Footcare – the barefoot option

The term ‘barefoot’ is closely associated with more than just the care of your horse’s feet. It is an integral part of a new movement that not only looks at the condition of the horse’s feet, but also the way in which horses are managed, including diet, environment and exercise.

It is essential to remember that the needs of your horse are paramount, above your desires as an owner who may wish your horse to be kept in a particular manner. No horse is born with shoes and in many cases can continue through its life without ever wearing a horseshoe or hoof boot or any other covering or protection.

Feral horses rely on the terrain to keep their hooves ‘trimmed’ through natural abrasion. These horses often roam over long distances where they can usually choose their speed and ground. The rate at which horses produce horn, in the majority of cases, matches the rate of wear or abrasion. This is not the case where horses are kept in domestic pastures where food source is readily available resulting in a much reduced grazing/browsing distance. The result of this is the need to periodically attend to the hooves to remove excessive growth that would otherwise impede normal movement or could in some instances cause lameness through the overloading of structures.

Normal good animal husbandry includes attention to appropriate diet addressing the nutritional needs of the horse throughout the various lifestages and uses. This is a factor that affects hoof quality along with environmental condition. Suffice to say, take advice from your vet or equine nutritionist regarding correct feeding, and from your farrier or hoofcare provider for advice on environmental factors that affect the condition of your horse’s hooves.

The hoof in general matches the environment; horn absorbs and looses moisture. In ddry arid conditions the hooves become very hard and conversely in wet conditions they become very soft. In this way, horses can cope with very hard ground as long as their feet are equally hard. Applying a topical hoof dressing to keep the horn moist will affect the toughness and ability of the hooves to withstand hard ground.

Keeping a horse barefoot is the natural first stage of hoof care. Some horses due to their use, breed, terrain or indeed individual capacity to live barefoot, will never move from this stage.

It is often the case, but not always, that as the horse’s workload increases, the speed at which it is asked to perform, or the weight it is asked to carry cause the horse that was sound barefoot to then display unwillingness to move at the desired speed or move over rough ground. It is at this point that a decision has to be made whether to reduce the use of the horse, change the surface over which it performs, or provide the horse with either temporary (by the way of hoof boots) or fixed (by way of horseshoes) protection.

Choosing to shoe a horse is not a permanent decision. A shoeing cycle is usually between 4-8 weeks and the decision to remove horseshoes can be made at the end, or at any time during this cycle. However, there are a few points to consider:

  • The horse will have relied on the shoes to protect its hooves from excessive wear and will have become reliant on the shoes to protect its hooves when on rough ground. There may be a period of adjustment (transition) where the horse adapts to being without this protection. Care should be given to provide good pasture/stabling free from rough uneven ground during this transition period.
  • It should also be a matter for attention that the hooves will have ‘old nail holes’ and the continuity of the hoof capsule will be impaired until these have grown out. During this period it is not uncommon for the hooves to have a ragged appearance, and it is vital that regular trimming is maintained during this period.
  • Once the ‘old nail holes’ have grown out it is equally important to keep the horse on a regular trimming schedule agreed with your farrier or hoofcare professional who will take into consideration the condition of the hooves, the proposed use of the horse and the terrain over which it will be kept and/or used.

A horse’s use often changes throughout the year or from one season to another. The reason behind both shoeing and keeping horses barefoot should be constantly assessed and the appropriate hoof care regime should be followed.

Some horses may require shoes or hoof boots at various times of the year due to their activity, ground conditions, soundness or ability to perform the owners needs without hoof protection. For these reasons, hoof care should be continuously monitored and the most appropriate course of hoof care should be followed.

The UK has specific laws relation to shoeing, however there are no laws relating to trimming, except in the following instances:

  • In practice, trimming which is not going to result in the application of a shoe to the foot a horse is not covered by the Farriers Registration Act and is therefore not regulated. However, horse owners should be aware that although, simple trimming and rasping of horses’ feet is allowed by lay persons under the Act to permit maintenance of foals and other unshod horses’ feet, it should not be attempted by anyone who is not qualified. Qualifications currently available are those offered by barefoot and natural trimming Associations (see below).
  • Where more radical trimming and reshaping of horses feet is contemplated there is the potential for creating severe lameness. Experience has indicated this is particularly so where such ‘therapy’ is not undertaken by qualified farriers or vets. It is recommended that owners should only carry out minor work on feet of a cosmetic or emergency nature and that any significant trimming should be carried out by a Registered Farrier or a vet that will have been properly trained and strictly regulated by a code of conduct.

The best resource for advice is probably from those who can perform both shoeing and trimming. In the UK, those performing shoeing have to be registered with the Farriers Registration Council under the Farriers (Registration) Act 1975. Those performing the trimming of equine hooves have no regulation under law, but have their own associations that provide information and training.