The Barefoot Performance Horse

I was thinking this past weekend about barefoot horses and racing. With the Kentucky Derby and all that, it really got me wondering how these horses would do if they didn't wear shoes. So I decided to research a little bit to find out what professionals' thoughts are on barefooted performance horses and race horses. 

Saucy Night Makes UK Racing History by Winning Barefoot

My first research led me to Wayne Rice who has raced all but one of his 30-horse string barefoot, making an estimated 1,200 barefoot starts. He started down this path nine years ago. He states that it depends on the type of terrain the horses are racing. If on natural dirt he prefers shoes but will remove those shoes directly after the race. But, if racing on artificial turf, he allows his horses to remain barefooted. In 2014 he was second leading trainer on the Tapeta Footings surface at Presque Isle Downs near Erie, Penn. with his barefoot runners. He maintains that keeping his horses barefoot is easier than shoeing them and is healthier for the foot. 

Another barefoot racing advocate is Bill Casner who won the 2009 Dubai World Cup by an amazing 14 lengths with his barefooted Well Armed. As the Chair for the Shoeing and Hoof Care Committee of the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit he states:

“One of the worst things we can do on those young horses when they are still developing and still growing is to put shoes on them,”  - Denise Steffanus, Barefootin': A Healthy Choice for Soundness?, March 1, 2016

As many would agree due to scientific studies, he maintains that when shod, the hooves begin to contract in the heels which then negatively affects the blood flow to the back third of the foot. We know that the back third of the foot is the support and strength of the hoof and horse. When that area is compromised in any way the way of going, the power, the speed will all be affected. The rest of the horse is affected negatively as well ... the bony structure, the ligaments, the tendons, the muscles - the whole horse is badly affected. 

Just think of when YOUR feet hurt ... well, not much different for the horse. 

Let's go to what some high performance riders say. 

At Arroyo Del Mar, Shannon and Steffen Peter's training barn in San Diego, Shannon Peters took 15 horses barefoot. They ranged from Training Level to Grand Prix. Shannon states, "The legs tighten up, they're freer in their shoulders, they're better in their movements and they're straighter." - Kelly Sanchez, Dressage Today, March, 2013

Richard Mott, BSc, of Warwickshire College, in England and Julie Elis, MSc, also of Warwickshire, investigated 20 adult Irish Sport Horses as they trotted in a fiber/sand arena. The study was presented at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science Conference in Bredsten, Denmark. Half the horses were shod and half were barefoot. The findings showed there was little difference between the two groups. Mott stated in his findings: "We studied four variables—stride duration, fetlock extension, scapular rotation, and elbow flexion—appeared to be essentially unaffected by the presence, or absence, of shoes. “None of these variables changed at all.” 

Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine's Debra Taylor, DVM believes that the equine foot's ability to adapt and change in size, shape and structure is underestimated. 

"We have a tendency with valuable horses to bubble-wrap them to the point that their own tissues are never really challenged. We take a weak foot and continue to protect it rather than saying 'Let's try to put a great foot under this horse'."

Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD, professor of surgery emeritus at Tufts and developer of the Bitless Bridle stated: "There are no conditions in which a horse or its hooves would be healthier if shod. With proper barefoot management (which includes the temporary use of boots during transition from fettered to unfettered foot), there are no disciplines, climates, or terrain that necessitate shoes. If a reining horse is fitted with shoes to enable it to slide, this is for the benefit of the rider, not the horse.

The hooves of horses in the wild neither wear excessively nor overgrow. Barefoot horses that are ridden in 100-mile endurance races finish the races with hooves in excellent condition and, because their horn metabolism is so vigorous, will often need to be trimmed on Day 3 after the race."  Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD, The Horse, Barefoot vs Shod, August 1, 2008

There are many more opinions and studies and findings and statements. Just these few are solid enough to keep on the barefooted path with my horses for the rest of my time. I hope it helps you, too, if you are on the fence line about whether or not to pull your horse's shoes or not. 


Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications including The Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoof care for the last 20 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. You can email to Gwen -- or telephone in the US (239)-573-9687. For further information please click here:



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