Respecting Nature's Ideas When the Shoes Come off
Dr. Tomas G. Teskey D.V.M.
Are you reaching the point of providing the essential ingredients your horses need to grow and develop high quality hooves, capable of handling all kinds of terrain? If so, I would bet you are considering a grass-based diet low in sugar and high in fiber, with quality proteins and fats. You may also be thinking about added vitamin and mineral supplements to complement whatever may be lacking in the forage. I hope your list of requirements also includes a lifestyle with other equine friends to dance and feel secure with. Hopefully you are imagining a habitat that provides for a walk to get water and full time freedom of movement, with a variety of ground surfaces to provide support, stimulate circulation, toughen the hooves and encourage playful activity.
Perhaps the day arrives and the shoes come off! To your horse, it feels as if a big part of their hooves are suddenly gone. What their brain had become accustomed to is now very different in weight, length and sensation. Within minutes, circulation is increased, nerves report more sensations and the hooves themselves move and bend in ways the steel shoes didn't allow just moments ago. There will likely be areas of infection exposed and thin, weak walls from a series of nail holes. You've made the decision that no shoes will replace what were just removed, so how do you proceed?
Instead of talking about how we might want to trim a set of hooves at this point, let's focus on what we don't want to trim for the next 3 to 12 months.
Here we see the immediate before and after sole pictures of a sport horse with severe heel deformities (small, narrow frog). Underneath the shoe is infection that will resolve and weakened walls that will grow out with time. No trimming is done at this time, because just removing the shoe is all ready a Big Change.
It's so tempting to "make things a little prettier" right after shoes are removed, and I will tell you to stop, do nothing and allow things to Be for a few moments. Some farriers and trimmers will point confidently to "all the junk" that should be taken away, shaped up, or pared off...because it's "junk". This is where one of my famous lines will be offered: "It may be junk, but it's all he's got. The more you trim at this point, the longer it will take for the horse to get better". Other than perhaps a very light bevel or roll to the edges of the hoof walls, I most always recommend no trimming when shoes come off, at least for a few days. The value in this is helping nature work its magic. You've decided to allow your horse the opportunity to grow better hooves, so let's help them do exactly that!
The hooves are specialized skin structures, capable of making wonderful calluses if we don't defeat them by over trimming. Invariably, hooves transitioning to a more natural state will break out the walls in their quarters, or sides. This is because nail holes have weakened these areas and the natural bending and torque occurring without the rigid steel is allowing this to happen. This is the first step in "self-trimming", a vital function we must work to respect and allow. Natural hooves are not flat, and every part of the solar aspect of the hooves is intended to participate in weight-bearing. One vital realization that will really help you avoid lameness and speed your horse's transition to a barefoot lifestyle is to allow old sole layers to pack into a callus.
Sole callus can be defined as a dense ridge of thicker sole material ahead of the frog, directly underneath the tip of the coffin bone, supportive and protective, allowing for increased comfort and buying time for stronger toe wall to grow in.
Here is a front foot sole view of a horse out of shoes for four months. Note the sole layers and sole callus allowed to remain to form calluses and offer support and protection. A small amount of flare can be reduced at the corners of the toe.
While calluses also form through pressure and response from within, in this early stage we can note some of this "junk" compressing into a callus. If you haven't seen this because you've always trimmed off the junk, I encourage you to give this a try. Besides being more humane and helpful to the horse, this is a sound practice because we are changing our whole approach to care of the hooves. We are not replacing strong, natural, dynamic hoof material with rigid, concussive steel, and we are allowing for and counting on natural exfoliation to drive the production of higher quality growth. A winning strategy for success with barefoot horses is to always leave hoof material behind to wear (exfoliate) on its own.
Nature seeks support from the earth that yields in every step. Steel is aggravating, extremely rigid and drives concussion bone deep. Without a steel shoe, a hoof has the opportunity to develop calluses, a very important one being the sole callus.
