Going barefoot successfully is a lot more than just taking the shoes off your horse. It involves you, the horse’s owner, taking the overall responsibility for your horse’s hoofcare. The main elements of this are diet, environment and exercise, and although a barefoot professional (whether trimmer or farrier) will give you all the help and advice you need, you will have the day-to-day responsibility for maintaining or improving your horse’s hoof health.
Barefoot is a challenging way of keeping your horse, and is neither a cheap option nor a quick fix for hoof problems. Depending on the circumstances in which your horse lives, and his current hoof health, it may increase your workload.
Any hoof care professional specialising in barefoot should be able to:
- Assess the health of your horses hoof in relation to barefoot performance
- Do a safe and effective trim on your horse
- Advise on how you can optimise your horse’s diet and environment if this is necessary to improve his hoof health
- Agree an exercise programme which will stimulate your horse’s hooves within his comfort levels and advise on the use of hoof boots if necessary
- Provide up-to-date information which can help optimise your horse’s performance
Barefoot is a very different discipline from shoeing, so a fully qualified farrier will not necessarily have experience of barefoot performance horses. More and more farriers are becoming interested in barefoot however, and there are a number of farriers that have also trained as barefoot trimmers. There are 2 organisations that train specialist barefoot trimmers: the UK Natural Hoofcare Practitioners (UKNHCP) and the Equine Podiatry Association (EPAUK).
Diet is the single most important element in barefoot performance. Horses evolved to eat a high fibre diet made up of a variety of plants (not just grass). The closer you can get to a natural diet, the better chance you will give your horse’s feet.
Your hoofcare professional should be able to give you specific, detailed advice on your horse’s diet. Here are the general rules:
- Unlimited grazing, particularly in spring and summer, will make many horses footsore. Feeding ad lib mixed species meadow hay or haylage is a safer option for hooves.
- Most horses benefit from a broad spectrum, plant-based mineral supplement. The safest supplements are also free from added cereals and sugar.
- Many horses do not receive sufficient magnesium from their diets, especially if their diets are high in calcium or their forage low in available magnesium. Magnesium is critical for healthy hooves, and a deficiency can makes horses footsore and in serious cases can also result in weak, poorly connected hoof wall. Magnesium oxide is well tolerated and is good value for money. Most horses in hard work can be safely given 30-50 g of magnesium oxide per day. If your horses droppings become loose on magnesium, reduce the amount you are feeding.
There are 2 aspects to consider when you are thinking about your horse’s environment: how far does he move each day and what sort of surface does he move over or stand on?
Hooves are healthiest when they receive lots of stimulus from movement. Hooves that move more are stronger and also grow faster. The more time a horse stands, whether in his stable or the field, the less he is stimulating his hooves, so it’s important to encourage your horse to move as much as possible. By dispersing items like feeders, troughs and mineral licks in different places and creating a track round the edge of your field you will encourage your horse to carry out more natural behaviour and movement patterns, reducing boredom too. This doesn’t need to be expensive: using electric fencing to create a perimeter track round the edge of a field can create a simple version.
Horses hooves benefit from being able to dry out for a period of time each day. In winter, it’s ideal if horses can have access to a dry area, such as hard standing out of mud, urine or droppings. Pea gravel (5-10 mm rounded stone) is a supportive surface, particularly for horses with severely compromised feet. It drains well, has the ability to stimulate the sole and frog and allows the horse to load the whole surface area of the hoof.
The less a horse is moving while he is at leisure, the more important it is for his hooves that he has lots of exercise. Once your hoofcare practitioner is happy with your horse’s progress, don’t be concerned about hard surfaces like roads. Working on these is great for healthy hooves and stimulates them, resulting in more and better hoof growth. If you need to work a horse on surfaces, which it is not yet comfortable on, then your hoofcare practitioner will recommend the use of hoof boots. It is never productive or fair to force a horse to work on surfaces he is not comfortable on without protection.
A good hoofcare practitioner will never perform an invasive trim and will avoid putting undue stress on weak structures of the hoof. A horse, which is coming out of shoes, may have unhealthy hooves but your hoofcare practitioner should clearly explain what steps you need to take to ensure your horse’s comfort and gradually improve his capability. Remember – the trim is important, but is the final piece of the jigsaw. A bad trim can lame a horse, but even the best trim cannot create great, healthy hooves unless the right diet, environment and exercise are in place for that horse.
Hooves are capable of amazing levels of work. A horse with healthy hooves can walk, trot and canter over even the roughest ground, and can do this day after day, mile after mile. Of course many horses’ hooves are not as healthy as this, but barefoot, done properly, is a great way of improving your horse’s hoof health.
Barefoot horses are represented in many disciplines, from eventing and endurance to driving and dressage. There are lots of examples of horses competing, hunting or just happily hacking out on the websites listed below.
Managing your horse barefoot, although not necessarily the easy option, can have many advantages because natural hooves which are healthy, function more efficiently than shod hooves.
A healthy bare hoof will:
- Absorb shock more efficiently so resulting in less concussion to the limb above.
- Have much better traction on most surfaces, particularly on roads and in snow.
- Have improved biomechanics which allow tendons and ligaments and the whole horse to perform better – this improvement also means that the risk of injury is less.
- Have better proprioception meaning they are more surefooted because they ‘feel’ where their feet are.
- Provide early warning of hoof and health problems.
- Are affected by changes in health and diet, changes which would probably be over looked if the horse were shod.