Dear Jessica, I am very interested in all parts of natural horsemanship, and I like the philosophy of letting horses go barefoot all the time. I have started to take my Thoroughbred mare to a barefoot trim specialist who says that all horses can go barefoot if you just take their shoes off and trim them in a special way and let them go barefoot until they grow new hooves. My mare is twelve and I have owned her for eight years. When I bought her, she wore shoes all the time. Since I don't ride very much in winter because our winters are very cold and I have asthma, I have her shoes removed every fall and she goes barefoot during the winter and early spring, then I have the farrier put shoes on her in late spring when we are "revving up" our training for summer.
My problem is that Kala's hooves are not very good. They are "typical" Thoroughbred feet that just crack up and break up into chips and pieces (sometimes really big ones) whenever Kala goes barefoot. Even though she has gone barefoot every winter for the last eight years and she has never gone lame because of her feet cracking and chipping, she doesn't seem to develop better quality hoof like the barefoot trim specialist says she will. So I am a little bit dubious about this whole thing, but I really want Kala to be barefoot.
Can you tell me if this can really work for all horses? In the summer and fall, I ride a lot, every day and all weekend long, and I spend a lot of time on trails. Our trails here are sort of rocky and hard, and I also have to walk on the road for an hour to get to where the trail starts. There is a grass verge by the side of the road but I am afraid to walk Kala through that grass because sometimes people in cars throw beer bottles out and then there is broken glass in the grass.
I want to give the barefoot trim idea a fair chance but I don't want to give up my summer and fall riding! I am worried that Kala will go lame if her feet break up in summer the way they always do in winter, only it will probably be worse because of all the riding (no riding in winter, just turnout and she mostly walks). My barefoot trim specialist says that I can't put shoes on her for the summer and expect good results, I have to keep her without shoes all the time even if her feet get sore, they will toughen up later. Kala is my best friend and I want to do what is right for her. I feel that going barefoot is what's right in the long run but I am not so sure about what's right for her this summer. Can you help me, please? I know that you won't be able to give me a definite answer about Kala's feet since you haven't ever seen them, but I am hoping that you will be able to help me think through this. You do that in so many of your answers, and I just love it. Could you do that for me? Kala and I would both be soooooooooo grateful!
A lot of Thoroughbreds do have poor-quality hooves, but quite often those hooves can be improved considerably through proper management and feeding. I've seen many horses develop much better hoof quality after a year or two of good feed and 24/7 turnout - that's turnout year-round, not just for the winter! Some feed supplements are helpful as well. If you decide to try one, look for a formula that includes zinc and methionine, and that provides provides AT LEAST 15 mg of biotin per day.
You should realize that even if Kala's hooves improve exponentially, she is unlikely to develop the kind of hooves that mustangs have. Mustangs haven't been bred by humans, and the qualities that create a successful, long-lived mustang include thick, dense, hard hooves. Thoroughbreds have been bred EXCLUSIVELY by humans, and they've been bred for speed, not for hoof quality. Between genetics and management, the Mustangs are at a distinct advantage when it comes to hooves.
That said, though, good management can go a very long way towards building a better hoof. It's quite possible that Kala will be able to develop stronger, harder hooves if she is managed carefully and kept barefoot, and I agree that it is well worth giving her a chance. But you'll need to be careful and very observant, so that she won't get sore. One of the reasons that horses sometimes need shoes is that hard ground can wear their hooves down too far, making them sore. Many endurance riders and other hard-riding individuals who strongly believe in keeping their horses barefoot have learned that it's often necessary to make compromises for the good of the horse. If work over hard, rocky terrain causes your mare to become footsore, she will need some help, which may very well come in the form of horse-shoes. This doesn't necessarily mean that your mare will need to be shod all around whenever she is working. Some horses need shoes only for a few weeks or months out of the year; some need them only in front and only when working very hard.
If your mare becomes sore and uncomfortable when you work her barefoot over rough terrain, but you are adamantly against the use of conventional horse-shoes, you may choose to re-think your position on the issue, or you may choose to give your mare a holiday and allow her to remain in her field until her hooves grow out enough to be trimmed and balanced - or you may want to investigate some of the alternatives to conventional horse-shoes. There are several companies manufacturing boots for horses, so if all your mare needs is a little extra protection and traction for a few hours at a time. Some of the best-known brands of boots are Easyboots, Old Macs, and Horsneakers.
I think that it's a fine idea to give your horse a chance to go barefoot, so long as you do everything to promote her well-being, and so long as you remain aware of her actual needs. Work with your farrier and vet! Both should have good suggestions regarding management, feeding practices, supplements, etc. Both will be able to help you determine and monitor the quality and condition of your mare's hooves during the next year or two. When it comes to hoof care - as with everything else to do with horse management - your powers of observation and your good sense are extremely important.
Let me suggest one subject that you really should discuss with your farrier, vet, and trimmer. Just in case your "barefoot trim specialist" is following the currently trendy "Strasser trim", be sure that he or she fully understands the implications of working a horse on hard, rocky ground (quite unlike the terrain in Germany). For your mare to remain barefoot and sound when being worked over the type of terrain you've described, the particular style of trimming that Strasser advocates will almost certainly need to be modified.
Whatever you do, always stay aware of your mare's comfort level. If keeping her sound, comfortable, and happy are always your top priorities, you won't go wrong. And as always, beware of people who insist that they know better than your horse, your vet, and your farrier. Your horse knows how she feels, and your vet and farrier can generally figure out WHY she feels that way and what you can do about it. When horses don't need shoes, there's no reason to shoe them. When they DO need shoes, there's no reason to avoid shoeing them. The basic idea of keeping horses barefoot is a good one, but only if the horses are managed, fed, trimmed, and ridden in ways that promote the best hoof quality and hoof balance, so that the horse can be not just barefoot, but barefoot, sound, comfortable, and happy. If it turns out that your horse can be barefoot, sound, comfortable, and happy for ten months out of the year, but needs boots or shoes on her front feet (or on all four feet) during the other months, be sure to see to it that she gets what she NEEDS.
You make a very good point about the danger of riding on the grass verge, by the way - you're absolutely right about those bottles.
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