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"What's important is what you learn after you thought you knew everything."

Warwick Schiller, Performance Horsemanship

"A horse is the only one of God's creatures who's not allowed to walk on its own feet. We put metal on them, it's going to mess with everything."

Quoted from an unnamed rancher

Before I give you my take on all-things-barefoot, or if you've been thinking about barefoot and want to see it in action, first up there's an amazing webpage showing UK barefoot hooves in action. We're talking Rockley Farm, a small hill farm in the Exmoor National Park run by Nic Barker and Andy Willis. Rockley Farm is a specialist barefoot rehabilitation livery for horses with hoof-related lameness such as navicular or DDFT, and the horses that end up at Rockley are usually in Last-Chance-Lameness-Corrall, with either very little positive chance of recovery - or none at all.

Click on the Rockley Farm website's Barefoot Performance page - https://rockleyfarm.co.uk/barefoot-performance.html - and you'll see an amazing video of barefoot hooves in action on a stony surface. Even better? These very horses on this page are all former Rockley Farm Rehabs, all of them formerly in that Last-Chance-Lameness-Corrall who all rehabbed barefoot. It makes for amazing viewing.

What drew me to barefoot

Back in the mid-2000's when I first heard the 'Barefoot' word as a possible option for our Kelso, the word continued to niggle at me; despite my total lack of knowledge on the subject it instinctively felt 'right' for my horses to satisfy my 'natural' direction, but to be honest I was completely clueless about it.

As it also happened back in the day, and we're talking 2005-onwards, there was very little available knowledge about it, and to be honest I thought it was just a case of taking shoes off and getting on with it, although I worried about rocky surfaces - at the time we were based on Salisbury Plain which was very flinty.

One thing's for sure though - many farriers who had heard the word were dead against it. Understandably. Thankfully we're well over a decade or so on now, and many farriers have now embraced barefoot hoof health - some have even retrained and became barefoot trimmers - while many more have accepted that barefoot is here to stay and are happy to trim a hoof without shoeing it.

For some though, there's still a fair way to go though. Back then in the mid-2000s, I spoke to my farrier who said without hesitation that there was no way my horses could go barefoot as their hooves "were too weak." With hindsight though, he was actually giving me the very reason why I absolutely needed to take them barefoot, because a nourished barefoot hoof is one heck of a strong, robust, healthy hoof that can stride comfortably on any rocky, flinty surface.

(A few years after my horses went barefoot, another farrier told me I was "a prat", while splitting his sides laughing at his own joke with many of the other (shod) liveries joining in. This was just one of the many dark corners in the earlier world of barefoot ...)

So, back to my barefoot dilemma and I sat on my itch, until Kelso and his crumbling hooves came into my life and I knew I had to do something urgently for him. I started browsing online and purely by chance I stumbled across the UKNHCP Forum run by the very same Nic Barker at Rockley Farm, as mentioned at the top of this page- www.rockleyfarm.co.uk. From this moment, everything changed. So began my horses' unshod world, and my vertical learning. It was completely life-changing.

"My horse can't go barefoot."

I'll just chip in a word here for the sake of hooves. Just like me at the time, you'll hear all sorts of reasonings as to why horses allegedly can't go barefoot.

