Going Barefoot: Basic Steps

Here at the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center (NWNHC), we choose to have all our horses barefoot. The reason is that going barefoot has proven to us, over the years, to keep our horses’ hooves and legs healthier. Being barefoot allows for the natural expansion and contraction of the hoof and facilitates the ground engagement of the “frog.” These actions result in pumping blood through the hoof and lower leg. And as you know from human physiology, good circulation makes for a healthier body.

By the way, a nice side benefit is that we save a whole lot of money on hoof care since we no longer have expensive shoeing costs. A basic barefoot trim, done every six to eight weeks, costs approximately $55 and takes about 30 minutes. If you have been thinking about going barefoot and want to get started, here are some tips excerpted from a great article on the subject as well as additional insights from NWNHC.

Remove the Shoes
The most obvious step in going barefoot is, of course, taking off your horse’s shoes. It is also perhaps the biggest obstacle if you are undecided about going barefoot, especially when your horse has become dependent on being shod. We have been conditioned to believe that shoes are beneficial and necessary for a fully functioning horse, and that they are a simple necessity for those horses with, for example, flat feet, small feet, thin soles, sensitivity, and so on. However, shoes are not the most beneficial method for any horse's hoof, nor for the rest of its body. Shoes fundamentally inhibit the healthy functioning of the hoof, no matter what comfort or support they may appear to give.

Unless you have the know-how and appropriate tools to remove the shoes yourself, ask your natural hoof care professional or farrier to remove them. It is important that this is done carefully to limit any extra damage to the already weakened hoof wall. The nail clenches must be removed properly before pulling the shoe to allow them to come out easily.

Start Barefoot Trimming
As soon as your horse's shoes are off, you can start helping his feet to recover with a natural trim. For the initial trims, you will want to be even more careful than usual about how much hoof you remove. The natural trim always respects the integrity of the hoof, but after removal of the shoes you should leave a slightly greater height and width of hoof wall to give your horse more protection while his feet are recovering.

If your horse has been shod for a long time, or at an early age, he may well have long and/or under-run heels (when the heels grow down at a shallow angle, sloping towards the toe), which will very probably also be contracted (close together due to the constriction of shoes). One of the goals of the natural barefoot trim is to return the heels back to their natural low height above the sole level, but this must be done gradually to avoid causing discomfort to the horse, and to allow the inner structures of the hoof (including the pedal bone) to gradually reposition themselves.

When you first trim after removing shoes you may find your horse's horn quality to be weak and brittle. This is due to the decreased circulation caused by shoeing. Remember it takes about a year for a whole hoof to grow down, and this is the time it takes after going barefoot for the hoof wall you are trimming to have grown out of a hoof with improved circulation and general function.

Use Hoof Boots for Protection
In the natural hoof care world, opinions differ as to whether hoof boots are necessary in the long term for barefoot horses, but most experts are now undivided as to the importance of providing protection for your horse's feet during the transition period when going barefoot. They may also be necessary going forward for long trail rides on rocky soil or for exercising a horse with especially sensitive soles.

It can be painful for the horse’s feet when first going barefoot. This sensitivity normally subsides within a month or two, but can take much longer with some horses. It is only fair, if you wish to ride your horse during this period, you give him the protection of hoof boots. Not only that, but it is important for the reconstruction of the hoof that the horse starts to land on his feet heel-first. He will not do this if he has too much discomfort.

Hoof boots can help to make this difference when you are riding (even on a soft surface), and if your horse is particularly sensitive after going barefoot. You may even consider leaving his boots on during turn-out initially, provided they are comfortable and secure enough to do so. In this case it is sensible to avoid riding your horse until he becomes more comfortable. Most horses going barefoot will benefit from a period of rest while they are making the transition.

It is crucial to success with hoof boots that you get the right fit, and you can only measure the hooves correctly after you have done your first trim. The hooves will very probably gradually change shape as they recover from the distortion caused by shoeing, and it will be necessary to change his boot size accordingly. Some barefoot practitioners provide an exchange system to make this less costly. However, whatever you spend on boots is likely to be less than what you would have spent on shoeing, and a lot more beneficial for your horse!

