
For more information on dietary recommendations see here.
The Golden Principle - Have Patience & Transition Smartly
For a barefoot hoof to perform and remain sound, it must first be healthy.
It takes time to transition a hoof into something that is sound and healthy. Ultimately it depends on the state of the hoof (both internal and external) as to how the transition process is going to go.
Be patient. For some horses the adjustment can trigger off a series of events that will get you disheartened. Bear with it, ask questions, and get support to help you through this.
Be sensible. In the past I've had individuals who began to ask to much of their horse too soon. Despite the tough appearance of the hoof it needs time to heal and strengthen itself. Much like our feet would need to be strengthened before they could carry our weight across rough surfaces.
And finally your heart has to be in the right place, and this means you need to be well informed. This is especially relevant if you are competing or involved in pony clubs. Intending no disrespect but speaking from experience, this is hands down where the most judgement will come from. It can be hard to deal with this judgement, particularly if you do not have the answers to explain your decision with.
Like breeds like, and if you connect with those who have been through a transition period before, going barefoot can be a very rewarding time for everyone involved.
I can never predict how a transition will go, but I can anticipate any likely challenges we will face. Not every horse will have a smooth transition, because no two horses are the same. But from what I have seen, experienced, and researched firsthand, I am totally convinced that genuine barefoot hoofcare is in the best interest of the horse.
I hope these thoughts can benefit someone, somewhere, so that you and your horse can experience the pleasure of genuine barefoot health before you run into any problems..