Barefoot: why - and how?
"The movement of the different structures within the foot and the changes of form that occur at every step are indispensable to the health of the hoof, so that these elastic tissues must be kept active by regular exercise, with protection against drying out of the hoof. Long-continued rest in the stable, drying out of the hoof, and shoeing decrease or alter the physiological movements of the hoof and sometimes lead to foot diseases. Since these movements are complete and sponteneous only in unshod feet, shoeing must be regarded as an evil, albeit a necessary one, and indispensable if we wish to keep horses continuously serviceable on hard, artificial roads."
John W. Adams, Professor of Surgery and Lecturer on Shoeing
Veterinary Department, University of Pennsylvania
Special report on Diseases of the Horse, US Department of Agriculture, 1911
Barefoot is healthier - that is nothing new...
Many books on farriery and horse health (from the new to the very old) clearly state it: horse shoes are unhealthy for a horse. Why is that so? To name just a few reasons:
- A healthy hoof spreads a bit when a horse puts it weight on it. This is called hoof mechanism. Shoeing reduces hoof mechanism.
- Reduced hoof mechanism means less blood circulation in the hoof. It is basic biological knowledge that good blood circulation is necessary for tissue health (just think of frozen toes that blacken and fall off...).
- This is also why it is normal for horses with shoes to have cold hooves. A barefoot horse with well-trimmed hooves will have warm hooves - that is not only perfectly normal, it is the way it should be!
- Less hoof mechanism means less shock absorption. A horse with shoes that walks on asphalt, receives about 2 to 3 times the impact force of a barefoot horse that trots on asphalt.
- Lack of blood circulation means impaired nerve function (the nerves cannot work properly anymore). This is why many horses suddenly get lame when they lose a shoe: circulation - and nerve function - are restored.
- A hoof spreads when the horse puts weight on it. This means that the hoof is in its narrowest state when it is lifted. Since you can only shoe a horse when it is not standing on its foot, the hoof is always shod in its narrowest state. Over time this makes the hoof narrower and narrower (contracted). In older books a contracted hoof is usually described as a serious problem. Unfortunately nowadays contracted hooves are so common that many people consider them 'normal'.
- Horses with shoes have/are a much greater 'injury risk' - both for themselves, other horses, humans and the environment.
... but how can we use our horses without shoes?
But, say most of the same books, unfortunately we have to put shoes on our horses' feet if we want to be able to use our horses. Especially if we want to use them on roads, gravel etc. Shoeing is a necessary evil.
Well: shoeing is still an evil, but it certainly is not necessary anymore!Research and experiences from the past decades have given us the tools we need to have fully functioning barefoot horses. And 'funnily' enough, already in 1911 they had a large part of this knowledge (see citation above). What is needed to have fully useable barefoot horses?
- Spending most of their time in the stable has very negative effects on a horse's health, including their hooves. Generally speaking horses that have natural living conditions (outside in a group, day and night, year-round) usually have much better hooves. Which makes it a lot easier for them to go barefoot when working.
- Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that horses living outside in a group move a lot more than horses in a box. More movement means more circulation, means better hoof quality, and more growth.
- Research has shown that different surfaces have a huge impact on the circulation, growth etc. in a hoof. For a healthy barefoot horse it is important that it spends enough hours a day on appropriate surfaces. A barefoot horse that only stands in mud, soon will be only useable in mud...
- As they already knew a hundred years ago: it is not healthy for hooves to be too dry. Horn needs a certain amount of moisture, otherwise it will lose its elasticity. If nature does not provide that, the owner can provide it (with soaking boots or a soaking stand, for example).
- It is not enough to just take the shoes off: to have a long-term healthy barefoot horse, it is very important that the hooves are trimmed the correct way. A barefoot horse that is not correctly trimmed can easily have the same problems as a horse with shoes (such as no hoof mechanism, hoof cracks, separations, white line disease, navicular disease, founder etc.).
- Hoof boots can be a very important tool in keeping barefoot horses (and their owners) happy. For example when using the horse on surfaces it is not accustomed to, such as sharp stones, or in icy conditions. Also here nothing new; the Romans already designed a kind of hoof boot (hipposandal). But during the last few years there really has been an explosive growth in the number and types of hoof boots on the market. That means that today practically everybody can find a hoof boot that suits their horse and their use.
'A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.'
Thermographic picture: red area's are warm, blue area's cold. This is a picture of a horse which has a shoe on one leg...
More than 2000 years ago
'The same care which is given to the horse's food and exercise, to make his body grow strong, should also be devoted to keeping his feet in condition. Even naturally sound hoofs get spoiled in stalls with moist, smooth floors. The floors should be sloping, to avoid moisture, and, to prevent smoothness, stones should be sunk close to one another, each about the size of the hoofs. The mere standing on such floors strenghtens the feet.
Further, of course, the groom should lead the horse out somewhere to rub him down, and should loose him from the manger after breakfast, so that he may go to dinner the more readily. This place outside the stall would be best suited to the purpose of strenghtening the horse's feet if you threw down loosely four or five cartloads of round stones, each big enough to fill your hand and about a pound and a half in weight, surrounding the whole with an iron border to keep them from getting scattered. Standing on these would be as good for him as travelling a stony road for some part of every day; and whether he is rubbed down or teased by horseflies, he has to use his hoofs exactly as he does in walking. Stones strewn about in this manner strenghten the frogs too.'
Xenophon, 431-355 BC
'I cannot emphasize too strongly that when barefoot, the hoof will adapt itself to the average conditions of the surfaces upon which it finds itself.'
James R. Rooney, DVM
'The Lame Horse'