We must not defeat this if we desire to assist this remarkable feat of nature which protects the horse. Many horses coming out of shoes land harder on their toes due to weak heel structures. The sole callus behaves very much like toe wall in a sound barefoot horse. It forms in the exact position where future toe wall will be. It handles primary weight bearing and extreme forces of breakover. It contributes to sole depth (thickness), which is vital for preserving and protecting the tip of the coffin bone. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes made in trimming barefoot horses is invading the sole callus with trimming tools. It may appear that toe depth or thickness is excessive because HEEL structures are so weakened in previously shod horses. Don't remove sole at the toes or a toe callus to balance or "go along with" low or under run heels that need to develop--if you do, the whole hoof will be over trimmed. Instead, provide adequate depth of terrain which allows for nice hoof prints, and use hoof boots with pads to stimulate the frog and heels to get thicker and stronger--this way, the heels "catch up" to the toes and balance things out in just a few weeks. In the alternative scenario of higher, upright heels, consider reducing height a little at a time to allow a more comfortable transition.
This horse is five months out of shoes and was doing very well on varied terrain. A new trimmer mistakenly rasped and flattened the sole callus, causing the horse to become immediately lame.
Here is a hoof growing out from previous laminitis and founder. Note the thickened, callused toe behaving as wall at the toe until the new wall growth can come in to take its place.
This horse became lame immediately after trimming. Pictured is her hoof with obvious, fresh rasp marks at the toe. Trimming a flat place for shoes versus trimming for barefoot soundness are very different techniques.
Toe callus gives us a futuristic vision of a rounder hoof instead of the deformed oblong hoof we see coming out of shoes. The rounder hoof is showing itself because of more appropriate stimulation and dynamic movements that were previously denied. Calluses allow for more comfortable movement, which is mandatory for regaining optimal circulation, normal nerve function and higher quality hoof growth. Removing or rasping on a toe callus sets back all these desirable rehabilitation goals.
As you progress in the weeks and months after pulling shoes, keep the walls and any flaring reduced, especially when you can see nice development of sole calluses. Resist any urge to remove flared wall too high--simply keep breakover under control and allow the calluses to work. Take pictures every couple of weeks so you can learn and follow along in your horse's progress--many times, toe calluses will flake away once new, strong hoof walls reach the ground, and your pictures will reveal a more round instead of oblong hoof shape. Keep your horse moving as much as possible to recruit vital circulation and healthy nerve function (see previous blog on "proprioception"). More movement calls in more of nature's ability to provide quality hoof structures capable of serious work.
This series of hoof pictures from a 9 year old Morgan mare illustrate the progression from shoe removal, three months and ten months later. Note the infection has cleared up, calluses have formed over the entire sole, the toe callus has come and gone during new wall growth, and the hoof has become a more natural round shape instead of deformed and oblong.
Shoes removed from a 9 year old Morgan mare. Note infection, nail holes, narrowed frog and weakened, thin hoof walls.
3 months barefoot, pre-trim. Healthy toe callus, strong heels and bars grown in for support.
3 months barefoot, post-trim. Keeping breakover correct and controlling small amount of flaring at toe. Entire sole and sole callus left intact.
10 months barefoot. New hoof with more round shape, thick hoof walls regrown, expanded frog and callused structures from lifestyle and habitat changes (varied terrain, gravel, exercise).
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Dr. Tomas Teskey DVM
Dr. Teskey has degrees in botany and veterinary medicine from Arizona in 1991 and Colorado in 1995. Within five years of graduation, he ventured into less popular and more holistic herd health practices for livestock and has now specialized in equine hoof and dental care, describing in detail the connections between the environment, nutrition and the body, specifically the foundational importance of hooves and teeth.
He is a strong advocate for responsible animal care and promotes connection and partnership as a way of life.
He and his wife and children spend time between Arizona, USA and Hungary, working on horses, ranching and farming and doing educational clinics around the world.
Dr. Tomas G. Teskey Veterinary Insights
I consult regularly with Leroy on the state of affairs with the herd.