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Barefoot horse

From: Diane

Hi Jessica, I have a sweet QH gelding that I would love to keep barefoot but I don't know if he can handle it. I have been reading about all the different natural trim and barefoot philosophies. I am not so impressed with Strasser because she reminds me a lot of my first instructor who was always saying "It's my way or the highway" and had no tolerance for anyone who disagreed with her even if she was wrong. Also my best friend's dad is a farrier and he says that some of her ideas don't make any sense, and the rest of her ideas are good but they're not really "her" ideas, they're things he was taught in school 50 years ago so they aren't new and she didn't invent anything! Anyway even so I still think that barefoot is a good idea for horses. I had Zippy's shoes pulled in November like I usually do, and I usually have them put back on in February but not this year. My problem is that he is usually a little bit sensitive in his hooves every November when the shoes come off him, and then he gets toughened up some and is fine until I am ready to start riding him. This year I started riding him in February like I usually do, and he was okay in my trainer's indoor, then when we went outside he was sore on the gravel and not very good in the outdoor arena. It's just dirt footing and sometimes there are some little rocks in it, but it's not that hard!

So what I want to know is, are there some horses that just can't handle being barefoot because they are just too sensitive in their feet? I don't know what to think. Here is my list of Thoughts about this.

I like the idea of having my horse be natural and barefoot. I don't want my horse to be sore. Zippy is sore on the gravel and hard dirt. Dave (my farrier) says he thinks Zippy can go barefoot if I manage him right. Bob (my trainer) says we need to get shoes back on Zippy or I won't win anything this season.

I want to do what's best for my horse. So I need to know, do you think that Zippy can go barefoot? And if you think he can go barefoot, what about the days when it's all wet in the turnout, should I keep him indoors so he won't get thrush?

Thanks, Diane


Hi Diane! A lot of horse-owners are struggling with this question right now, so you're certainly not alone.

Your horse must be the final arbiter when it comes to deciding what's comfortable and what's not. That said, there are some things that you should think about.

In my experience, the horses that do well barefoot are those that are well-managed, properly fed, and kept in an environment that allows them maximum freedom to move around all the time over varied terrain. Their hooves are trimmed regularly by a good farrier who is adept at balancing hooves. "Barefoot" doesn't mean neglected in any way - and it also doesn't mean "confined to a stall but expected to work barefoot over varied terrain".

When you aren't riding Zippy, where is he? When his shoes are removed in November, is he turned out in a large field with other horses, so that he can have freedom of movement 24/7? Or is he kept in a stall?

If you want the best results, you have to manage your horse in the best possible way. No horse that spends 23 hours a day shut into a small enclosure is going to have maximum hoof health (or indeed, maximum health of any kind). Yes, it's natural for horses to be barefoot, but if we want to keep them sound, happy, and performing well barefoot, we have to consider every aspect of their management, not just the fact that we've removed their shoes.

You need to talk to your farrier and your vet about this - both of them can give you good information. If your trainer's advice contradicts the advice you get from your farrier and vet, I suggest that you ignore the trainer's advice. People will give you advice according to what they know (which may not be much), what they see (which may not be much) and their priorities (which may not be yours). In this situation, your trainer's priorities are getting you the maximum number of ribbons at the maximum number of shows during show season - your farrier's priority is keeping Zippy's hooves balanced and healthy so that he can go sound, and your vet's priorities are Zippy's overall health and soundness.

The question you've asked me is one that you need to put to your farrier and your vet. They are trained professionals who can see and handle Zippy, and who are in a position to evaluate the quality of Zippy's hooves NOW, as well as the terrain around the facility, and the conditions in which Zippy is kept. There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer when there are so many variables - hoof quality is one, how the horse is ridden is another, and the terrain is still another. ALL of these must be taken into account. Mind you, all of these variables can be changed. Hoof quality can be promoted and developed through excellent nutrition, full-time turnout, and a sensible exercise program. Some horses are born with wonderfully strong hooves that stand up to a lot of abuse; others don't have very good hoof quality to begin with, thanks to their genetics, but good nutrition and management will make it possible to maximize any horse's ability to grow and maintain a better-quality hoof. Very often, the change from stall board to pasture board can make a huge difference in hoof quality - instead of standing on a soft surface for 23 hours a day, the horse will be walking on a harder surface, as horses were designed to do. Add nutritional supplements as necessary (look for hoof formulation containing zinc and methionine as well as at least 15 mg of biotin in each daily dose), keep Zippy outdoors so that he can move around 24/7, cross your fingers, and wait. He may never develop the rock-solid hooves of a Mustang, but at the very least, his hoof quality should show some improvement.

