High Performance Barefoot Horse?
© Anya Lavender.
What does this mean?
A 'high performance barefoot horse' is one that can cope easily with the tasks required of it, without hoof protection. He is a 'gravel crunching' surefooted animal. It does not matter what breed or type of horse.
The model high performance barefoot horse is the wild one, living in an arid environment, who's feet are so tough that she can travel on rough terrain for many kilometres per day without a problem. Her feet are kept worn to perfect balance, and grow enough to keep up with that wear. She has short walls, thick soles and a fully functional frog, with thick, strong digital cushions & lateral cartilages. That is why this model of care is also called 'Natural Hoofcare'.
These animals are MADE, not bred! However, it takes more than just good hoofcare to create them. It is about their whole diet, management and environment.
In reality however, carrying the weight of a rider, often expected to perform athletically & at speed, asked to endure more on abrasive ground than growth can keep up with, and usually living/fed in less than ideal(for hoof & health) situations, domestic horses will usually require artificial protection/support in some situations at least.
Thankfully these days, it isn't just a question of barefoot or conventionally shod. There are other options such as Hoof Boots which make it easy and economical, to provide adequate & healthy protection and support when necessary!
So why is the natural model so important then, if barefoot in all circumstances may be
unrealistic to many?
Because understanding how hooves function optimally enables us to take what measures we can to facilitate strong, healthy hooves in our horses, to avoid lameness and hoof problems, and also to understand the 'cons' of our horse's situations, to take necessary measures to minimise negative effects.
Many a horse with chronic 'bad' feet and lameness issues has successfully made great improvement, if not complete recovery. Many an old horse has been given a new lease of life. If you are willing to learn how to care for and condition your horse, he will benefit greatly and you will be rewarded with a healthier, tougher, surefooted horse who will not suffer the vast majority of lameness and hoof problems that are common in conventionally managed horses.
So how do I turn my horse into a high performance barefoot animal?
What is are the important factors??
There are 4 major factors...
Environment / Footing
Exercise & Lifestyle
Diet & Nutrition
We are talking here of 'high performance' barefoot horses. Those so called 'rock crunchers', go anywhere, do anything barefooted.
But if you cannot provide an ideal environment for your horse, or your horse has already damaged hooves, if you're not an endurance rider or stockman for eg who's horse 'conditions' their feet long & hard, while he might not manage 'high performance', most horses can still manage a lot barefoot, if given the right care. And with the current hoof boot and synthetic shoe market, there are so many great options, to 'take up the slack', so there's usually no good reason for steel shoes to be thought of as the only option.
My Trimming Principles and Hoof Management page covers this one.
Environment / Footing
If you don't use it, you lose it. Or you fail to develop it in the first place!
Hooves which are always or usually on soft footing will not develop to their full potential. Just like if you only go barefoot indoors, you won't develop the callouses to be able to walk comfortably down a gravel path. Hooves which are always or usually in damp or wet footing will be softer, weaker, just like the soles of your feet after you get out of a long bath. They will also be more prone to infections such as 'Seedy Toe' & 'Thrush'.
So it's important to maximise areas of hard footing and dry ground in your horse's home environment. To provide at least some stony areas the horse must walk or stand on frequently, and provide at least one 'hang out' area that's dry, if your environment is wet.
Xenophon, a famous Greek philosopher, soldier & horseman, way back in 300BC wrote of the importance of housing horses on cobblestones of around hoof size, of filling their yards with pebbles and of not housing them on smooth or damp flooring.
Comfort is very important, as hooves that can't be used comfortably, aside from not being nice for the horse, won't function optimally & can lead to other issues such as stone bruising, abscesses and toe first landings. So don't just force a bare foot horse to put up with stuff, in the name of 'transitioning' ~ protect him where necessary!
Exercise & Lifestyle
Horses are built to be healthiest with lots of 'low impact' exercise every day. The more sedentary the horse is, the less fit and strong he will be throughout his body, including his hooves. Again; 'If you don't use it, you lose it' ~ or you don't develop it in the first place! You will need to provide your horse with as natural a lifestyle and as much exercise as you can manage. If the horse lives in an environment that doesn't foster lots of movement, such as a 'nice' square paddock with ample feed & water nearby, especially if he lives alone, you will need to take him out daily for exercise if you want him to be fit & strong.
There is more to living in a herd than providing companionship. It effects their health and wellbeing in many ways. Play and 'dominance behaviour' also provide motivation for movement, getting the hooves functioning and strengthening.
