The Barefoot Horse: Romance vs. Reality

Most of us had a childhood that involved childrens' horse books and the wonderful, romantic images they conjured: A magnificent horse--most likely a black stallion--galloping free, au natural. Nostrils flaring, legs charging, mane blowing, tail flowing. It's hard to set aside that dreamy fantasy, and as adults, particularly in this era of "natural is better," we might be tempted to make our horses as natural as possible, too, by letting them run barefoot, surely as Nature intended.

The problem is, horses aren't quite the originals that Mother Nature developed, not since man began breeding for select traits and inadvertently introduced a few undesirable traits, too--some of which include conformational faults and feet that cannot tolerate barefootedness. Plus, the natural horse didn't spend time carrying a rider around a schooling ring, over jumper courses, on trails, or any number of other mounted or driving activities that can cause excessive hoof wear.

Barefoot? Yes, But...

For sure, in a well-conformed, well-built horse, the barefoot state is the most natural situation and possibly the healthiest, depending upon the work the horse is asked to do. Says Debora Ash, American Farrier's Association (AFA) certified farrier, BHS assistant instructor, and co-author and publisher of Study Guides (to aid farriers for AFA national certification examinations), "The greatest advantage is to hoof health. By leaving a horse barefoot, one allows the hoof's natural functions of shock absorption, traction, and biomechanics to perform at their optimum. Shoes inhibit natural function and the horse's natural way of going, and limb interference with shoes can cause injury."

Adds Emil Carre, AFA president, AFA certified journeyman farrier, and a consulting editor for Hoofcare and Lameness magazine, "The foot was designed to be unshod. Anything that you add to the foot, like a horseshoe that is nailed on, is going to interfere with the foot's natural process. Most horseshoes have six to eight nails, possibly one to three clips, all of which constrict the foot's ability to expand and contract. Add pads, packing, any number of alternatives to the shoe, and you create a gait alteration. It all interferes with the natural process of the mechanism. Ideally, for the foot to work the way it's been designed through evolution to work, you'd rather do less than more to the foot. But that may or may not be a realistic wish."

Indeed, there's a reality that must be considered with today's designer horse. Explains Carre, "Man entered the picture with his breeding fancies, and we see horses today that are incapable of walking a gravel parking lot without shoes on their feet. They've had the feet bred right out of them!"

Ash agrees. "Better-quality breeding is a must as good hoof quality is definitely genetic, not manufactured," she says. "We have made the horse, over 2,500 years, dependent on shoes." For example, Carre notes that many Thoroughbred types, Warmblood types, and show Quarter Horses have no depth of sole.

Additionally, irrespective of breed, many conformation types are ill-suited to go barefoot. "The long-toed, low-heeled, long-sloping pasterned horse is an unlikely type to go barefoot," says Carre. "The long toes and low heels may likely lead to heel pain and tendon problems, and a longer, sloppier gait because of toe length. The horse that is extremely off-set at the knees is another type that probably can't go barefoot for any length of time. Then there's the club-footed horse: A club-footed horse is going to have a pair of mismatched feet (unless it's a bilateral club foot), so those horses will have a mismatched gait. In order to help that, you have to make adjustments in the feet and lock those adjustments in with shoes. If you don't, the toe will break off the club foot and you'll have a stumpy little gait on that side."

The way horses were trained as youngsters also can influence hoof integrity. If worked hard and unshod, these horses are at risk for severe remodeling of their coffin bones. "We see a lot of that today because their feet weren't able to adapt to being barefoot," Carre says.

Finally, even in well-conformed horses, the kind of work they do and the quality of hoof health itself are major factors. Horses engaged in strenuous activities or concussive sports might need the support and/or traction that shoes provide. Horses prone to hoof chips, cracks, sole bruises, and shelly feet likewise can benefit from protected hooves.

"You need to be realistic and investigate whether your horse is capable or incapable of being barefoot," Carre declares. "Even some horses that have never been ridden and were always pastured have to wear shoes."

Before making the decision to pull off the shoes, let your farrier and a radiographic evaluation determine if your horse has the conformation and foot type to go barefoot.

Those Who Can

While some horses are genetically incapable of going barefoot, other horses do have the genes that produce suitable conformation and feet that stand up in the unshod state. "If, for example, you're buying a fox hunting horse that was born and bred out in the field, and his family five generations back fox hunted barefoot, then that's probably a practical candidate for going unshod," says Carre. He recalls a grade-type Quarter Horse endurance horse he once owned. "By the time he was 23, he'd gone on eight 100-mile rides, and over 3,000 miles in National Trail Ride Association competitions, and that horse practically lived barefoot. We trained him four to six months a year barefoot. He had thick walls and thick soles. It was through genetics and breeding."

Even unshod individuals still need regular farrier attention to preserve optimal hoof health. How often depends upon the horse.

Says Carre, "A couple of horses in my practice only need trimming three times a year. They wear down their hooves absolutely perfectly; I just round the edges off. I have one horse that you'd swear somebody had worked very hard creating a four-point trim: The toe wears off really nicely, the quarters are smooth and round, and there are no chips. Other horses' hooves may flare and their toes may get a little long, so those horses need farrier work every few weeks to round the hooves up, take the flares off, maybe back the toe up a little bit.

"A lot of horses today have developed a toe that's very thick with heels and quarters that are very weak. That horse will grow a long toe and break his heels and quarters down and end up straining his coffin joint, suspensory ligaments, and flexor apparatus. That kind of horse needs trimming every four to six weeks to cut his toe back."

For most, says Ash, "a natural pasture trim every 30 days is the ideal. While the trim for shoeing is flat with sharp edges using the full width of the hoof wall to accommodate the shoe, these sharp edges will break in an unshod foot. So for the barefoot horse, we bevel the leading edge of the hoof wall to a 45-degree angle, making it smooth and rounded and relieving the quarters, and we rocker the toe so the hoof is able to function fully."

Because frequency and the type of trimming needed depends on the individual, your farrier might want to check your newly barefoot horse every four to six weeks at first to see how the hoof is wearing. Then it is possible he can reduce the number of trims.

Climatic Influences

While your horse might have what it takes to go barefoot, where he places those bare feet will influence hoof integrity. Because a horse can go unshod in one type of climate or terrain doesn't mean he can go unshod in a different environment.

"Environment is always an important factor in equine foot health," Carre says. "You can take a horse, for example, out of a hot, humid climate and move him to the hot, arid desert, and the foot may or may not adapt to that new climate. If the horse's lineage has been where horses were selected and raised in one type of climate and you move him to another, you might find the climate will affect his foot adversely."

The same is true with terrain. "With hard, dry, rocky terrain you have more chance of sole bruising, coffin bone inflammation, walls breaking off excessively, or the sole wearing off excessively," states Carre. "But again, that will be determined by the horse's genes and its ability to adapt to that kind of terrain; some horses adapt to hard terrain pretty well."

Should you need to move a barefoot horse from one type of an environment to another, make sure that hoof wear is closely observed in order to measure adaptability.

Fads And Fancies

There are valid reasons for maintaining a barefoot horse, with hoof health being at the forefront. There are likewise many reasons for keeping a horse shod, again, hoof health being the primary reason. Says Carre, "If the horse is capable of surviving in a barefoot situation, by all means, go ahead. It's the best situation for his foot. But if you're doing it just for the romance of the current fashion, I would be very careful and give it some serious considerations."

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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