Over thousands of years of domestication horses have been kept barefoot and this way of looking after their hooves is currently enjoying a renaissance. Any horse owner knows that keeping their horses hooves in the best possible condition through diet, exercise and expert farriery, is absolutely crucial and the growing barefoot movement is working to highlight the benefits of keeping horses barefoot.
Since Roman times shoes have been used to protect the hooves of working horses, so it follows that horses prior to this, were well used to working barefoot. Recent studies into the health of the hooves of wild horses suggest that walking long distances over a variety of surfaces, as well as being able to forage for naturally beneficial plants can help to keep their hooves healthy and many owners are now choosing this option in order to keep their horses healthy and happy.
The term barefoot refers to those animals that are kept and worked without shoes full-time. While there are many benefits – not least financial – to keeping a horse without shoes, it is not something that should be considered lightly. Returning a working horse to its barefoot state takes time and a good deal of planning. In fact, the work involved can be so intensive that many owners will send their horses to specialist facilities, where experts will begin the process for them.
The cost savings involved in going barefoot cannot be underestimated, but there will still be costs involved. Most shod horses will need to see the farrier every six to eight weeks, and lost shoes and remedial farriery may also bump up those bills. Owners of barefoot horses can learn to trim their animal’s hooves themselves or, if all goes well and the hooves remain healthy after transition, the attention of a barefoot farrier will not be required as often. However the trim of barefoot horses it vital to hoof health so this should be planned carefully.
Many members of the barefoot movement believe that shoeing affects the natural function of the hoof. The nails and clenches of a steel shoe are thought to restrict blood flow to the structure and shoes are thought to encourage peripheral loading, where the horse carries his weight on the hoof wall only. It’s also been suggested that shoes can impound the effects of concussion – sending the shock up the tendons and ligaments of the leg, rather than any impact being cushioned naturally by the hoof.
Naturally, the hoof is a definite cone shape – with the ground surface being wider than the coronary band. Putting shoes on the horse means the hoof cannot achieve its natural shape and instead takes on a cylindrical appearance.
The period between the shoes coming off, and the horse developing ‘rock crunchers’ (unshod hooves that can cope with any surface, even the stoniest ground), is known as ‘transition’. This takes as long as it takes as each horse is different, but generally a horse that was sound in shoes will be sound on grass and softer ground without shoes. On stony ground however, things will be a little different and it will take a while for his feet to develop the thickened sole and tough capsule needed to cope with rough ground.
The trim of the barefoot hoof is of vital importance during transition and the first trim should probably be carried out by a barefoot specialist. The horse can be ridden on soft ground during transition, but should be fitted with hoof boots on rocky or uneven surfaces. Exercise is encouraged during and after transition as it’s known that movement encourages blood flow around the hoof. Living out is also encouraged to get him moving as much as possible.
He should have access to a variety of surfaces – included gravel or hardcore – to start the thickening process, and his feet should not be allowed to stay wet for long periods. Many barefoot owners will keep their horses out, but will bring in overnight in winter to allow the hooves to dry.
Going barefoot should not be done without taking advice and only an expert will be able to tell you when your animal has developed ‘rock crunchers’. Some horses never develop the soles needed to cope with very stony ground and will always need boots when navigating such surfaces.
Perhaps the most important considerations when going from shod to barefoot, are diet and exercise. These two things have the biggest influence on the overall health of the hoof and must be managed carefully in order to secure optimum hoof health.
Any changes to the diet should be made around a month before you plan to remove the shoes (remember any changes to diet should be made very gradually!) in order to avoid any tenderness issues. The general rule for the barefoot diet is low sugar, high fibre, with forage forming the basis of his nutrition. Many barefoot horses can be sensitive over stony surfaces if they have too much sugar in their diet, so avoid molasses altogether and look for feeds with a low-sugar, high-fibre content. Horses that tend to gain weight easily will benefit greatly from a well-managed barefoot diet, and these can have forage soaked to remove extra sugar before they are fed. Supplements such as biotin can also be beneficial.
Movement encourages a healthy blood flow to the hoof and this in turn helps with growth and healing. Full turnout is recommended for barefoot horses in order to ensure they graze and move, and providing a number of surfaces, from grass, to pebbles, to hardcore, can help them get their hooves used to a variety of surfaces. An area of stony ground may be useful if the weather is wet or if your horse need to have his grass intake restricted.
Ridden exercise is also important – particularly if turnout is limited, although you should pay attention to the surfaces he’s going to be exercised on and boots should be used if necessary. Very wet weather can mean that bacteria and fungi can affect the hoof. Again, an area of gravel or hardcore will help him keep his feet dry. It may also be worth stabling barefoot horses overnight during the winter months, providing all bedding is clean and dry.