  • "We do too much road work so the feet will wear away too much - we can't possibly go barefoot." Au contraire. Tarmac is invaluable for conditioning hooves, really toughening them up, especially the sole. A bit like us walking on a pebble beach. At first it's ouchy, then the more we do it, the tougher the soles of our feet become.
  • "My horse is a thoroughbred so we can't possibly go barefoot." You might also hear a well-known phrase - "Typical thoroughbred feet." Myths! I've taken two TB's barefoot, one of which is our current Carmen. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the rumours, they've been my two easiest transitions - both of them, and I promise both of them, walked off without a care in the world the very instant the shoes came off - it was almost as if they breathed a sigh of relief and said "Cor, that feels better - thanks for that," and never looked back.
  • "My horse's soles are too thin so we can't possibly go barefoot." This was my connemara, Murphy, and trust me - farriers like this one. A significant reason why a horse should go barefoot. Thin soles are a classic sign of lack of any appropriate hoof stimulation and/or function, as well as lack of nutrients in the diet as well.
  • "My horse goes lame when he loses a shoe so we can't possibly go barefoot." Ditto above, but for sure this is going to happen to a shod horse, because the hoof has been encapsulated in metal and not been allowed to function as a hoof should. The entire structure - sole, hoof capsule, inner soft tissue - has become atrophied, inflexible and soft, a bit like if we break a leg and when the cast finally comes off, all the tendons/ligaments/cartilages have tightened and shrivelled and the calf muscle has vanished - we literally have to re-learn to walk again and it takes a while (I speak from experience!).
  • "Our area is too stony so we can't possibly go barefoot." This was a big one for me, living in sharp, flinty country. Three points here - first, while your horse is transitioning, there are hoof boots which in these modern times are amazing, and super-effective; I used them with Murf regularly until he decided it was time for him to retire in 2018. Second, as your horse transitions properly, with the right diet, environment and exercise, and provided you allow plenty of tarmac conditioning, those hooves will become strong enough to cope with any sharp/rocky surface. Third, I've seen it with my own eyes. Not long after Murf's shoes came off, my very lovely trimmer at the time, Sarah, trailer'd her horse over to me for us to both go out for a fabulous Salisbury Plain trail ride together. As we approached one of the sharpest, flintiest tracks ever (Murf had his boots on), Sarah said "Watch this," and loped Boy into the smoothest canter ever. I was speechless, seriously impressed, and definitely a tad super-envious. Witnessing her horse comfy as anything only encouraged me all the more to push on with this barefoot mullarky. Also, if you hop onto the Rockley Farm website as above, you'll see a further selection of videos including Nic's own horses stomping over Exmoor - I thought Salisbury Plain was sharp but it's nothing compared to Exmoor!

I understand every one of these objections, but here's a thing. The actual fact is that any and every horse can go barefoot; it's us humans who can't. I promise you, any horse can be sound on any surface without shoes after proper transitioning - it's us that stop it happening. To sustain rock-solid barefoot hooves which can perform on any surface, means achieving healthy, strong, robust and conditioned hooves. Obvious I know, but it takes real commitment and hard work on our part, and a ton of learning, to get there.

To attain the degree of health in hooves to achieve this level of soundness relies totally on 3 factors -

  • The right Diet (and I'm talking nutrients here, not feedbags, well yes, feedbags as well but there are good feeds, questionable feeds, and downright bad feeds, but mainly I'm talking about the importance of nutrients).
  • The right Environment, as in grass turnout/crop spraying, no stressors.
  • Finally, the right Exercise, as in plenty of tarmac conditioning, often.

(Oh, and time, and a ton of patience, even when you're losing the will to live, because trust me, you will.)

This is where maintaining optimum hoof-health goes pear-shaped because in order to keep our horses barefoot-sound, we must change virtually everything we thought we ever knew about how we manage our horses.

"The negative side of nailing a shoe to a hoof is that you automatically lift the hoof from the ground and therefore take away support from the underside of the frog and sole."

Peter Glimberg, farrier at Peder Fredricson's training farm, Olympic team rider Tokyo 2020

To say going barefoot is life-changing and time-consuming is an understatement. It's also incredibly challenging and not for the faint-hearted. As one of our Case Studies (Foxx) reads, who had very challenging hoof issues, her trimmer told his owner, Erica, that if she wasn't prepared to put in the hard work, not to even bother starting. Thankfully, Erica was determined and went all the way to success, but not without its trials.

Not only is going barefoot a massive learning curve, now also factor in our own busy lifestyle - family demands, work, and not to mention variable livery yard restrictions or lack of facilities because we can only work within the environment we've got. It's no wonder that for some of us it's incredibly challenging, and for others, virtually impossible.

There is nothing wrong with this! And here's a thing - far better a comfortable shod horse than an uncomfortable barefoot horse. I'm one of the lucky ones - I work from home so I can juggle my time to commit, but we don't own our own land so like many of us I've always been at the mercy of livery yards.

I personally found the transition enormously challenging, and spent many days/weeks/hours doubting myself, but Kelso's hooves relied on it so I pushed on. As well as the minefield of re-education, there were the physical management changes and demands. I became (and still am) a barefoot nerd overnight, and to this day I'm still learning - barefoot and our wet UK climate and our crazy neon-green grasslands does that to you.

Every day, every ride out, even field-checking/poo-picking, I'm focusing on the hooves - do they look okay, are my horses comfortable, are they gimping, are they sore, oh flip should I have put boots on, crikey is that a crack, and so on, and so on, and so on. It n-e-v-e-r ends ...! Going barefoot is a really big deal, but once you've got it sussed, it becomes second-nature and once you're there it's amazing - you start going all soft and mushy at a beautiful unshod hoof!

