Issues along the Trail to Barefoot

In my earlier blogs I talked about getting started in, and transitioning to, the barefoot life.  Now, I would like to talk about a few common issues that may pop up along the way and will challenge your progress and maybe your dedication to barefoot. So, let’s focus on:  abscesses, rear foot pain and hoof boots.

At first, everything seems to be going great, then your horse is a little “off” on one foot.  Ok. But, over the next few days it gets really bad, but only in the one hoof. You are sure your horse has a serious issue and you call the veterinarian.  At the vet appointment your horse is diagnosed with an abscess in its hoof. Some abscesses are high up in the foot and the pressure may blow out at the hairline, some are in the sole.  No matter where the abscess is located, the horse will feel a lot better when the pressure is released. It may take a day or two to see great improvement, but you will likely notice a markedly happier horse.  With a sole abscess the vet may wish to cut a hole in the sole tissue to release the pressure. Some owners will decide to let the abscess blow out without the vet opening this area. It’s the owners preference.  Either way, in my experience, the horse will get gradually less lame over the course of a couple weeks after the abscess blows out. You will need to follow your vet’s instructions, and likely keep the horse in boots and pads at least until it is more comfortable.  Note that cutting a hole in the pad at the location of the sole abscess often helps relieve some pain. If you have thoughts on what may have caused the abscess, for sure, try to remove the possibility of it happening again. Maybe it’s a stone bruise from pushing the feet a little too hard in transition, or the horse might have just stepped on something in the pasture.  I hardly ever can point to one thing as the cause. But, if there is any comfort I can give you is that you are not alone. This is one of the most common issues faced during transition. So, don’t give up on barefoot just because your horse suffers an abscess.

The next most common issue I see is pain in the back of the foot.  This is often blamed on thrush or fungus in the center sulcus of the frog.  I don’t really enjoy the term “center sulcus” I feel it’s a little too much of “vet speak”.  Let’s just call it the groove in the center of the frog. Often, this groove gets very deep and thrush or fungus gets growing in there.  This seems to eat the tissue and leave the frog ratty looking with just a thin layer of tissue over the internal foot. A little pressure with a hoof pick in the groove and the horse will react with a jerk of the foot.  If thrush or fungus is the problem, start on a treatment routine with your favorite thrush medication. However, if the deep groove does not appear to have the smelly black ooze of thrush or the cottage cheese white fungus (equally as smelly), it may simply be a lack of frog tissue, which leaves the inner foot unprotected.  In this case, treating the frog for thrush may be a waste of your time. You just have to be patient (one of my favorite words) and provide stimulation to grow that frog. Even with a case of thrush, it’s often more effective to just “outgrow the thrush” as they say. So, smarty pants, how do you do that? Our old friend, gravel, or our other buddies, boots and pads.  Stimulation grows tissue. Gravel or even snow, can pack up into that frog and demand more tissue. Don’t have gravel or snow? Pads in the boots can do the job too. Often, we use a pad with a thicker triangle section corresponding to the frog shape to reach up in there and grow the tissue. Talk to your trimmer about treatment options and how the hooves should be trimmed to get just the right amount of pressure on the frog.  Again, you are not alone, keep up the fight. Plus, this work develops the entire back of the foot. And that means you are also treating navicular issues, weak digital cushion, contracted heels etc. Win, win.

Lastly in this blog, I want talk a little bit about hoof boots.  What? Hoof boots are great and necessary for the majority of barefoot horses, how can these be an issue?  It’s often not the boots, it’s the wrong boots. Many times people want a particular brand or style of boots, but in reality, these may not be the correct type for their horse’s feet.  People get frustrated wrestling the wrong type of boots on and off, and don’t even try to put a pair of poorly fitting boots on your horse during a trail ride while a bunch of owners of shod horses are waiting impatiently for you to “put those silly things on your horse”.  So be realistic about what your hoof protection needs are, what you are trying to accomplish, how you REALLY ride, and what you are physically capable of doing regarding putting the boots on and taking them off. There are LOTS of great boot choices out there right now, but buy the ones that you can actually USE.  Experiment with a lot of boot styles. Try to find someone to help you that has experience with a variety of boots not just one brand or style. Get creative. You will likely find some great boots that will work for you and your horse. As I’ve written before, boots are great for rehabbing problem feet and providing protection on the trail.  Heck, some styles of boots can do both! But, don’t be surprised if you end up with a collection of boots.

There are many other issues that can appear during this journey, these are just the three problems I see most commonly with horses that aren’t suffering from seriously compromised hooves.  We will get more in-depth into individual issues and treating pathologies in future blogs. Keep on going barefoot!

Jay DeHart, from Stevensville, Montana, USA. Jay is a former farrier who now specialises in hoof rehab. "After learning to shoe horses and not totally believing in the concept, I found the barefoot trimming method and have never put shoes on another horse.  

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