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Does My Horse Even Need Shoes?

This is a fairly easy question to answer if you look at the information your horse offers you and discuss it with your farrier.

But before we go there, I want to make one point. The vast majority of us farriers are far more interested in the well being of your horse’s feet than lining our pockets. After all, if we wanted to be rich, why the heck are we shoeing horses? BUT, there are some unscrupulous horseshoers out there who will tell you your horse needs shoes so they can get more money out of you. You have to decide into which group your farrier falls.

The decision to go au natural is based on several factors:

  1. The quality of your horse’s feet.
  2. The amount of work your horse is doing.
  3. The footing on which your horse lives and works.
  4. The existence or absence of any hoof problems or lameness that might be affected by going barefoot.

There are some therapeutic benefits to both shoeing and going barefoot that may enter into your decision.

The best possible scenario is for you to have a really good footed horse, on good footing, that isn’t doing a lot of work. A horse like that can easily go without shoes.

Now, what do I mean by good footed? Feet that are solid, hold a shoe really well, do not self destruct when a shoe does come off, and are basically problem free. In short, feet you don't have to worry about. They should have good solid heels, a thick wall without flares, a good cup to the sole, well formed disease-free frogs, and fronts and hinds are matched pairs. Another good clue is that your farrier never complains about your horse's feet and even exclaims on their virtues.

How hard does your horse work for a living? If he is a confirmed pasture potato, shoes are probably not necessary unless he has a problem that requires them. On the other hand, if you are getting him ready for the Old Dominion 100 mile endurance ride, or spend hours schooling in a sand arena, the abrasion resulting from his job may wear his feet down faster than they can grow. Thus he'd need shoes.

If you ride your horse in a wonderful arena with perfect soft footing and your horse lives in a field that looks more like a rock quarry than a pasture, your horse may have a rough time going barefoot. On the other hand, if he lives in a nice lush field full of deep grass planted in soft loamy soil, but you ride him on rock strewn trails and boulder covered hillsides, he isn’t going to fare much better.

What kind of problems could prevent him from going barefoot? Some forms of arthritis need shoes. Ringbone and sidebone often require therapeutic shoes with pads to ease the pain. Many horses with navicular disease also need shoes. Horses with very small feet for their size usually need shoes due to the increased load per square inch associated with their small size – great big Quarterhorses with tiny little feet are a prime example. Many horses that have terrible feet can never go without shoes successfully; they just don’t have the genetic makeup for it. Seriously foundered horses often have trouble barefoot because of the damage to the internal structures of the hoof. Some cracks and splits will likely get worse if left barefoot; usually shoes are needed to hold the foot together until the cracks grow out. After they are gone, you can reevaluate.

Ok, so you have decided to give barefoot a try. What can you expect to happen? What are the signs of success? Trouble? How long can your horse go without shoes?

A truly good footed horse will never miss a beat. Pull his shoes and you won’t be able to tell the difference – you’ll kick yourself for not doing it sooner. Most horse don’t fall in that category. They will go through an adjustment period. They may appear fine for a few days and then get a bit sore. After several weeks to a couple of months the soreness gradually goes away. This is the toughening up process, just like when you were a kid and went barefoot for the first time after winter, you couldn’t walk across a gravel road to save your life. But by the end of summer, you could just about sprint over broken glass and never know it.

The signs of success are a horse that is fine without shoes. After a few months, you will usually see a new growth ring starting at the coronary band. The new hoof will be thicker and denser than the old hoof below it. The bottoms of your horse's feet will start to look robust and durable. The soles will be thick and hard. The bars will be pronounced and strong and the frogs will look quite solid and tough.

There may be some chipping around the edges of the wall. This is normal. Mother nature trims feet by breaking or wearing off the excess. It isn’t pretty but it works. The next time your farrier comes, s/he will simply smooth off the chips with a rasp and the feet will look new again.

The signs that barefoot isn’t going to work are pretty easy to spot. Your horse will be way more than a bit sore. He may be anywhere from quite uncomfortable to downright lame. His feet will get hot and his legs may fill slightly. He might break big chunks out of his feet or they may look like they are disintegrating. Some start to look like the end of an exploded cigar. The sooner you can make the decision to scrap the barefoot experiment if it’s failing, the better your horse will like it. Better to err on the side of caution.

