Ditch those shoes and gallop for the hills… okay, it may not be quite as simple as just removing your horse’s shoes like we might do after a hard day’s work, but barefoot is not as difficult as many make out.
To be honest, I was a little sceptical about barefoot. Having come across only a handful of owners who had dipped their toe in the water (no pun intended) and tried barefoot, I questioned why. Was it due to a fear it would cause damage, being told by farriers that it was of no benefit, or was it just due to lack of knowledge?
For me, my knowledge was limited and preventing me from understanding the bigger picture. To address this, I decided to spend time with a barefoot trimmer, a former farrier who moved away from traditional shoeing after finding that metal shoes could be doing more harm than good. As part of his work though, he did find that not all horses can cope barefoot. It all depends on the type of work they do and the terrain they are exposed to on a daily basis. To address this, he designed a shoe around the hoof, so at least there was the option for owners to look at an overall more hoof friendly method. The fact that the shoes are made in Italy piqued my interest even more!
Whilst watching 16 horses being trimmed, I learnt a lot about the hoof, leading me to question why so much of my training has stopped at the coronary band. I learnt that the hoof wall is not the primary weight-bearing surface, the load is shared with the sole, bars and frog and yet the traditional metal shoe is fitted to the hoof wall, preventing compression on the base of the foot.
The horse’s hoof is designed to act as an effective blood pump. When allowed to work as nature intended, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard, something endurance riders have known for a while and why many use boots instead of shoes. In addition, the hoof has inbuilt cushioning, designed to destress joints, ligaments, and other tissues. This makes me question the belief that horses naturally get joint and back problems as they age. Maybe this is due to the fact their hooves are not able to work properly in supporting the rest of the body.
It’s great that keeping horses more in line with their wild counterparts is becoming more popular, both in terms of day to day care and in the use of complementary therapies but, at the same time, it’s necessary to be realistic. Wild horses travel around 20-30 miles per day over all sorts of terrain and so the hoof is designed to be on the move. If a horse is spending most of its time in a soft grassy field, its feet may not then be able to cope with the odd hack out on a stony bridle path. This is where a more natural shoe or a hoof boot can help.
Even eventers at high levels are realising the benefit of barefoot and that it’s possible to compete without metal shoes. British Olympian Emma Hindle, for example, took home a double victory at the International CDIO in France in 2005 with two barefoot horses.
I’m much more aware now of the options available around the decision whether to shoe horses and more aware of the importance of the hoof to a horse’s wellbeing. Whilst there is an awful lot to learn on the topic as more research comes to the fore, I’ve come away realising that, in a very loose sense, looking after a horse is a bit like looking after the tyres on a car. There’s no point fixing the tracking (Shiatsu, Craniosacral, Physio etc etc.) if the hooves aren’t being looked after in the same way.