The Truth About Barefoot Horses
by Daundra Becker
Horses need shoes, right?
But what if I told you that your horse's shoes actually do more harm to your hoofed friend than good? Allow me to introduce you to a different option for your horse: barefoot.
You Don't Put Shoes on Your Horse!?
A common misconception about barefoot is you pull off the shoes, let your ponies run free as they please, and nature takes care of your horse's feet.
Barefoot does not mean letting your horse's feet get so overgrown and flared they start breaking off, or worse yet, cause painful cracks. Barefoot means regular and proper trimming by a knowledgeable barefoot trimmer.
Most people shoe their horse, not because they are bad horse owners, but because they believe that they are protecting the hoof from damage. But hooves were meant to flex and move with impact. Nailing metal to the bottom of a horse's foot keeps the hoof wall rigid.
How does a rigid hoof affect wall the foot?
The back part of a horse's foot is called the digital cushion, they look like two bulbs right above the back of the hoof. To absorb shock, displace pressure, and have proper stimulation the hoof must flex as the horse walks, trots, or canters.
When the digital cushion receives the proper amount of stimulation the whole horse is in balance and the hooves are working the way they are designed to work. This can easily be seen in a horse that lands heel first when it's walking.
This heel first movement is crucial to the health of, not only the hooves and digital cushions, but the tendons and joints of the legs themselves. The feet are the foundation of the whole horse. If the feet aren't right then the whole body isn't right.
When shod, the hoof can't flex. As a result, the digital cushions don't receive proper stimulation and become too weak for the horse to land heel first. So they must resort to a toe-first impact.
Shock is not dispersed properly and excess stress is placed on the tendons and joints, which could cause a number of issues down the line.
What's Wrong With Horseshoes, Anyway?
In an effort to do right by our horses we inadvertently may be doing more harm than good.
Shoes cause a variety of issues, and a lot of it may seem scary, but my goal isn't to scare you. Once you know the truth about horseshoes you can make an informed decision about your horse's feet.
- The White Line
When the horse is freshly trimmed you should be able to lift your horse's hoof and see a white line going all around the hoof. This is connective tissue that keeps the hoof wall attached to the inside of the hoof.
When shod, the hoof wall is left longer than they should be to accommodate the horseshoe nails. Over time this white line is stretched away from the inner part of the hoof like a rubber band because all of the pressure from carrying the horse and rider's weight is put on the hoof wall instead of the sole.
Press your fingers on a hard, flat surface with your fingers straight up and down.
If your nails are short, the pads of your fingers will absorb all the pressure instead of your fingernails. The longer your fingernails are the more it hurts to press down on the hard surface. If you were to have constant pressure on your fingernails 24/7, slowly your nails would pull away from the nail bed, split, and break.
This is essentially what happens when the white line is stretched.
Not only is it painful, it weakens the whole hoof. This is one of the reasons why a horse may be sore when shoes are removed. The white line is so weak and stretched from years of shoeing that it's painful when the horse walks.
A horse's hoof is flexible and uniquely designed to absorb up to 2,000 pounds of force. When you nail a rigid, metal shoe to the hoof you lose 75% of that ability to absorb shock. So if the force of each footfall isn't being dispersed throughout the hoof, where do you think all of that force goes when you take away the flex of a horse's foot?
Imagine you have two tools in each hand: a rubber mallet and a metal hammer. If you hit concrete as hard as you can with each one, which one will you feel more in your hand, wrist, and even up to your shoulder?
The force from each step your horse takes has to go somewhere. So when a horse has shoes, instead of the hoof doing what it was biologically designed to do, the force of impact travels up the leg to the joints, and tendons.
- Hoof Circulation
A lot of people don't realize actually how much the hoof is supposed to move. The shape of the hoof acts as a type of pump when the horse takes a step; expanding at the bottom on impact and flexing back into shape when it is lifted from the ground.
It's almost how you would use a plunger to unclog a drain. This flexing motion circulates blood through the entire hoof. Shoes prevent the feet from flexing.
- Foot Deformity
A healthy front hoof should not be shaped like an oval. Horseshoes force the hoof into the iconic horseshoe shape. This may look appealing, but it causes the horse many issues. A healthy front hoof should be rounded into a circular shape.
Horseshoes force the hoof wall to grow forward at the toe and under at the heels. Long toes and weak, underslung heels change the mechanics of each footfall. A horse is physically incapable of landing heel first with a long in the toes, oval shaped hoof.
Another deformity caused by shoes, we see in the frog.
This V-shaped part of the horse's sole looks like a callous on the bottom of your horse's foot, but it serves several important purposes. The frog assists with stopping by creating drag, it helps the hoof grip on slippery surfaces, and it works with the natural flexing of the foot to circulate blood through the hoof.
A good, healthy frog should be wide at the back of the hoof and come in contact with the ground.
When the foot is deformed into the oval shape of horseshoes, it keeps the frog from making contact with the ground. As a result, the back of the frog squishes together as the hoof grows. Eventually, the frog will only be a thin peak shape recessed in the sole of the horse's foot and it cannot do the jobs it was meant to do.
So what do I do now? Have I ruined my horse's feet for good!
First, take a deep breath.
While shoes cause a good amount of damage to the horse's feet, joints, and overall health, the beauty of the hoof is it's constantly growing and adapting to the conditions it's exposed to.
This is great news for horse owners who want to transition their horses to barefoot, but are afraid the feet are too far gone!
Working with a trusted barefoot trimmer (this is important, most farriers hear barefoot and will do what's called a pasture trim, it is not the same and can actually cause further damage to the foot) nearly any horse's hooves can be rehabilitated into a strong, healthy hoof.
Even horses with a severe case of founder have gone from completely lame to having healthy hooves.
Soreness is most likely going to happen when you transition your horse to barefoot.
The best way to make this transition with your horse is with Scoot Boots!
Scoot Boots are protective rubber shoes for your horse. It takes time for the hooves to heal from damage, but Scoot Boots give the hoof all the support and protection they need.
With properly fitted boots your horse will make the smoothest transition possible from shoes to barefoot. This transition period can be challenging, requiring plenty of maintenance, keeping trims on schedule, and making sure to put boots on the horse. This period can take several months on up to a year or more depending on how long the horse was shod.
Many people don't use boots during this transition period and claim that barefoot doesn't work because their horse is sore on hard surfaces and gravel. But if they spared their horses the pain by using Scoot Boots and stuck with it, then they would see all of the wonderful benefits barefoot horse owners rave about.
It is never too late to go barefoot, and your horse will thank you for it!
Daundra Becker is a freelance writer, mom of three little ladies, and horse-lover from the US. She has worked with all kinds of horses using natural horsemanship methods for 12 years, and has been writing even longer. While not horse related, Daundra also has her own blog documenting her family’s journey that also acts as a writing portfolio. If you are interested in working with Daundra on a writing project or learning more about her and her family’s journey please visit this link.