Basic lifestyle factors to motivate exercise...
24/7 'turnout' of around an acre at least, large enough to run around in, rather than a stable or yard.
Feed, water and shelter as far apart as possible. With the limited space that most of us have to contend with, creating some kind of track system can be the best option, with feed and water well spaced around it. Ie. not a square, richly grassed paddock with water and shelter and hay nearby.
Herd life - preferably at least one other horse, but more tend to motivate more exercise.
A horse requires near constant movement and exercise. If he is not able or motivated to get much in his paddock, his owner needs to provide as much as possible.
Mostly (or at least, some) firm, dry ground. Soft ground and deep bedding can be detrimental to their feet. Having to cross or stand on rocks each day is generally beneficial to their feet. **Comfort is an important consideration if they're weak footed though. 'Pea gravel' or such can be a great option which even pathological hooves can usually find comfort in.
One option many have found helpful, to motivate exercise at home, along with other benefits, described on the Lifestyle & Environment page, is keeping horses on a track setup. A couple of my own egs below can be enlarged if you click on them.
One big point: I do not agree with the attitude 'just pull his shoes and make him work on this footing and he will eventually be right'.
Firstly, it's not nice for the animal to be made to work with discomfort/pain. Secondly, weak, damaged hooves are far more prone to further injury such as stone bruising and abscessing from the ground. Thirdly, as explained elsewhere, comfort is so very important to enable good hoof function, which in turn enables more and stronger growth - a hurting horse may not be functioning well enough to improve his hooves. Fourthly, even in ideal conditions, mature hooves which are significantly underdeveloped or damaged to begin with may never recover or develop to the degree of being sound on all surfaces without artificial support/protection. And lastly, there is no evidence that horses of the 'forcing conditioning' regime are any better off in the long run (and it's often accepted as being a LONG 'transition' with horses remaining lame for many months or even years) than those who protect their horse's hooves, or avoid certain terrain where necessary until they're strong enough to cope bare.
So I've done the above...
Does that mean my horse is now a high performance barefoot horse? Unfortunately, in most cases, no. There is more preparation needed.
Most horses that have been left to conventional care, even if not shod, will have some level of hoof deformity and damage. This must be healed and the hoof be in good working order before beginning conditioning of the horse to rough terrain.
I liken this to a person having an injury or infection in their sole going barefoot. So long as the disease is there, you will always have pain walking on hard or rough ground and it will have a hard time healing. But if the injury is healed and then you gradually expose your feet to hard ground, with time you will be able to walk or run comfortably on rough terrain.
This healing and conditioning phase is commonly called the Transition period. It is uncommon for a horse not to require some hoof protection, at least on the front feet, when worked on hard or rough ground during this time.
The more exercise your horse gets, the stronger and healthier his feet will become and the quicker they will heal. Ideally, he should live on the type of terrain you want him to be conditioned to, and travel many miles per day on it(wild, arid zone horses cover around 30-40km per day on average!).
Obviously, this ideal situation is not possible for many of us. Many horses live on soft pasture and only get exercised on anything else a few hours per week, if that. The level of high performance barefootedness you achieve depends a lot on exercise and the amount of exposure to rough terrain. A reason why endurance horses tend to do so well barefoot.
In other than ideal situations and with some horses, you may need to continue to work your horse in boots some,, most, or all of the time when on hard & rough surfaces. It depends on many factors. Hoof boots, while not suitable in every situation are generally a great option. They allow the horse to go bare for the most part, but provide full hoof support and protection when necessary.
If after weighing it all up, you decide this is not for you, there are generally better options, which minimise the impact of fixed shoes. You can learn more about those on my Boots & Equipment page. And here's a piece on how to minimise the damage of metal horseshoes.
My old 21yo Arab X boy had deformed feet from a lifetime of bad hoofcare and constant shoes when I started learning about Natural Hoofcare, and yet he could cope with just about anything I put him to, at least for 20km or so......
My mare lived in a mainly firm, dry paddock, but I was only riding her a couple of times per week, if that. Our rides were mainly along gravelly dirt roads for 10km or less. After a few months, using boots less and less often, she would happily canter on gravel trails. After this, she only needed boots on extra long, rough rides after the first 20km or so......
A client's 14yo TB, bought 2 years ago, has strong, healthy feet, apart from a full quarter crack that she got as a 2yo and was proving slow to heal. She could go for miles on paved surfaces without showing any discomfort or wear, but on rough ground, with stones that can get into the crack she always needed boots, until the crack was healed well enough.