Wild horses do not wear shoes, live in stables/cages/caves, wear blankets or eat grain. But our horses do. One may argue that our horses are not wild horses. We do agree - however, time and time again it has been proven that when we allow our horses to live similarly to their wild counterparts, their health improves and they become more physically and mentally balanced beings. We call this "working in co-operation with nature." So, where are we going wrong? What factors are lacking in the lives of our domestic equines that cause us to supplement their lifestyles with these artificial things? How can we make their lives a little more similar to that of their wild counterparts? Below we have listed a number of factors and changes that the domestic horse will appreciate.
- An unlimited amount of grazing/hay fed at ground level as well as access to appropriate herbs
- Comfortable, regularly trimmed, unshod hooves
- Free access to movement on firm ground and varied terrain (Ideally 15km+ daily)
- Access to water for soaking hooves and bathing
- Companionship (same species)
- Access to shelter but not being restricted to it by means of blankets/stables.
- A stress free environment
We firmly believe that if even half of these factors can be met, we will possess much happier and healthier horses. Ultimately, we should continually strive to achieve all of the above mentioned factors. Ask yourself: “Am I a suitable candidate for my horse to go barefoot?”The question is no longer: “Can my horse go barefoot?” It has been proven over and over that given the correct circumstances, any horse can go barefoot. The only limitation is the resources and opinions of the owner. We are the ones who have control over our horses' health and the good news is that a lot of damage can be reversed, if not completely cured by making some simple changes to the lifestyles of our horses.
The hooves of the wild horse
Much can be learned from examining the hooves of the wild horse living in a healthy environment - most will agree that the Mustang sets a good example for hoof health. The wall length from hairline to ground surface of the average Mustang is typically about 3 inches long as the coffin bone is suspended high inside of the hoof capsule. The walls are beveled and the white line is tight and strong. The bars are straight and end in the correct position, about half way down either side of the frog. The horse's weight is supported by the water line, white line and parts of the sole, frog and heels as opposed to the domestic horse which often walks on the outer hoof wall and heels only if trimmed using most traditional methods. The front hooves are gently concave and tend to be "round" in shape while the hind hooves have deeper concavity and should be more "oval" in shape. The frog is large and weight-bearing and the heels are low to allow for a natural heel-first landing. Lastly, the quarters are arched to allow the hoof to flex as it contacts the ground. Miles and miles of movement over firm ground while eating a natural diet is what creates such strong hooves.
We must emphasize that it would be quite difficult to re-create the strength of the hooves of a wild horse in a domestic situation without allowing him access to the appropriate environment which is very much impossible for most people to provide. One cannot just simply trim this sort of foot on the average domestic hoof without potentially causing discomfort. We must take into consideration the health of his hooves, the terrain he walks on, as well as any damage that has taken place to the hoof. So instead we use the wild horse hoof as a "goal" - a model we strive for. Through studying what the wild horse eats, how far he moves and on what terrain he moves on, we can get an idea of what sort of environment (food, movement, terrain and trim) we need to strive to provide for our domestic horses in order for them to grow healthy hooves.
Traditional trim vs. Barefoot trim
- Hooves are generally trimmed every 6 weeks or sometimes more
- Heels are left long enough to prevent frog contact
- Hooves tend to land toe first, with the exception of a horse with above average movement
- Toe callous is trimmed which can cause much discomfort and cause instant unsoundness on a horse with thin soles
- The bottom of the hoof is rasped flat and outer wall is left weight-bearing
- Often the bars are not trimmed appropriately which can also become uncomfortable for the horse
- The frog is trimmed so that it doesn’t make full contact with the ground which causes discomfort at the back of the hoof and encourages contraction of the frog over time as it doesn't receive sufficient stimulation for proper development
- Diet and environment are generally not assessed
- Hooves are trimmed every 3-4 weeks in order to stay on top of problems and prevent overgrowth which can lead to white line separation, cracks, contraction of the frog etc. Exceptions are hard-working horses traveling many kilometers per day.
