Thursday, August 13, 2009

Barefoot Trimming: To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

Barefoot trimming, or the practice of not shoeing your horse, is a wonderful gift that you can give your horse. Leaving your horse barefoot allows his body to function the way nature intended, with the hooves able to expand and contract as they strike the ground. This allows them to act as shock absorbers for your horse's entire body.

At present, I have three mustangs and one quarter horse, and all of them are barefoot. In the past, every horse I have owned, with the exception of my very first horse, has been barefoot. But barefoot trimming isn't for every horse or every horse owner. I love barefoot horses, but I am also enough of a realist to understand the limitations of this approach.

Why Barefoot Trimming Isn't for Everyone
There are numerous reasons why barefoot trimming does not work for every horse and rider combination. I believe that every horse CAN go barefoot under the right conditions, but often times those conditions can't be met, which means the horse will need to be shod. So why isn't barefoot the way to go for every horse?

1. The Transition Is Too Long or Painful
If a horse has worn shoes for many years then the transition to being barefoot can be painful and take a long time. A horse shoe protects the bottom of the horse's foot, especially the sole and heel, from contact with the ground because the shoe lifts the hoof off the ground. This means that the horse tends not to grow a thick sole or thick hoof wall. When you remove the horse's shoes, the resulting hoof is tender, thin-walled, thin-soled, and very sensitive. Now every rock and bump on the ground makes the horse go, "Ouch!"

Now the horse has to grow a different kind of hoof to accommodate his new conditions. As you know, it can take up to a year for a horse to grow a completely new hoof, from the coronet band to the ground. During this transition, the sole and hoof wall have to thicken, the heel usually has to expand and widen, and the whole hoof has to achieve more concavity (which raises the center of the hoof off the ground). All of this change takes a long time (from a few months to a few years). During this transition, the horse will need to wear some kind of boot to protect his sensitive hooves. In addition, he will need access to both gravel and smooth ground. The gravel will give his feet stimulation, which will encourage the right kind of hoof growth, while the smooth ground allows him to rest his feet when they are feeling sensitive. The horse will probably also need a nutritional boost to strengthen his hooves.

So are you starting to get the picture? The transition period can take a while, and you'll have to provide special care for your horse during this time. For some horses, such as ones that haven't been shod for long periods of time, the transition can be very simple. For others, it can take a while. Just be prepared to boot your horse to keep him rideable during this period. Learn more about how to transition your horse to barefoot by reading books by Pete Ramey and Jaime Jackson.

2. The Horse's Feet Are in Poor Shape
Given enough time and care, every horse can probably go barefoot. I've had some horses that had terrible feet, and I was able to transition them to barefoot. But a horse with a good set of hooves is going to make the transition to barefoot a lot easier than a horse with genetically poor feet. A horse with platter-shaped hooves, crumbly hoof walls, compressed frogs, or thin soles is going to have a much more difficult time going barefoot. Also, horses with bad feet living in demanding environments (like rocky soil) will find the transition quite challenging, since the rocky soil tends to wear away the hoof wall faster than it can grow. Having said that, if you are truly dedicated to making your horse barefoot, it can be done. I've done it with some of the most impossible cases!

3. The Owner Doesn't Have the Time, Energy, and Money
This is the biggest problem that most people run into when taking their horses barefoot -- the investment of time, energy, and money. With the cost of shoeing rising out of sight, it can be tempting to think that going barefoot is a cheap alternative. It can be -- if you can find a barefoot trimmer who does a good job. A good job means that your horse is trimmed so that he remains sound and continues to make progress toward a healthier hoof. With bad-footed horses, I find that I have to trim their hooves every two weeks or so to make speedy progress toward healthy hooves. If you horse has lousy feet and you don't want to learn to do barefoot trimming yourself, you'll find shoeing a cheaper alternative than having your farrier visit you every two to three weeks for barefoot trims. On the other hand, if you are willing to invest the time and money up front, your horse will eventually be able to go barefoot on a six to eight week schedule.

Barefoot is Great for Many Horses
I hope this article doesn't discourage you from transitioning your horses to barefoot. I prefer it as a much healthier alternative to shoeing, but I also realize that barefoot won't work for every horse or every horse owner. My three mustangs are blessed with solid hooves of steel, and they've never worn shoes. My quarter horse gelding, bless his sensitive little soul, is transitioning out of shoes. I expect it will take a year or so for him to complete that transition, and in the meantime he is a happy pasture ornament. I am fine with having a pasture ornament, but many if my friends are not.

The choice is yours: to shoe or not to shoe? That is the question. I hope this article sheds some light on reasons you may or may not want to take your horse barefoot!

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