Veterinarian Reviews the Barefoot Concept
Taylor said that while the long-term goal is to develop the horse's feet so they can function properly without protection, the horse will need help--most commonly in the form of hoof boots--while getting to that point.
Horsemen around the world continue to debate whether horses should wear shoes or be barefoot. "This controversy has been going on for years and is not likely to be resolved any time in the near future," said Debra Taylor, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Nonetheless, she noted, more people seem to be jumping on the barefoot bandwagon. She discussed this trend during a presentation at the 2013 Western Veterinary Conference, held Feb. 17-21 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Taylor reminded attendees that any management or treatment plan can be implemented correctly or incorrectly—thus, either doing good or causing harm. The barefoot concept is no different. She said that while some barefoot proponents aren't overly well-informed, many are well-educated in the "art," which they believe can help enhance soundness and increase functionality.
During her presentation and in the associated notes, Taylor outlined several common questions about the barefoot concept and shared her thoughts on each.
Does "barefoot" really mean bare foot?
It can, but not always. Taylor said that while the long-term goal is to develop the horse's feet so they can function properly without protection, the horse will need help—most commonly in the form of hoof boots—while getting to that point. And even after a horse has successfully transitioned to being barefoot, Taylor said, he will likely need protection when working on unfamiliar surfaces.
The Heel's Role
According to Debra Taylor, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, one part of a horse's hoof appears to play a significant role in the transition from shod to barefoot: the heel.
She explained that heel problems are readily recognized in equine hoof care, and terms to describe these issues include underrun, low, crushed, sheared, and/or contracted. Yet, hoof care professionals have established few physical exam parameters for this hoof region. In transitioning horses from shod to barefoot, she said, she's observed that as the heel's structure improves and adapts to the stimuli from the ground, other hoof characteristics—such as solar thickness and solar concavity, both of which increase the coffin bone's distance above the ground—appear to follow suit and fall into place.
"If the back half isn't right, you'll never get the front part right," she said. "Maybe the old adage, 'no hoof, no horse,' should become, 'no heel, no hoof, no horse?' "
Taylor compared making the change to barefoot to making a change in protection from metal horse shoes to something more flexible, which replaces "the rigid interface between the hoof and the ground with a flexible interface." Hypothetically, she said, this allows a more natural interaction between the hoof and the ground.
"If barefoot horses are lame due to lack of protection, the concept isn't being applied correctly," she said.
Why is the barefoot concept so popular?
Taylor said there are a wide variety of reasons people promote the barefoot concept, but she discussed one theory in detail.
"Hoof care professionals who are experienced and well-versed in the theory and implication of this concept hypothesize that the hoof is a smart tissue," she said, which can adapt in response to stimuli. Their goal, when helping a horse transition from shod to barefoot, is to place the hoof in a situation where it can receive stimuli that affects structural adaptation towards a fully functional state of health, Taylor said.
What are the benefits of barefoot?
Taylor said that, when cared for by an experienced barefoot hoof care professional, a horse's hooves are likely to change significantly. She said owners might notice hoof dimension changes including increased sole depth, increased hoof concavity, diminished hoof wall flaring, increased frog mass, wider heels (see sidebar), deeper digital cushions, and increased coronary band circumference. Functional changes owners might notice include reduced or eliminated foot pain, a longer stride, and decreased reliance on boots or shoes for soundness, Taylor said.
Taylor cited one recent study by Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, and colleagues at Michigan State University, evaluating the effects of barefoot trimming on seven Arabian horses. She said the team found that the trim resulted in a palmar/plantar heel migration (meaning the heels shifted further back underneath the limb), decreased breakover, increased heel angle, and increased coffin bone/sole angle—all factors that contribute to healthier hooves.
Taylor said additional research is needed to evaluate the barefoot concept as a potential method by which to rehabilitate horses with weak or diseased feet, as the improved heel structure that often accompanies a barefoot lifestyle could prove beneficial.
Are the benefits worth the time?
It depends, she said. Taylor said if a rider is satisfied with his or her horse's performance level and soundness, making the change from shod to barefoot probably will not seem worth the time and effort involved. However, if a horse has hoof problems or struggles with foot lameness issues, making the switch could be well worth the hassle, she said.
Successfully switching a horse from being shod to going barefoot can't be accomplished overnight. It requires both an adjustment period and hoof protection in the form of hoof boots. And as Taylor pointed out, "hoof boots can be a royal pain in the rear end."
Additionally, she said, horses can become reliant on hoof boots, which could defeat the purpose of an owner's goal in moving to barefoot. To avoid this reliance, Taylor suggested creating a deep gravel area (using round stones only) in the animal's pasture. Often, she said, foot-sore horses (and most horses reliant on boots are foot sore, Taylor noted) will choose to stand in the gravel over other surfaces.
There's no cut and dry answer as to whether switching to barefoot is worth the time and effort it requires, she added.
"At present time, there is very little science to support the hypothesis of the barefoot hoof care professionals," Taylor said. "There is an enormous amount of scientific investigation that needs to be done to test the hypothesis that the equine foot can undergo structural change in response to mechanical usage."
Can any horse go barefoot?
"Any horse can be transitioned from metal protection (i.e., horse shoes) to flexible protection," Taylor said. "The question is can the horse then be transitioned to actually being barefoot."
Taylor said the answer depends on the hoof's current pathology, the treating hoof care provider and veterinary team' experience level, the owner's commitment level, and the daily interactions between the horse and his caretaker. Each horse is an individual with different circumstances, so his hoof care regimen and plan should be individualize to meet his needs.
Making the Change
When an owner decides to transition his or her horse from being shod to going barefoot, Taylor said, there appear to be three key elements to remember. First, she said, remove hoof protection layers gradually. Avoid taking everything away at once; however, don't be afraid to remove aspects if they're interfering with the horse's hoof/ground interaction.
Next, she said, keep the horse in an exercise regimen that "maximizes the number of steps per day with the minimum amount of flexible hoof protection to allow a comfortable flat or heel-first hoof impact.” Barefoot proponents theorize that repeated cycles of flat or heel-first impacts during exercise is a necessary stimulus to elicit structural modeling to a stronger more functional hoof, Taylor explained.
And finally, provide the horse will a well-balanced diet, she said. "A diet balanced to meet the energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements of the individual horse is a vital part of overall horse health and is an essential component of any hoof rehabilitation effort," she said. "It is impossible to generate healthy hooves (epidermal structures) on a nutrient-imbalanced animal."
While the barefoot theory remains controversial for some, others have found success in removing metal protection and replacing it with that of a more flexible nature. Taylor stressed the importance of employing an experienced barefoot hoof care professional if making the change from shod to shoeless.
About the Author
Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.