Due to the damage that horseshoes cause to the equine hoof, even with timely resets, many thousands of horse owners since 2000 have removed the shoes from their horses and learned to trim the hooves in a way that keeps the horse sound.
The barefoot trim is frequently and successfully used to rehabilitate foundered and “navicular” horses, as well as to get hooves in top condition for endurance racing and other demanding equine sports.
Reasons for going barefoot, and for trimming hooves
The hoof is not like a solid block of wood. It is an exquisitely designed, flexible, shock-absorbing, living organ. It is made up of:
- a crescent-shaped bone, at the bottom of the column of leg bones,
- entirely covered by soft tissue (called the corium) with a LOT of blood supply,
- entirely covered by a tough outside layer (wall and sole) to protect the inside from hard knocks and abrasion.
The back part of the hoof is made up of:
- the frog, a pad that does the same as the biggest pad in a cat’s or dog’s paw — a soft landing;
- the digital cushion, a tough, fibrous, shock-absorbing “hammock” above the frog, to protect the pastern bones in action;
- and a W-shaped structure (heels plus bars) that expands sideways when weighted, for shock absorption.
The REASON for keeping a horse barefoot is:
- to allow the hooves to flex at every step;
- to get the most possible blood circulation inside the hoof;
- to have the most possible shock absorption for the leg joints.
The REASON we trim hooves is NOT to make them look nice!
- though a healthy, well-trimmed hoof is certainly beautiful. We trim hooves (when the horse does not live and work on the dry, abrasive ground its feet are made for) so that they do not get overgrown, and to help them keep a correct shape and size.
- so that the coffin / pedal / P3 bone is almost level (“ground-parallel”), with its heel raised 2 or 3 degrees of angle higher than its toe, when standing on a level surface
- to keep the toe, which grows forward, backed-up to the correct breakover position, so that the leg has time to fully extend forward and the foot can then land heel-first onto its shock-absorbing heel structures.
- to prevent flaring (stretched white line) at the bottom of the wall, which is painful and leads to mechanical founder
Things to consider in deciding to go barefoot
It has become clear from widespread experience since 2000 that success in going barefoot is not just about pulling the shoes and using the “wild horse” or “high-performance” barefoot trim. Equally important for barefoot success are:
- The horse’s nutrition, as well as stomach ulcer prevention, including 24 hours available hay or forage, with attention to the amount of sugars in the feed and hay, because many horses become insulin resistant over time (see www.safergrass.org) High sugar hay, and stomach ulcers, cause damage to the white line (connection between hoof wall and coffin/pedal bone).
- 24 hour turnout, or as much as you can arrange in your boarding situation (see websites on “paddock paradise”). Population density near the cities means that stable properties are getting smaller, so horse owners need to make extra effort to get turnout for their horses. Hooves need continual movement for health and healing.
- Correct and timely care of teeth, using the techniques of modern horse dentistry that balance the jaw and the TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint, where the jaw hinges to the skull). Imbalance in the jaw and TMJ can result in poor back muscling, irregular leg movement, and imbalanced wear of the hooves.
- Correct saddle fit. Pain from a poorly fitting saddle can cause incorrect movement, leading to imbalanced wear of the hooves.
We have had excellent results using barefoot to rehabilitate foundered horses to full soundness and rideability. The wild-horse barefoot trim re-balances the navicular foot for healing of inflamed tissues.
Due to damage inside the shod hoof, it can take as long as a year after you remove the shoes – called the “transition year” – to rebuild internal tissues and grow out a high quality, tough hoof wall that is well attached to the coffin / pedal bone (P3). While this may seem like a long time, if you leave the shoes on, the hoof will not have a chance to heal at all, resulting in the loss of many useful years of life for the horse.
Hoof boots are a standard and recommended tool for the transition from shod to barefoot. For the first several months after pulling the shoes, horses should use front hoof boots for riding. Some will need boots during the entire “transition” year, especially those that work on paved or gravel roads, rocky trails, or frozen ground, to protect sensitive internal tissues while they heal.
Horses that live on soft footing, or are insulin resistant (IR), may always need hoof boots for riding on rough or hard surfaces. Horses that work on paved roads should use boots on all four feet, to prevent excess wear of their hooves; pavement is very abrasive.
Hoof boots are getting better every year. When I started this website in 2000, the only boot available was the original Easy Boot, which was less than an ideal design. In 2014, there are perhaps a dozen very good boots and glue-ons that I know of (including greatly improved Easy Boots), and likely another dozen that I have not heard about. I recommend searching the Internet.
Horses that work on soft arena footing can be sore from lack of concussion. They should be walked 10 minutes on a firm surface before and after the arena work to relieve congestion in the hooves. The hoof is “designed” to go on firm ground so that it flexes at every step, causing ample blood supply inside the foot.
Many of us live in “horse-unfriendly” climates. If the annual rainfall where you live is more than about 30 inches (75 cm), the ground is too soft for hooves to get sufficient concussion and wear. This means we have to take extra care to help their feet stay healthy, more than for horses that live in “horse-friendly” climates where the rainfall is less and the ground is hard and dry. A shorter time between trims, the quality of the trim, and the use of hoof boots for riding on rocky trails become extremely important in rainy climates or during rainy times of the year.
In many areas, if you want a good barefoot trim, you will need to learn to do it yourself. It is not hard to learn to trim. This website has instructions, and I also recommend www.ironfreehoof.com. There are barefoot trimmers and hoof schools listed on the websites in my Contact box, above, who can help you learn.