If your horse makes it through the adjustment phase, he can go without shoes until the cows come home, so long as his routine does not change enough to alter the demands on his feet. Changes in that routine could be how much you ride, if you change where he lives, how dry and hard, or frozen the ground gets, how much fly stomping he does, and his diet. If the social dynamics of his field change and everybody starts running around getting into fights defending their rung on the ladder, he could wear down or break up his feet enough to need shoes until things settle down again.

The bottom line is you have to keep an eye on him. There are very few domestic horses that can go barefoot with neglect and get away with it. Just because he doesn’t have shoes does not mean he doesn't need to see the farrier every six or eight weeks for a trim. As a matter of fact, regular farrier care is one of the principle keys to success. Your farrier will keep little chips and cracks from becoming great rifts and chasms and will be able to spot potential problems before they become serious.

Proper trimming can dramatically increase the likelihood of success. Trimming for shoeing and trimming for barefoot are not the same kettle of fish. It takes a highly skilled and knowledgeable farrier to keep most horses barefoot successfully. It is not just a matter of whacking off excess foot and rounding up the edges. There are many considerations: What is excess and what should be left intact? How much frog or sole should be trimmed, if any? How much of the inevitable flares should be removed? Where should the breakover be located? How much heel needs to be trimmed, if any? Which cracks and splits are ok and which need attention? Such questions are not easily answered correctly by an unskilled or inexperienced farrier and there are no shoes to protect your horse if your farrier is wrong.

If you are looking to save some money by allowing your horse to go barefoot, you will be money ahead by hiring a top flight farrier who charges more because your horse will be able to go without shoes for a longer period of time. In short, it’s cheaper to pay a good farrier $30 to trim your horse than pay an average or bad farrier $60 or $70 to put shoes back on because barefoot didn’t work.

There are some cases where barefoot is recommended for therapeutic reasons. Some horses have such lousy feet that shoes won’t stay on. Others have wild flares that won’t go away or extremely thin soles that bruise very easily. Still others have problems like contracted heels, mild founder, or navicular syndrome.

Nearly all equine feet will improve to some extent if left barefoot long enough. The exceptions are at both ends of the scale. If your horse has perfect feet, they are not going to get any better. If your horse has absolutely hideous feet, he may not be able to stand going without shoes for more than a few minutes, so a long stint barefoot won’t work. He may need some serious therapeutic shoeing for a while first.

Those in between can benefit from going barefoot as an aid to long term hoof quality improvement. The trick is doing it right.

First of all, you need a good soft, rock free pasture for turn out. Second you need to pick the right time of year. Early spring and early fall are the best times to start. This way the ground is neither frozen nor baked rock hard. There is good grass to stimulate hoof growth and the flies are at a minimum.

You also need to plan on a reduced work load or vacation for your horse. Later on, as his feet get tougher, you may be able to increase his work load again dependent on how he responds to going barefoot.

The next thing you need to do is make sure your farrier is up to and up for the task. Some farriers are too busy to be bothered with trims, or feel that selective neglect is a good way to care for barefoot horses. Others simply don't have the skills. Your farrier should be enthusiastic about the endeavor and willing to go the extra mile for you to make it successful.

You need to plan ahead and prepare your horse's feet to go barefoot. It is not simply a matter of pulling the shoes and kicking him out to fend for himself. There are hoof dressings that toughen hoof tissue such as Keratex and Fair Hill Forge’s Equine Hoof Toughener. You can use them in advance for a few weeks to hedge your bets. If can plan several months in advance, you should consider putting your horse on a good biotin supplement, MSM, and/or a top quality feed or vitamin supplement.

In the case of a therapeutic session of barefoot, you may find yourself doing more work on your horse’s feet than you would if he were shod. In the long run it will be worth the effort. Like they have been saying for centuries, “No foot, no horse.” The flip side might read “The better the feet, the better the horse.”

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