Thinking of taking the shoes or your horse’s hooves? You’re not alone.
Why take the shoes off your horses’ hooves?
“Three years ago, I decided to progressively take all my horses barefoot. In the beginning, other competitors saw this as quite odd, but two of the world top riders, Peder Fredricson and Henrik von Eckermann (who won a gold medal in show jumping in the Tokyo olympics), have since done the same. I think it got quite a lot of people thinking.” says Julien Épaillard, one of France’s best show jumping rider. “I think barefoot is better for the blood flow and the horse’s articulation; the natural action of the foot comes back,” he explains.
Julien keeps all his young horses barefoot, but warns that “The transition for older horses which have already been shod for most of their lives is difficult. Horses are not at all used to working on their sole so the adaptation time can be really long.”
With an increasing number of barefoot horses now winning at the very highest level (the 2023 Endurance Ireland IQHA Champions is also barefoot), competing without shoes is now starting to be recognised as a valid option.
The evidence that shoes hinder a horse’s natural movement and inhibit blood circulation in the legs has been available for a long time, and some pionneer farriers such as Jaime Jackson, Pete Ramey, or, closer to home, Dermot Mc Court , having realised the damage done to horse feet by shoeing, had stopped doing it many years ago.
Now even the most conventional thinking farriers have to agree that not all horses need shoes and one of them even went as far as admitting publicly that “The traditional application of nails means the horn structure is definitely compromised by the shoeing process, there’s no question about that. In barefoot horses, the hoof capsule tends to be a lot better without being infiltrated by a series of nails that can separate the horn.”
It is true that shoes provide protection when wear exceeds growth and (with studs) can provide traction on slippery surfaces. But they also create structural issues within the foot and certain lameness issues.
On a shod hoof, the weight of the horse is placed around the periphery of the hoof, where the shoe sits, putting all the horse’s weight on the hoof wall and not using the soft tissue structures within the hoof capsule. A healthy bare foot is much better at accepting weight than a foot with a shoe because it loads the weight across the entire foot, absorbing concussion and dissipating the energy of impact much better. Shoes often get in the way of what the hoof is designed to do for a horse and cause structural problems within the hoof that they then claim to cure.
Do it yourself
Keeping horses barefoot has many advantages. However, it is important to realise that natural hoof care is not just a matter of taking the shoes off! Because our domestic horses rarely travel 15 miles every day on rough ground, their hooves must be trimmed regularly. To quote P. Ramey: “You can make any mistake in your trimming, but don’t make the mistake of not trimming”. Without trimming and with insufficient natural wear, your horses’ hooves would grow too long and distorted, and the hoof horn would not grow strong enough for the horse to be comfortable of hard surface. Regular trimming is essential for healthy hooves. Ideally, a barefoot horse should be trimmed every two to four weeks, depending on the amount of work they are doing.
One concern is that Natural Hoof Care, and the benefits it can bring to horses, is constantly being set back by the lack of competent professionals in the field. Farriers often have trouble with the barefoot trim because they are used to trimming the solar surface of the foot in a horizontal plane in order to put a shoe on. When you trim for barefoot, you are actually shaping the hoof to give it as natural a shape as possible.
The good news is that while shoeing is a specialised skill, doing a maintenance trim on a healthy hoof is easy, and an increasing number of horse owners are doing it themselves.
The first and most obvious advantage of doing your own maintenance trims is the substantial saving. The best option is to get an experienced hoof care practitioner to take the shoes off (if need be) and do the initial trim on your horses. After this, you go from one set of shoes every six weeks to one visit from the trimmer every three months, while doing the maintenance trim yourself in between. Once you have gained more confidence and your horses are fully transitioned, you can do all the trimming yourself and completely do away with hoof care expenses, other than the cost of the rasps. And because you are doing it yourself, you can keep your horses on a proper trimming schedule, rather than having to rely on a professional who may not always be available when you need them.
Christophe learnt trimming from Dermot Mc Court, and has been trimming his own horses (as well as horses belonging to neighbours and friends) for many years.
He teaches Natural hoof care to horse owners workshops throughout ireland.