As it turned out, Kelso, who started it all with his desperate need for new hooves, thrived in his new metal-free world, and contrary to all the expectations regarding TB's failing miserably at barefoot, and as I mentioned earlier, Blas, our first beautiful TB, didn't even notice his had come off. Cookie, our gorgeous native pony, also rock-stomped from the onset - every farrier/trimmer we used thereafter said her feet were the best they'd ever seen, which was always lovely to hear; our MacAttack apparently also had 'perfect' feet 😊 What's not to love?! (I say 'had' - our herd are now all retired so these days we trim them ourselves.)

However, there's always one! My connie, Murphy, was a work in progress from Day-1 as he's metabolically 'interesting', having been given the IR label at age 7 (2001). In fact, early in 2013 I swallowed hard and against every fibre in my body, got Murf re-shod on his fronts as I was simply unable to provide him with the right environment and exercise regime to keep him sound as a comfortably functioning barefooter. Thank all the Gods that I found an amazingly sympathetic and understanding farrier who looked after my boy as if he was his own. And yes, I also have to put my hand in the air and admit that it was so nice riding out without being permanently concerned about what surface we were about to embark on and whether Murf was comfy, or gimping in discomfort, which I'm sure many can empathise with.

Then, as life would have it, I ruptured my achilles tendon within 2 sets of Murf's new fronts, so all riding was off the agenda for what turned out to be nearly 6-months. So Murf's shoes came off again, and from then on he went back to being a barefoot boy with boots when required, until 2018, when, as he approached his 25th birthday and was making it very clear to me that he'd rather not be ridden anymore, he's now retired, hoof-boots hung up, and living the Life of Riley as an unshod horse ;o)

2019, and we're all now pretty much retired from the riding lark so pressure off. Cookie and MacAttack remain rock-solid regardless, and Carmen, our TB, is pretty decent, completely sound on tarmac and in the field despite her twisted hoof, but come summer grass and she throws flares on every side of her fronts and the sole-to-coronet-band crack begins. Her upward skeletal frame is naturally unbalanced thanks to her hoof twiste, so we know the summer crack is all about pressure from above, a bit like putting weight on a polystyrene cup - something has to give somewhere. But Autumn to Spring she has the most beautiful hooves, provided you look from the front and don't go round the back to see her wince-making dropped heels.

There's no doubt in my mind I did the right thing for me and my horses, but there's also no question that looking back, taking my horses barefoot was the beginning of probably the most overwhelming, and relearning, time for me in several decades of horse-caring. It wasn't easy, but it got a whole lot easier, and for years now it's become second-nature for us - we don't even think about it anymore, other to admire them on a daily basis 😊

6.4.19 - A Client Enquiry

In January 2019 I had an enquiry from Sue, whose very gorgeous pure-bred Irish Draught mare, Gertie, aged just 5, had had the toughest of early years, with mild navicular, osteoarthritis of coffin joint and mild kissing spine, and that was just for starters. During our discussions we talked about taking her mare barefoot, and the following is a chunk of one of my email replies to her. I'm only posting it on this page as Sue said she found it really clear and easy to understand, so here we go:

"The trouble is that sometimes the edges blur between what’s best for the horse, as well as the fact that transitioning a horse comfortably to barefoot-sound can be more difficult for the human than the horse – there’s more to it than just taking the shoes off, as in getting the diet, environment, and the right exercise to stimulate/strengthen the hoof are vital to success.

However, I’m going to touch on it here as personally, if it was me, I wouldn’t advocate shoes of any sort for your mare; with her degenerative bone and soft-tissue issues, she needs her feet to function the way nature intended, in order to support the synergistic movement of bone, tendon and ligaments, all working together as they should to perform movement.

This might sound a bit barmy but trust me when I say that if a horse is allowed to walk on its own four feet naturally, each step is very different to that of a shod hoof. Specifically, the whole base of the hoof as in the peripheral hoof wall, the sole, the frog and the heels, all take the impact of the landing, as opposed to only the peripheral wall in a shod hoof, and … the hoof lands heel first compared to a toe-first landing in a shod hoof – if you see a natural bare hoof landing you’ll see the toe flick gently upwards before the heel then hits the ground before the toe – it’s a thing of beauty to watch when you're a hoof-nerd! 😊

This is completely how it’s meant to be, because it makes three very important functions occur:

