Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Taking Horses Barefoot: From Ow to Wow

Taking some horses barefoot is a simple process: you just pull off the shoes and do a regular barefoot trim, as taught by the likes of Jaime Jackson or Pete Ramey.

Taking other horses barefoot is a complete nightmare. You yank off the shoes, do a barefoot trim, and your horse is completely lame. Watching a newly barefoot horse hobble around the pasture is a scary sight, one that is likely to make you cringe.

Luckily, if you have the patience to "wait it out," and are willing to supplement your horse's diet while he goes through the transition, chances are that you can emerge with sound barefoot horse.

Taking Horses Barefoot: Some Tips to go from Ow to Wow

If you yank your horse's shoes and he screams, "Ow!" don't panic. A lot of horses, depending on their pain tolerance, find being barefoot a bit strange. Some horses feel uncomfortable while others in so much pain that they literally can't walk. So here are some tips to help your horse go from "Ow!" to "Wow!"

1. Proper Footing for the Barefoot Hoof
The easiest footing for a newly-barefoot horse to negotiate is sand. Sand is soft, yet provides support and contact for all parts of the hoof. This support and contact is important because the hoof needs stimulation to grow strong and thick. Studies have shown that hooves that are in constant contact with the ground, not lifted by the shoe, have far more blood vessels, which equals much better circulation. The more circulation a hoof gets, the faster, stronger, and healthier it will grow.

If you can't fill your horse's entire pen with sand, at least put sand in a certain area of his enclosure. That way he has an area where he can stand and rest his feet. Horses that are in pain during the early stages of being barefoot find sand relieves their pain.

2. Barefoot Trim: Do it Right
You can definitely learn how to do a correct barefoot trim from books and DVDs, but if you are new to trimming or unsure of your skills, you might want to seek professional help for the first few barefoot trims. I had my farrier teach my how to do a correct barefoot trim, then read almost every book available on the subject. Over the years (more than 11) my barefoot trim has gotten better and faster. So will yours, if you elect to trim your horse yourself. If you choose to have a professional do the barefoot trim, be sure to choose one who has studied barefoot trimming, rather than one who simply pulls shoes and levels off the bottom of the hoof.

One way to check if a barefoot trim is done correctly is to watch your horse's reaction after each foot is trimmed. If the trim feels right to your horse, most of the time he will lick and chew, or yawn, to indicate that the hoof feels right. If he does not give any of these signals, or even goes so far as to pick his hoof up off the ground, then he farrier probably needs to level out an uneven spot or two.

Every horse is different, so you have to learn his quirks. For instance, I have one mare who likes her quarters hollowed out and her bars to be perfectly straight. If these conditions are not met, she won't leave her hoof on the ground. She'll hold it up until I "fix" my errors!

Finally, the more frequently you can do little barefoot trims, the faster and better the hoof will grow. It's like getting your hair cut. Getting regular trims makes your hair grow faster. Doing regular maintenance barefoot trims, every couple weeks or so, will not only encourage hoof growth but will keep that growth going in the right direction.

3. Feeding Strong Nutrition while Taking Horses Barefoot
If your horse has been wearing shoes for a while, chances are that his hoof wall and sole are not as strong and thick as they should be to withstand the barefoot lifestyle. So while you are waiting for his hoof to grow out, you should give your horse the right nutrition to encourage proper hoof growth.

I love my "horse goo" for this ... it's a little recipe that I mix up at the kitchen table. The goo includes an antioxidant juice and Simplexity Essentials (blue-green algae, enzymes, and probiotics). The reason this mixture works is that the blue-green algae, especially the form that has had the cell wall removed (called Omega Sun), seems to "feed" the hoof in ways that make it grow stronger and faster. The probiotics, beneficial bacteria like acidophilus and bifidus that live in your horse's gut, are also very useful because they produce bioton, the substance that makes the hooves tough yet flexible. Finally, the mangosteen juice as well as the enzymes both have anti-inflammatory effects, which helps reduce your horse's level of hoof pain and inflammation.

The really good news is that your horse's whole body will benefit from this "horse goo." All of this nutrition will contribute to a better hair coat, clear eyes and nose, and a strong immune system. Just compare Walker's look today to his picture from 8 months ago (see above)!

4. Booting the Barefoot Hoof

Barefoot horses need to keep moving to increase the stimulation on their hooves. If your horse is in pain after his first barefoot trim, chances are that he won't want to move ... and that's bad. He needs to keep moving to get his hooves accustomed to the barefoot trim, and to increase circulation.

To help these horses, try booting them. You might have to try several boots before you find the perfect kind for your horse, but it is well worth the effort. Look for boots that will stay on in pasture because nothing sucks worse than walking over a dozen acres looking for a lost boot. I've had good success with Old Macs and Cavallo Simple Boots. Other people seem to like the Easyboot Glove. You can also look for boots that come with gaiters, which are simply straps that attach the boot to your horse's leg. That way, if the boot comes off your horse's hoof, the gaiter will at least keep it attached to his leg.

Depending on whether you live in a damp climate, you may have to put the boot on during the day and take it off at night to keep dampness from accumulating on the hoof. Dampness softens the hoof, which will make it more painful for your horse to walk when the boot is off. Look for the perfect balance where the hoof boot is on for long enough to keep your horse moving, but is off for enough time to prevent the hoof from becoming soft. Normally you want the hardness of your horse's hoof to match the hardness of the terrain on which you expect to ride him.

5. Patience, Patience, Patience!
Ultimately, patience is the name of the game. It's taken me a whole year to transition Walker, my QH gelding whom I affectionately refer to as my "hot house flower," to a barefoot lifestyle. He's been getting my "horse goo" every single day for over a year, and he has finally achieved a strong enough hoof to go out on gravel, rocks, and road base without missing a step. This is a horse who used to wince when walking around a grass pasture ... now I call that improvement! But the process has required a huge amount of patience on my part, and I've lost and found more boots than I care to disclose!

However, I do strongly believe in the barefoot hoof ... I believe it is the healthiest and most natural for horses, and so these days I'm willing to wait it out, feed the right supplements, and trim, trim, and trim until one day, voila! Barefoot horse!

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