As a Mustang owner, I inevitably fell into the "barefoot world" not realizing at the time how important and also controversial the topic was. In the past, I assumed all riding horses "needed" shoes, including the thoroughbred mare I owned at the time.
I've learned that it's OK to question WHY we do something. It's how we evolve as humans and as horse caretakers. Too often horse owners simply stick to what they were taught, traditional methods or practices that, when asked, they can't really explain the "why". Use this topic in particular as a perfect example of curiously questioning the "why" and exploring alternative solutions, that you may find end up working better for your horse after all.
Steel shoes inhibit the natural flexibility of the horse's hoof.
Although not apparent to the naked eye, a horse's hoof can flex both laterally and vertically. The flexibility is not only necessary for proper circulation, but acts as a suspension system on uneven ground, protecting the joints nearby. When a steel shoe is attached, it disables independent movement of the left and right sides. Often times you will also notice a horse that is shod tends to have smaller, narrower feet than a barefoot horse. In some ways their natural hoof growth and shape has been restricted by the shoe.
Steel shoes offer less shock absorption and more vibration.
The natural structures of the horse's hoof are intended absorb shock and lessen the impact on the joints and muscles of the leg. Not only do steel shoes take away that shock absorption quality, they add significant vibration to each of the horse's steps. Combined, these factors can increase the chance of injury and the cause additional wear and tear on the horses joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Shoes cause peripheral loading.
When a horse is shod, the whole hoof is slightly lifted off of the ground, including the frog. As a result, the hoof walls end up carrying the entire load of the horse, putting extra stress on the connective tissue and sensitive laminae. The frog completely loses its weight bearing and support function. To get a better idea of how much support the frog really offers, picture what the hoof print of a barefoot horse looks like versus a shod horse. A shod horse you would only see the imprint of the shoe, whereas a barefoot horse you would see the hoof wall and the frog imprint.
Hoof boots allow for temporary protection as needed.
Because often times our horses are living on soft, unvaried footing, it's likely that they will still require some type of protection for rougher or rocky terrain. Barefoot hooves must be conditioned to the type of footing we wish to ride on. Gradually riding on harder surfaces on a regular basis will strengthen and toughen the hoof over time. Pay close attention to what your horse seems comfortable with. The occasional misstep does not mean they are sore or not doing well barefoot. Stepping on a big rock still may be uncomfortable, just as it would be for you or me. Try to allow them a little freedom to navigate rocky terrain on their own. They are usually better at determining the best place to step than we are. Hoof boots allow us to apply significant protection if we need to ride on terrain our horse's hooves are not conditioned to, while not compromising the natural functions. You will want to find a balance between using and not using hoof boots. If you use them too much you won't allow your horse's feet to be conditioned and become stronger. I would recommend not using them for riding around your barn or nearby trails. Unless of course you intend to do a particularly long, heavy ride or know that the trails will be extraordinarily rocky. Definitely use the hoof boots when you venture out and are unsure what the terrain will be like. Most barefoot horse owners find that they only need to use hoof boots on front feet. Similarly to how a horse is often only shod on the front feet. This is because horses carry more of their weight on the front half of their body. Their heads and necks weigh a lot! This is why you typically will see more wear and chipping occur on the front hooves.
It's important to work with a skilled and reputable farrier when transitioning your horse to barefoot. You may even consider consulting with your vet depending on your horse's history. I used to think I needed a special "barefoot trimmer" who did not do shoe work at all to get the special barefoot care I was seeking. Now the best farrier I've had in 15 years, is both a traditional farrier and excellent barefoot trimmer, so don't rule out "traditional" farriers.
While I'm a firm believer that most horses could go barefoot, I choose not to assume I know every horse's situation, and in some cases maybe the horse truly does "need" to be shod. There are obviously a variety of factors that could make it difficult for owners to maintain a barefoot horse. However, I think once people see the value beyond a possibly difficult transition, it will feel like a no-brainer. Yes, the boots can be a slight inconvenience. Yes, you will need to maintain a shorter 5-6 week trim schedule. But you will be regaining the integrity and intended function of your horse's natural hooves and he or she will thank you!
My go-to boot of choice is the Easyboot Glove by Easycare. There are many great brands of boots out there and it may take some trial and error to find the ones that work the best for the shape of your horses feet. And the size or boot style that works best might change as the feet regain their natural shape over time. Whatever boot you decide to go with, make sure you follow the company's specific instructions about measuring. Typically you will want to measure after a fresh trim. The boots should still fit through a 5 week trim cycle. Your farrier can teach you to use a rasp in between trims to smooth out any small chips that could get in the way of applying the boots.
A few other favorite hoof products of mine include:
B Gone White Line Treatment: If you've ever had the delight of battling white line disease, you know how challenging it can be, sometimes resulting in large resections of the hoof. I plan to do a whole post just on this product because I love it so much! I even have my farrier carrying it around in his truck for all his clients now!
Farriers' Fix: I love this hoof oil because it contains the tried-and-true ingredient of venice turpentine, known to toughen the soles and fix sore or tender feet. This product will also kill thrush and other bacteria while balancing the moisture content of the hoof.
Durasole: Sole toughener that is also is good on thrush and white line disease. You must use gloves when applying as it contains potentially harmful ingredients.
Life Data Hoof Clay: Natural product including tea tree oil. Great for packing into hoof cracks and other imperfections. Can be packed in the sulci of the frog to treat thrush and will also help treat white line disease.
(Note: Some of the links contained in this blog are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)
Also, I feel that I need to clarify - I have nothing against horse owners who choose to shoe their horses. Many do well and I would never force my opinion about going barefoot on anyone. It is a topic that I am passionate about and feel that sharing my experience could help others who are interested in transitioning or maintaining a barefoot horse.
I'd love to hear about your guys' experiences with barefoot horses or transitioning to barefoot! Also feel free to share your go-to hoof products that you can't live without!