  • Firstly, the heel landing allows the frog to do its job of absorbing the landing impact.
  • Second, the frog stimulation then internally compresses the digital cushion above the frog which acts as a pump to push the blood supply through the delicate hoof corium and back up the leg.
  • Thirdly, it’s all about the internal supporting soft-tissue structures, and specifically the DDFT.
    • As the toe gently flicks up to allow the heel to land first o land, the DDFT flexes under the heel to perform the heel-first landing.
    • The toe then flattens so the hoof is momentarily flat on the ground, so the DDFT springs back to its regular alignment.
    • Now the hoof prepares to lift off again - the knee bends which tilts the toe forward to lift off the ground as the heel raises up behind it, and the whole movement begins again. The leg is airborne and as it comes down to meet the ground, the toe gently flicks back up again, the DDFT stretches to allo the heel to land first, the frog absorbs the impact and compresses the digi cushion and blood pumps through the hoof. The toe then tilts forward to lift off again, then flicks up for the heel to land, and so it goes on. On every hoof on every leg in perfect beautiful synchronicity. Or, as the eminent farrier/barefoot guru says, "As the horse begins to lean into its forward motion, the deep & superficial flexor tendons take up the strain, asking the hoof to lift & drive the horse forward; to a greater or lesser extent the whole hoof capsule, internal & external begins to flex."

So, what differs when a shoe is nailed to the hoof? Remember I said earlier that the whole base of the hoof is meant to hit the ground with wall, sole and frog taking the full force of the landing? When a shoe is fitted, it’s nailed to the hoof wall so instantly the weight-bearing is only on the periphery of the hoof, and trust me again when I say that a horse is not meant to bear its weight on the hoof-wall alone. Imagine you walking on all fours on just your toe and finger nails. Yeowch …

Second, the frog becomes redundant so the hoof wall is also absorbing all the impact via a metal bar and the hoof capsule around the sole, which means no natural absorption where it’s meant to occur. It also means the frog shrivels into a weedy, thin lump of gristle.

Third, as a result of no frog absorption, the digi cushion isn’t compressed to pump blood through the hoof. Published studies show that a shod hoof has a loss of perfusion (blood flow) of up to 50%, which means the hoof isn’t fuelled by the blood supply as it should, and also makes it very prone to cold right up to the knee – there are thermo-images all over the web showing this – it’s convincing stuff 😉

Most noticeable though, the hoof lands toe first so the DDFT isn’t performing its natural stretch/release the way it’s meant to; a toe-first landing actually forces it to shrink, so when it has to stretch it’s less able to do so. Cue one torn DDFT.

Another very common syndrome of a loss of perfusion in a hoof is lack of proprioception – this means the horse basically can’t feel his feet, a bit like when we fall asleep on our arm and it goes dead so we can’t feel anything. What happens for the horse is that they stumble, often. This is what was happening with our Kelso - he stumbled badly on every ride out, crashing to his knees with me invariably ending up on his neck. But never mind me – we’d come back home to find his knees cut and bleeding, and usually the shoe hanging off. His hooves were in such poor condition from lack of a healthy blood supply fuelling his hooves with nutrients that there was barely any capsule remaining to re-nail a shoe back on. That led me to research everything there was out there to achieve healthy hooves, and hence I discovered ‘barefoot’. Kelso took to it like a duck to water, so much so that I took our other three barefoot, and we’ve never looked back.

That’s not to say it’s been easy – the first few years were challenging for sure, as I muddled through getting the regime right, but we’ve been there for over a decade now, and these days it’s second nature 😊

As further evidence for you, I’m going to give you a link to the wonderful Rockley Farm, run by Nic Barker. Rockley is the place to go for hoof lameness rehabilitation, where she takes in significantly lame horses, usually with DDFT and navicular issues from previously shod horses and where the vets have given up, and rehabs them via barefoot healing.

Her website and regular blog posts are an amazing source of eye-opening enlightenment, and a great resource of advice and reassurance along with great photos and videos. I’ve known Nic since 2007 and have witnessed quite remarkable barefoot transitions, with many top-level competition horses as well as those with a PTS prognosis, who have gone on to compete again fully barefoot! Many of Nic’s clients have become my clients too, which is lovely for me having seen the horse in question on Nic’s blog arrive lame and landing toe-first, then having the shoes off and recovering to achieve a rock-solid performing bare hoof.

Have a look here: https://rockleyfarm.co.uk/ - her blog: https://rockleyfarm.blogspot.com/ - her FB page: https://www.facebook.com/Rockley-Farm-129496323778726/

Prepare to be amazed … ! And if you’re brave enough to say No to all the professionals saying to shoe her, your girl, I’m sure, will thank you for it."