- Heels are kept short enough for frog contact with the ground
- The goal is for the hoof to land heel first. Provided that the horse's biomechanics allows for it, this may take some time to occur as the horse adjusts from the traditional trim
- Toe callous is left untouched and allowed to wear naturally
- The bars are trimmed back to their correct position
- The frog is left to contact the ground and assume its job of assisting with blood circulation throughout the body as well as providing grip to the hoof
- Diet and environment are assessed
Parts of the hoof and how the hoof functions
Outer hoof wall: Protects the sensitive internal hoof tissues and used to dissipate the energy of concussion. The outer wall plays an important role in self-trimming by chipping and breaking off.
Water line: Serves mainly to support the hoof, this is a weight-bearing structure.
White line/laminae: The white line is the innermost layer of the wall. It appears translucent when healthy and looks a little like a zipper when stretched and unhealthy.
Seat-of-corn: Useful landmark to indicate how low the heels can be trimmed.
Frog: Acts as a shock absorber and provides traction to the hoof, assists with blood circulation.
Heel bulbs: Expansion and contraction of the heel bulbs draws blood into the lower limb and hoof feeding tissues to promote healthy maintenance and new growth.
Bars: Offer support to the back of the hoof and also assists with traction.
Quarters: Allow the hoof to flex and expand as it is loaded (if correctly trimmed/worn).
The “Toe callous”: With the exception of the event that the toe callous has built up a large amount of dead sole, this area is not to be trimmed. Trimming the toe callous area can cause the hoof to lose sole depth/concavity which can result in the horse becoming footsore.
What do shoes do?
While the precise history of the horse shoe is rather ambiguous, it seems that shoes became popular during times that horses were used for war. This would entail keeping the horses stabled so that they were ready for battle. Horses standing in their own feces and urine in a stable would most certainly have weakened hooves, causing discomfort when the horse then has to travel long distances. Hard ground would be most challenging. Horses are normally shod with the belief that the shoe will protect the horse’s hoof from excessive wear and damage which could cause lameness. We are also told that the metal horse shoe “offers better grip” or “helps the horse track up behind.”
But is that what shoes really do?
The truth is…
- Horses can still slip badly with shoes on (as they can with an incorrect trim or on very bad footing). Add studs and you’ll have grip – grip which is completely unnatural to the horse and which will put excessive strain on the horse's entire body but particularly the lower limbs. This can cause injuries, particularly if the horse's body is not sufficiently conditioned to wearing shoes with studs. Studs work by stopping the natural slight sliding action that occurs when the horse's hoof lands during movement - ouch!
- A hoof shod with a normal metal shoe lacks 60-80% of it natural shock absorption as the shoe prevents the hoof from expanding naturally as it is placed on the ground. This extra shock has to go somewhere – unfortunately right into the joints and spine.
- Shoes prevent the hoof from developing to its natural size and encourages a toe-first landing due to insufficient stimulation to the back of the foot/weakened frog and digital cushion.
- The shoe weakens all of the hoof structures.
- The shoe causes peripheral loading due to a lack of frog pressure and excess weight being places on the walls only. This can cause cracks and white line separation as the outer wall bears more weight than it is designed to.
Advantages and importance of going barefoot
- Better shock absorption throughout the limb
- Less concussion to the joints
- Horse will be less likely to over-reach and clip its heels
- Better traction
- Improved circulation and therefore thermo-regulation (healthy hooves assist with regulating the horse's body temperature)
- Stumbling, tripping and slipping is greatly reduced
- Better posture
- Better movement
- Increased range of motion
- Horse is less spooky as he can feel the ground
- Hoof is on the ground for less time (breakover is quickened)
- Stronger hoof horn quality
- Barefoot horse can never “lose a shoe"
- Injuries sustained from barefoot hooves are less severe than those sustained by a shod hoof
- Longer usage
Diet and lifestyle for optimum hoof quality
As previously mentioned, the horse should ideally live outside with access to shelter and as much movement as possible. Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise has some great ideas on creating a horse and hoof friendly environment no matter the size of your property.