The NWNHC Store carries EasyCare hoof boots and can help you get the right style and fit for your horse and chosen activities. https://shop.nwnhc.com/collections/hoof-boots

Address Your Horse's Diet
The horse's diet is inextricably linked to the health of his feet. It is therefore impossible to ignore this aspect of going barefoot. The high sugar diet, common to many domesticated horses, produces toxins in the hind gut, which then (via the bloodstream) damage the sensitive laminae in the hooves. This causes pain and distortion of the hoof, in varying degrees from mild to extremely severe cases of laminitis.

The discomfort in the feet caused by a high sugar diet is often masked by the numbing effect of shoeing. After going barefoot the sensitivity will come to light, and your horse may become very sore in his feet on a long term basis, unless you minimize his sugar/starch intake.

Sugar in the horse's diet usually comes in the following forms: Rich Grass: The rich green grass that we have traditionally been conditioned to believe is good for a horse actually has very high sugar content and can be extremely damaging to horses' feet. Eight kilos of rich green grass can contain as much sugar as one kilo of molasses! The fact is that the horse is not evolved to live healthily on the kind of rich grass common in much of North America and Europe. Instead, the horse gut is adapted to take the most nutrients possible out of sparse, dry grasses that grow on the infertile plains of Asia.

Counter-intuitively, it is the short, over-grazed grass common in horse paddocks that is the most toxic - it is especially high in sugar because it is constantly re-growing with young, sweet shoots, as well as being high in the toxins that grass produces when it is stressed.

Grain, in its different forms, is a concentrated source of starch, which is converted into sugar by the enzymes in the gut. Therefore, a high-grain diet is not suitable for the barefoot horse. Different grains have different levels of starch, and one of the lowest is oats.

It is a long-standing tradition to feed domesticated horses in work a lot of grain as horse-owners often believe it is necessary to maintain energy and condition. In fact, most horses would be much healthier with a significantly reduced proportion of grain in their diet. The amount you give greatly depends on the individual horse - 'good-doers' such as mustangs, ponies, and so on, need very little if any grain, while Thoroughbred types usually need more. Of course, the amount of work they do is also a major factor. When going barefoot, we have to find the best balance between healthy feet and good condition.

Here at the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center we use high quality Pelleted Grain Ration (PGR) and supplements from Dynamite Specialty Products. They are balanced for proper nutrition and make up less than 10 percent of our horses’ diets. Just a little goes a long way.

High sugar alert! Many course-mixes, chaffs, and nuts, not to mention horse treats and licks, have added molasses, which is pure raw sugar, and therefore bad for the hooves. Try to cut this out completely from your horse's diet - although they love it (for them, like us, sugar is highly addictive) it is totally unnecessary and unnatural for horses.

When going barefoot, switching to a hay-based, low grain diet can greatly increases your chances of success, and your horse's hoof comfort and health. A horse’s hay/grass intake should be 85 percent of its diet. Make sure to provide natural supplements, as needed.

Provide the Best Lifestyle for Healthy Hooves
When you are going barefoot with your previously shod horse, initially his feet will probably lack internal structural strength. This strength is necessary for soundness, good movement, and healthy hoof function. It can only be rebuilt by stimulation and movement, and your horse's lifestyle has to provide enough of this. Unless you are an endurance rider, it is unlikely that the amount of time you work your horse will be enough to make a difference to hooves that have been weakened and distorted by shoes. Therefore, the more you can encourage your barefoot horse to move in his daily (and nightly!) life, the better.

Paddock Paradise encourages horses to move. It works on the principle of providing, instead of fields, a network or circuit of fairly narrow lanes, that encourage the horses to move much more than a rectangular paddock. There are many ways to encourage this movement and make it interesting for your horse, but the basic idea is simple, and feasible for most people to install.

Even if you don't make a Paddock Paradise, the less time you can have your horse standing in a stable, the better for his feet. If your horse is sensitive, it is far better that he be turned out with boots, and get his feet working again, rather than standing in a stall or small paddock.

Above All… Be Patient!
The damage that is done by shoeing can be profound, especially if the horse was shod at an early age, or for a period of many years. It takes time for the hoof to recover from this - in some cases it will never return to complete health - but as with any living system if supported in the right way, it has an amazing power of regeneration.

Portions excerpted from “Going Barefoot: Seven Steps for Success” http://www.happy-horse-training.com ©2011 Happy-Horse-Training.com