Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society

Keeping the Working Horse Barefoot

By Leslie Davis

At the moment, the “barefoot movement” is alive and well in our country. Keeping your horse barefoot is a personal decision. “Barefoot” is good for EVERY horse. It helps keep them healthy in so many ways, but it is not always good for every horse OWNER! By that, I mean that it is not only the “not wearing horseshoes”, it is the proper trim and more frequent trimming and keeping your horse in a natural lifestyle – out with a herd 24 hours a day and lots of movement! This is sometimes not possible for the horse on the show circuit or in a boarding situation. The best this horse owner can do for his/her horses is give them some time off from performing and allow them to have the advantages of being barefoot in a pasture setting with other horses. A “herd” may only consist of one other horse, but the need for a “herd” environment is also very essential for good health. The “herd” will keep the horse calmer, more relaxed and moving. The more active the horse is, the more blood flow and circulation produced from the good hoof mechanism.

A proper “natural” trim is very important to insure good hoof health. Nature made a very good design when the horse evolved into a “one toed” animal, but the design was built around a horse that traveled anywhere from 10 to 20 miles a day. The inside of the hoof is made up of many hidden working parts that are busy with every step the horse takes.

If the outside of the hoof becomes unbalanced due to lack of natural wear, it is our job as caretakers of this animal to insure that we mimic the “natural” wear as closely as possible. Understanding the mechanisms of all the internal pieces and parts will help you and your trimmer provide the maximum circulation for your horse. With good circulation a horse has a better immune system, and better muscle tone among many other health issues.

The arguments about “…but, I jump with my horse” or “My horse has to have shoes because he has Thoroughbred feet (poor quality)” or “I have to shoe my horse because I trail ride on rocky ground”, etc. etc. are not valid reasons to nail metal shoes on your horse’s feet. There are endurance riders, police officers, racehorse owners, trail riders, and jumpers that are competing and working with their horses every day barefoot. It does take conditioning of the feet and the proper trim to accomplish this. Even the best of conditioning may not totally protect the hoof from a terrain that the horse would normally avoid. In those cases, hoof boots are used successfully and do not impair the hoof’s circulation like the restrictions placed on the hoof with a rigid metal shoe. Shoes restrict the blood flow in the hoof and actually “numb” the bottom part of the horse’s hoof. The horse’s working years are drastically extended with a barefoot horse living in a herd environment with proper trimming. Imbalances and restricted blood flow can eventually cause bone loss, arthritis, and damage to the joints.

It would make sense to me that if I had a major investment in my horse, I would want to get as many “working” seasons out of him as possible. It doesn’t matter if the horse is a $1500 trail horse or a million dollar racehorse, the concept is the same.

Keeping your horse barefoot achieves many things. The number one benefit is, of course, the improved circulation which leads to strong, healthy hooves. Unfortunately, even with a good trim, a horseshoe inhibits the “flexibility” of the hoof. It is hard to believe that a hard hoof can actually “flex” everywhere! With the weight of the horse, the hoof spreads “out” as well as “opens” from the heel forward. It takes a bit of “new thinking” to see the hoof in this perspective. The navicular bone actually works as a small valve and controls the pumping of the blood….when there are four feet, and four “valves”, you can see how much this will aid the horse when these are all working correctly…(a.k.a. balanced hoof). If you are interested in seeing a dissection of a hoof, try to catch one of Martha Olivo’s clinics. Being able to “see” the inside of the foot, you will better understand the importance of helping the horse keep “good mechanism” inside the hoof by trimming the outside correctly.

Good hoof form can also improve everything from the “gait” of the horse to his over-all attitude and even his receptiveness to training. Without metal shoes, he can “feel” his feet and can “grip” and “stop” and “turn” better. If you have trouble with, or want to prevent “cracks”, “chipping”, “stumbling” or general lameness issues, this trim would be something for you to explore.

There are many clinicians now in this country that “teach” the natural trim. It is not an easy trim to learn. A good trim may take your trimmer an hour or more to get the hoof properly balanced. It is really an artistic endeavor. The “inside” of the foot will determine the angles of the hoof wall and the shape of the sole.

Some of the well known clinicians giving clinic in the United States are: Martha Olivo, Pete Raimey, Jamie Jackson, and Dr. Hildrud Strasser just to name a few. They all have very good information to share with horse owners. Every owner should make an effort to attend at least an introductory course and not leave the hoof care entirely to the vets and farriers. Veterinarians are a wonderful resource for the health of your animal and Farriers are taught many good things about the hoof, but this “natural” approach and all the research from Europe and abroad has recently arrived in our country and keeping abreast of this new information will make all of us better stewards for one of our great American icons…the horse.