My last blog discussed what was likely to happen when you decided to pull the metal shoes from your horse and start the barefoot life. This time, I would like to talk about what happens now, at least in my experience, and give you some guidance that I normally provide to my clients.
So, your trimmer has pulled the shoes and driven away, and now you’ve likely got a tender footed barefoot horse standing at your side. Hopefully, your trimmer gave you a list of things you need to do to start down the road to barefoot success. This may include treating thrush/fungus, ordering boots, soaking the feet, buying minerals and the list goes on and on. We discussed many of these in my previous blog, but how do you convert these weak feet to rock crushing hooves? Hold on speed demon, are your horses' feet capable of becoming rock crushers? Did the X-rays show bone loss? Has there been laminitis issues that might compromise the blood flow and nourishment of the hooves? There are lots of issues that may limit the actual potential of your horse, and you should be prepared to accept that fact. Most horses, with proper trimming, nutrition, and movement, can reach their barefoot potential. But remember all horses start from different points on the path. A horse that received great care as a young horse was allowed to develop his or her feet, and was only shod on occasion comes from a totally different place than a horse that was stalled as a youngster and lived with back to back shoeing its entire life.
So, what to do? Start with setting your horse up to reach its potential even if that may be a little lower than you had hoped. Learn and study all you can about going barefoot. Buy all the books, join the internet groups etc. But, most of all, actually do the required work. If you are treating thrush, buy the best-recommended treatment you can afford and be diligent in the application. Learn how to put on the hoof boots you bought without a huge struggle and have replacement pads ready. Did you get your hay tested and the mineral balance calculations done? Did you buy a good base supplement? And, if needed, get individual minerals to complete the balance? Plus, you might need to soak your hay if your horse is sugar sensitive. Basically, do the things that you and your trimmer have discussed as good steps to improving the health of your horse.
Ok, now you are well on your way. But how do we actually develop those feet? The absolute, number one thing all barefoot owners need to be successful is…wait for it…patience. What? But, you want to ride, NOW! Sure, you can ride if you, your trimmer and vet agree that your horse is ready. Likely it will mean riding in boots but be thankful that such things are available so you can use your horse AND be providing it with a healthier lifestyle. Few horses step out of metal shoes and onto a trail barefoot. Some go comfortably from shoes to arena work, but the vast majority of my clients are Montana trail riders and only use the arena for training. These riders need horses to develop maximum hoof toughness. So, are you stuck forever riding in boots? Maybe, maybe not. Boots are always a great option when a horse shows tenderness on any type of terrain. As they say, if your horse asks for boots, put them on. But, to actually get your horse more comfortable going barefoot there are things you can do. Notice the word “you” in that last sentence. Again, more work for you.
You can start by introducing your horse to more challenging terrain than his or her normal/daily footing. Do this slowly. Hand walking a pasture-kept horse on a path that’s a little rougher than its normal footing for a few minutes every day or so is a good start. Increase the exposure only when the horse is quite comfortable with the current exposure. Remember, this is a workout for their feet and overworking them is a negative. Horses kept in cushy stalls, and horses with very thin soles, will require a very slow introduction to new challenges. Sometimes a little work in arena sand is enough to cause increased tenderness. Watch the reaction of your horse and don’t push it. Patience, remember? Did you get the approval to go trail riding? Maybe just start the ride by walking the horse barefoot down the trail before you put the boots on and mount. Be creative in exposing those feet. But, again, slowly increase the stress.
I’ve given YOU lots of jobs during this process, so what can your horse do? Well, my number one tool for creating a sound barefoot horse is…patience…and gravel. Placing pea-sized gravel in areas where the horse travels a several times a day has done more to develop great barefoot feet than my trimming ever could. Placing gravel for a depth of 3-6 inches around a water tank or where your horse paces, or for several feet down the path they use to get to the paddock is a great start to great feet. Again, talk to your trimmer or vet about what your horse is capable handling, but gravel is a horse and owners' best friend. Weak frogs, poorly developed rear of the foot, thin soles etc are positively impacted by walking and standing in gravel. But, never confine your horse on gravel. Always provide a place where the horse can get off the gravel and reduce the foot stimulation. Gravel will let your horse do the work of developing their feet without much input from you. It’s so much easier than a boot and pad regiment. Boots on for a few hours, off for a few hours…who has time to do that? You are lucky to just hand walk your horse a few minutes every day. And gravel is pretty cheap, plus you will get a workout shoveling it. But, if you board your horse and can’t really bring in gravel, you will likely be going the hand walking route to get the toughening process started. Oh well, a little horse time and some exercise, is not so bad.
I get asked about hard tarmac roads and horse feet. Well, if you are walking your horse down a paved lane just watch out for random rocks on the surface. The hoof coming down on a rock can obviously cause a stone bruise and could lead to an abscess. A clean hard road is generally good for the horse but the concussion may be painful for horses with joint issues so talk with your vet if you are unsure.
Next are those boots you bought. Hoof boots are essential in getting your horse moving if its feet are tender. Many boots allow the use of pads, and these pads can provide stimulation similar to gravel. So boots are a huge tool in making the shoeless transition, they just take a little effort on your part. Again, like gravel, I always recommend giving the horse time out of the boots every day as a relief to any pressure the horse may be experiencing. I know plenty of trimmers who glue on boots for days or even weeks at a time, but to me, if I can avoid that, I will. I just believe that everything needs a break and that the feet can use some breathing or downtime. So, when using boots and pads during turnout, I usually recommend just leaving them on the horse for 2 to 6 hours per day. Again, the time in boots can be adjusted to the comfort of the horse while still providing some stimulation. However, if your horse is dealing with Founder or other pathology, it may be necessary to keep him or her in boots for more extended periods. Talk with your trimmer or vet about the proper protocol. And, so what if your horse needs to wear boots on demanding terrain for the rest of its life? If that’s what it takes to enjoy your horse and provide it with a healthier lifestyle, it seems worth it.
Lastly, another great tool is your phone. Take pictures of the hooves at the beginning of the process. You will likely forget what the feet originally looked like a few weeks from now. These pictures will help you keep a perspective on the progress. And, honestly, I can’t remember the details of every foot I trim, I’m lucky to remember how to find my way to your barn every few weeks.
So now you have multiple jobs, including shoveling gravel, hand walking your horse and probably taking boots on and off. But, you are hopefully developing those hooves. I’ve listed a few tools here but there are more, just remember…patience. And always recognize the limits of your horses potential and be realistic about going barefoot. Plus, be prepared, there will likely be a few hiccups along the way. (Maybe that will be the topic of my next blog).
Former Farrier...turned Barefoot Trimmer, Specializing in Hoof Rehab
After learning to shoe horses and not totally believing in the concept, I found the barefoot trimming method and never put shoes on another horse.