Don't be surprised if he goes up a size or two in shoes! One Quarter Horse I know was kept shod and in a stall year-round until he was seven years old. His shoe size was 0. At seven, he was purchased by a novice rider who had asthma and couldn't ride when the weather got too cold. Fortunately for the horse, she turned him out at the end of November every year and brought him back into work in March. Every March, the farrier would comment "He's done it again - he'll need a 1 now", because the horse's feet were larger after a few months of 24/7 turnout that provided him with additional (normal!) exercise. That's not the end of the story, though. When the horse was twelve years old, he was sold again, and this time he was purchased by an experienced rider who didn't like to keep horses in stalls. The horse was lucky again - from the time he was twelve until he died at the age of 27, he benefited from good nutrition and careful management, and he never spent another night in a stall unless he was at a competition. And his feet got bigger... by the time he was thirteen, he was wearing a size 2 shoe, on those rare occasions when he needed shoes for any reason.

As for what you can do with Zippy this year, and what you can expect from him, here are my thoughts. You're going to have to decide what's more important to you - getting Zippy comfortable barefoot, or winnning a lot of competitions this season. I'm not at all sure that you can do both at the same time. In fact, you may need to give up riding Zippy for a while, or at least cut back. If you want to give your horse the best chance to develop the kind of hooves that won't require shoes for ordinary work, you'll need to keep him barefoot and outdoors and moving around all the time. He may very well be a little "ouchy" on hard ground, but he'll adjust better and if he isn't being asked to work hard or even carry a rider. It takes several months for a change in hoof quality to become noticeable, and it takes about a year for hooves to grow out completely. Give Zippy time to adjust. If all goes well, and the changes you make to Zippy's management result in a dramatic improvement in his hoof quality, you may be able to start riding him again, lightly, in the fall, and then resume a full riding and competition schedule NEXT year.

One more thing: If all of this works out well and Zippy is able to work and compete barefoot, you should still monitor his comfort level, condition, and the quality of his movement... and if and when he NEEDS hoof protection or traction or therapy, don't hesitate to use boots OR SHOES! I'm all in favour of keeping horses in conditions that are as natural as possible, and I'm all in favour of horses going barefoot UNLESS THEY NEED BOOTS OR SHOES. "Natural conditions" do not include active training and competition schedules, and not all horses have the kind of hoof quality and density that will hold up under the not-very-natural conditions we impose on them. Pay attention to your horse, and remember that it makes good sense to protect a horse's feet with boots or shoes if the combination of hoof quality, terrain, and workload cause his hooves to wear down too far. The ideal is a comfortable, healthy, happy, SOUND horse - and that's true whether he's barefoot, booted, shod, or barefoot some of the time and booted some of the time and perhaps even shod some of the time.

Your best friend's dad is right about the "good nutrition, full-time turnout, regular balanced trimming" formula for healthy hooves and barefoot horses. It's not new. But ideas in horse management go in and out of fashion over time. Years will go by, and then someone new will come up with a variation on an old idea - or even just the old idea itself, with no changes - and call it "new". This can be annoying to the people who know the history of the idea, but there are usually relatively few of those people, as opposed to a large number of people who DON'T know the history of the idea. To them, it IS new, because they've never heard of it before. Barefoot trims, treeless saddles, bitless bridles - none of these things are new; all of these things are very, very old. Learn everything you can about horses and riding and horse management, and you'll be able to develop your own good judgement. This means that when you're presented with ANY fad, fashion, or trend, you'll be able to look at it clearly, analyze it, take whatever parts of it are worthwhile, use those parts to help your horse, and leave the rest.

If I were you, I'd look into the possibility of getting some boots for Zippy so that you can provide him with foot protection "on and off" during the year or more that he will need to go from being a shod horse to being a barefoot horse. If he can remain comfortable during this time, he'll move better and more eagerly, and his hooves and his overall health will be better a year from now. Just remember to do what's right for him, whatever that requires at any given time: bare hooves, boots, or shoes. It's entirely possible to have a healthy, happy barefoot horse with strong hooves, but even if you change your management methods to help promote healthy, strong hooves, it's quite possible that at some point, perhaps toward the end of the competition season, the hardness of the ground or the length or type of your horse's workouts may cause him to require some additional hoof protection. If so, give him the protection he needs for as long as he needs it. At the end of the day, it's all about your horse's health and comfort.

Mud isn't likely to cause your horse to develop thrush. As long as the turnout is kept clean, Zippy should be fine. If the turnout were full of old bedding and manure, thrush would be a concern, just as it would be if Zippy were standing in a filthy, wet stall. But clean mud (sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it?) shouldn't present a problem.

Jessica

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