Keeping the Ridden Horse Barefoot- the First Step

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The first step to keeping your ridden horse barefoot, successfully, at a high level of performance, has nothing to do with taking the shoes off. If transitioning to barefoot from shoes, the first step is to clean up the diet. If your horse is not performing as well as he could barefoot, the first step is to go back and examine the diet. Success in barefoot performance or barefoot rehabilitation is determined by four factors; Diet, Environment, Exercise and Trim. A barefoot horse will tell you categorically if the husbandry package is good enough, by developing rock crunching high mileage hooves.

Now please note, I have no formal equine nutritional qualifications, although I do have many others! I am a colorectal surgeon, and my MD research thesis was on inflammation and sepsis. What follows is therefore my opinion, and  current state of learning.

The horse’s diet should be mainly forage based. They are trickle feeders; in the wild they will browse, forage and graze for 16 hours a day. This means they should have to work quite hard for  relatively poor forage but also that it should be available more or less non stop. For true species specific husbandry we have to get creative. Track systems are great for encouraging natural movement.

My track system- the middle was kept, initially for for winter foggage then this year for Haylage.

But the grass on track systems tend to get stressed, so horses must have free access to other stuff, hay or haylage, trees and natural hedgerows, and a variety of weeds, and herbs.

Plant called “self-heal”; helpful weeds are a great sign of biodiversity

Forage has to be organic, I found out the hard way.

Fertilised forage causes all sorts of strange toxic effects

When we first moved to our own place, we bought gorgeous looking meadow hay off the farmer next door. It smelt lovely, tested OK, and was available in the right quantity at the right price. But the horses just didn’t look quite right on it. We switched to organic and they bloomed.

My gorgeous grey barefoot eventer Cal

 I also believe everything we feed should be non GMO. Humans have mostly used GMO technology to increase plant resistance to toxic chemicals such as glyphosate.

“Glyphosate is an herbicide. It is applied to the leaves of plants to kill both broadleaf plants and grasses. The sodium salt form of glyphosate is used to regulate plant growth and ripen fruit.”

The rest of the barefoot horse’s diet is simple; if your forage is good quality and they have varied grazing with access to a variety of herbs and weeds, they shouldn’t need much else.

I say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

“Rewilding” is a relatively new name for an ancient concept- living in harmony and balance with nature.

It took 3 years of hard work to get my supposedly horse friendly grass field in Cheshire up to a paltry 8 species per m2… more of that story here

A bouquet of various species of grasses

Remember that our main crop is horses, not grass. If your field, like most of Cheshire, has only one or two plant species per m2, then you may need to supplement vitamins and minerals.

The carrier feed should be organic, non GMO, low sugar, and low starch. I feed straights, so I know exactly what I am feeding. If you must feed processed feed in nice shiny bags, then be sure to avoid molasses flavouring, anything that contains  oatmeal or wheatmeal (industrial floor sweepings), soya oil or meal, (the balance of omega 3,6,9 predisposes to inflammation). Read your labels. And don’t believe marketing ploys like the Laminitis Trust badge or friendly sounding names like healthy hooves: do your own research.

Avoid overfeeding. Fat predisposes to insulin resistance, and also has a pro inflammatory effect on the body. In humans, obesity is a strong predictor for cancer, diabetes and heart problems, because fat itself excretes damaging inflammatory signalling chemicals called cytokines.

Magnesium oxide is really useful in early transition. Magnesium is deficient in most soils and most diets. Horses and humans will almost never test magnesium deficient because levels are so tightly regulated in blood and serum, but supplementing has been shown anecdotally to have positive effects,  for health and well being, as well as for barefoot transition. Magnesium is also used in human anaesthesia for its’ analgesic (painkilling) effect; this is useful to allow horses to use their hooves more confidently early in transition.

Salt is crucial, as are copper and zinc, to balance out the iron in our soils. I feed a 25ml scoop of table salt every day, and more in summer if they are working hard. If you can buy sea salt by the 25kg bag that’s probably better for them, but I’ve chosen ease over quality here.

There are many good all round balancers on the market to ease transition. I would only go with a recognised barefoot brand; these people have done their homework, their horses have traveled the miles, and they have developed a product based on the needs of their own equines and their own experience. It needs to be region specific; the mineral profile in typical New Zealand soil could be very different to the U.K.

So there you have it; the first step to taking the ridden horse barefoot is to forensically examine and perhaps change what you feed. Good hard working feet rely on good clean healthy nutrition, and it’s important to set yourself up for success.

My name is Fran McNicol and I am an amateur equestrienne living in Cheshire, UK. I am a doctor, specialising in colorectal surgery, and my MD research thesis was on inflammation and sepsis. Through my day job, I understand and fix the human digestive system, and I know a huge amount about inflammation and the human animal, but the most useful thing about becoming a “Doctor Doctor Miss Miss” (MBChB, MD, MRCS, FRCS)  is that I have learned how to read other people’s research, evaluate the evidence and then critically test apparently good theory on my own horses. My writing is therefore my opinion, and current state of learning, from 25 years of full-time doctoring, a few years working as a polo groom around the world and many years of keeping my own horses. I love training young horses, and focus on riding the sport horse both classically and holistically. I compete regularly in all disciplines at our local riding club especially one day eventing. I started blogging as a way to share the experience gained from taking a selection of horses barefoot and working towards the dream barefoot property. I blog regularly at


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