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Barefoot

"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 taking your horse barefoot and want to see it in action, first up let me point you to an amazing website 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 DDFT damage, or 'navicular', a very blanket term used by some vets; most horses that end up at Rockley are usually in Last-Chance-Lameness-Corrall, usually where the vets have given up on them with either very little chance of recovery, or worse, allegedly 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 previously in that last-chance-corrall, and all beautifully rehabbed as barefoot. It truly makes for amazing viewing.

But - I'm not here to twist anyone's arm to go barefoot; as the saying goes, "Far better a comfortable shod horse than an uncomfortable barefoot horse.' But for anyone who may be in that last-chance-corrall, barefoot - even short term - can produce remarkable results.

What drew me to barefoot

Back in the mid-2000's our Kelso's hooves were in a dreadful state - he was constantly tripping, and couldn't keep shoes on, losing chunks of his hoof wall each time. The 'barefoot' word was starting to reach the outer circles as a possible option for hoof issues, and for sure it instinctively felt 'right' for my horses to satisfy my 'natural' direction, but there was also a dark side erupting - forums were starting to mention it and it was thought of as cruel, with all kinds of accusations being hurled at anyone thinking about it, little realising that those thinking about taking their horses barefoot were desperate to find a way to save their horses.

Back then, and we're now around 2005, there was very little available knowledge about doing 'barefoot' properly, 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've moved on considerably now, and many farriers have not only embraced barefoot hoof health, but some have even retrained and became barefoot trimmers. Generally most have accepted that barefoot is here to stay as a completely acceptable hoof-care approach and are happy to trim a hoof without shoeing it.

That said, for some farriers there's still a way to go. 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." Without realising at the time, 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, while attending another horse on the livery yard I was on, took it upon himself to call me "a prat", while splitting his sides laughing at his own joke with many of the other (shod) liveries joining in. And not the first time this happened. There was a lot of blind ignorance back in the day.)

So, back to Kelso and my barefoot dilemma 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, and so began my horses' unshod world, not to mention my vertical re-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, and despite the myth, 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." They 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. No different to 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 time (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 - over those flints! I was seriously impressed, and just a tiny bit super-envious. It 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!

Back to those objections, and I hear you, truly! 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 stops it happening. To sustain rock-solid unshod hooves which can perform on any surface takes commitment and hard work on our part to achieve healthy, strong, robust and conditioned hooves, and it relies totally on 3 factors -

  • The right Diet (and I'm talking nutrients here, not feedbags, well yes, feedbags as well as there are good feeds, questionable feeds, and downright bad feeds, but mainly I'm talking about the importance of nutrients, aka minerals. Without a forage mineral balancer supplement, which puts the deficient nutrients in our UK forage back into the equine diet, you won't achieve strong, robust hooves.
  • The right Environment, as in addressing grass turnout, toxins/crop spraying, and removing 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

A barefoot hoof doesn't lie

I’ve had countless client enquiries over the years whose barefoot horses have been sore after a trim. It’s a common scenario for many of us, but consider the one good thing that comes out of this situation – you’re getting immediate feedback from your horse. If your horse had been shod you may never have known – until maybe it was too late – that your farrier had caused harm. Immediate feedback is a powerful by-product of the barefoot horse.

Equine soundness doesn’t happen overnight, with many underlying causes of lameness often overlooked. Lameness may be subtle at first, but can then turn into a bigger problem over time. In a shod horse those subtle signs are often ignored, either not considered an issue or just minor problems.

Metal easily covers up early signs of lameness with substantial hoof damage created over time the longer your horse remains shod. This causes damage to the circulatory system of both hoof and leg which leads to lack of proprioception where the horse literally can’t feel their feet, as well as reducing traction. Personally I’d want my horse to have every opportunity to be as surefooted as possible, especially when I’m going to be sat on top! 😉.

A horse’s soundness is also closely tied to diet. Shoeing can easily cover up subtle signs of low-grade laminitis caused by an inappropriate and unnatural diet.

Equally a farrier can easily cover up a poor job with a shoe, giving a false sense of soundness by masking early signs of lameness, ultimately causing unseen damage to the hoof’s internal structures, and limiting the horse’s healing mechanism, thus preventing us being proactive to address the lameness issues. Despite what most people in the equine industry think, it’s unacceptable for a horse to walk off less sound than they did before the trim – they should be the same or better. Long and short, an unshod horse will always give you feedback on the effectiveness of your hoof program.

“A horse that’s only sound in shoes is not a sound horse.”

Taking a horse barefoot is life-changing

It's an education for sure, time-consuming, 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 - back to that saying, "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 fascinating - I was hungry to learn the important stuff, with much of it eye-opening, especially on the subject of diet. There were also time when it was hugely challenging - I spent many days/weeks/hours doubting myself, but Kelso's hooves relied on it so I pushed on, and thankfully the UKNHCP forum was incredibly supporting as well, with hundreds like me going through the same thing. As well as the minefield of re-education, there were also the physical management changes and demands, but I became a barefoot nerd overnight, and that never stops - 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 the sight of 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. When we adopted Carmen in 2014, she was exactly the same. Cookie, our adorable gypsy 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. Then our dartmoor adoption, MacAttack, back in 2017, 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, isn't there. 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, after several years of barefoot v. hoofboots trial and error, 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 to keep him sound as a comfortably functioning barefooter. Thank all the Gods that I found an amazingly sympathetic and understanding farrier who cared for Murf's hooves 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 occasional boots as we were both starting to slow down a bit by then. Finally, in 2018, as he approached his 25th birthday and was making it very clear to me that he'd rather not be ridden anymore, I hung his boots up, and retired him. He'd given me a lifetime of fun and he thoroughly deserved it.

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 one of the most overwhelming times for me in several decades of horse-caring. With each day it got a whole lot easier though, before becoming second-nature - I 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 beautiful pure-bred ID 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/tendons/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, i.e. 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 (Deep Digital Flexor Tendon):
    • As the toe gently flicks up to allow the heel to land first to land, the DDFT flexes under the heel to perform the heel-first landing.
    • The toe then flattens down so the hoof sole 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 allow the heel to land first, the frog absorbs the impact and compresses the digi cushion and healthy blood pumps/circulated through the hoof to head back up the leg. The knee bends, 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 an 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."

Which it can't do when metal is nailed to it. 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 outer 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, so no 'give'; no natural shock-absorption where it’s meant to occur. As a result, over time through lack of use the frog eventually shrivels into a weedy, thin lump of gristle.

Third, as a result of no frog shock-absorption, the digi cushion isn’t being 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 being fuelled/nourished/nutrified by the blood supply as it should be, and also makes it very prone to being 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 - and not heel - 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, or we have to rip our gloves off at the yard because we can't 'feel' what we're trying to do. For the horse, if they can't feel their feet 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 there also wasn't the knowledge we have today regarding diet/nutrients/toxins in the environment and so on, so I muddled through getting the regime right, but we’ve been there for well over a decade now, and these days it’s absolute second nature 😊

As further evidence for you, I’m going to give you a link to the wonderful Rockley Farm, run by Nic Barker - it was Nic who first started the UKNHCP barefoot forum that I discovered when I was desperately googling a hoof solution for Kelso. Rockley is the place to go for barefoot 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. Many vets now refer horses to Rockley, and it can be covered on insurance as well.

Nic's 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 followed 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 so 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 rock-solid performing bare hooves!

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 telling you to shoe her, your girl, I’m sure, will thank you for it."