Natural grazing/hay low in sugars should be available at all times. Ideally, hay and grazing (water as well) should be tested for mineral and sugar content, particularly if suspected to be a problem where hoof sensitivity and other issues are present. Eragrostis and teff are fantastic forms of roughage and generally easy to obtain. Oat hay should be avoided and Lucerne is generally acceptable for most horses in small amounts.
Hard food or grain which is high in sugars should ideally be completely eliminated from the diet provided a nutritionist is consulted with in order to advise on suitable alternatives for proteins, fats and essential vitamins and minerals.
For extra weight gain and/or as a base for supplements:
-Oats (up to about 2kg for the average hard-working horse, we always aim for as little as possible or none unless more energy is needed)
- Lucerne (usually no more than 2kg)
-Sunflower Oil Cake (usually no more than 1kg)
- Oil: Flaxseed oil or ground flax seeds (up to 150g)
- Herbs: Kelp, garlic and fenugreek seed assist with healthy hoof growth and general health
- Trace mineral supplement: Immunohoof, SA Trace or other mineral supplements containing copper and zinc with no added iron
- Access to salt
- Magnesium oxide (approximately 15g)
Ideally, a nutritionist who is capable of analyzing roughage for nutritional content should be used to assist the owner with a custom formulated supplement for their horse's unique nutritional needs. We recommend using a nutritionist who has completed Dr. Kellon's courses on equine nutrition.
Common hoof issues which can be helped or eliminated through correct feeding:
Laminitis: Eliminate as many sugars from the diet by testing hay and soaking it if necessary. Feed balanced minerals and herbs for laminitis.
White line separation/hoof sensitivity: Usually caused by excess sugars/lack of copper and zinc in the diet as well as illness or medication/vaccines. In extreme cases can lead to laminitis. Adjust diet, supplement and detox as necessary.
Cracks/Seedy toe: Copper/Zinc deficiency and/or diet too high in sugars. Supplement as necessary
Thrush: Also aggravated by an excess of sugars in the diet and copper zinc imbalance/deficiency.
Abscesses: Detox by feeding appropriate herbs; and change to a natural diet, trim and lifestyle. Decrease chemical usage.
"But I've done everything for my horse, and he is still struggling, barefoot is just not for him...."
Occasionally we come across a horse that despite careful conditioning, living on appropriate terrain, eating a mineral-balanced, low sugar diet and receiving a good trim - will still struggle on harder going. Often this type of horse has been previously shod, over-medicated, over-vaccinated, incorrectly fed and has been under some long term stress. X-rays may either show some coffin bone loss and/or at the least very poor concavity, no matter what you do, the horse just doesn't grow in a strong white line connection. Unfortunately, in the case of severe coffin bone loss, not much can be done to improve white line connection. These horses are sometimes not very good doers, suffer from some body pain and their coat and hoof quality may be quite poor. They may also abscess regularly and react quite severely to small bug bites. In general "something just isn't quite right." They are trickier to deal with but fortunately there are solutions for even these guys, as easy as it is to just put shoes on and forget about them until things really get out of hand. For starters, we recommend using hoof boots for tackling harder going. Scoot Boots are fantastic for this purpose as they have both removable and glue-on options which can be worn 24/7. We also recommend that the horse's health is examined more deeply and from a holistic point of view.
Ulcers and other gut problems as well as a toxic liver might be preventing your horse from processing nutrients and toxins appropriately, often the endocrine system is also under strain. In this situation, more chemicals are generally not the answer. Instead we turn to herbal support. A liver and blood detox blend as well as herbs to heal the gut are a good start and the horse is usually kept on most of these formulations long term. I've experienced some horses abscessing (often a sign of toxins leaving the body) during this period which is when we give them a herbal pain relief replacement for discomfort and herbal antibiotics if necessary. After the horse has detoxed, he is generally a lot brighter with better coat quality and hoof horn growth coming through. The detox may need to be repeated a few months later. Please visit the About page for more info and contact details of the relevant suppliers of these products.
The horse which the above hoof belongs to suffers from suspected Leaky Gut Syndrome and has some coffin bone loss (note the divot at the toe - common in horses having landed toe-first for many years). This horse struggles to grow a decent white line connection but has improved since treatment. He is otherwise very sound on grass and tar.