Hoof Care

Managing the barefoot horse

For a horse to grow the optimum hoof, one capable of meeting all demands made on it, he needs to live as natural a lifestyle as possible. The style of trim is only one small part of that. More important are his diet, environment and lifestyle. Here are some aspects of managing horses that can be changed from the traditional to more natural.

GRAZING.

The idea that grass is harmful to horses is one that is difficult to accept. After all horses love lush green grass. But allowing them to eat it all day is like allowing a person to eat nothing but donuts all day. Bear in mind that much of our UK grazing has been improved, ie. re-seeded with grass species chosen for maximum meat and milk production in cattle and sheep (animals that are not known for their athleticism, or expected to live a long and active life). Whereas horses evolved to thrive on forage that is sparse and low in nutrients.

It is common for a horse to do well barefoot during the winter months, but to become footsore in the spring. The spring grass is higher in sugars and causes inflammation of the laminae and soreness over rough or stony going (basically the horse is suffering from very very mild laminitis). In this situation there are 2 options; restrict grazing or shoe the horse. Shoeing doesn’t cure the problem, but does stop the horse being as aware of it (by reducing circulation the shoe has an analgesic effect). Grazing can be restricted by keeping the horse on a bare paddock and providing hay to ensure he gets enough roughage, stabling during the day and turning out at night – when grass is lower in sugar, or using a track system.

TRACK SYSTEMS.

Whilst some barefoot horses do well with traditional management where are large portion of their day is spent stabled, others need more movement to develop feet that are healthy and strong enough to perform well barefoot. 24/7 turnout is a big improvement over stabling, but a horse in a field still leads a fairly sedentary life, he has no need to move far as his food is all around him. Movement is essential for circulation and development of the shock absorbing structures of the hoof (digital cushion/lateral cartilages).

To encourage more movement a “track sytem” can fenced around the outside of the field. Water provided in one area, shelter and hay in others. The horses naturally keep moving around the track exercising their feet and bodies as they go. For more info read “The Natural Horse” and “Paddock Paradise” both by Jaime Jackson.

Below are photos of our track system. We set up the track in the summer months (when the ground is dry enough) by fencing a track around the perimeter of the field with electric fencing. The grass gets eaten down to virtually nothing, vastly reducing the horses sugar intake. Roughage is provided with hay. The middle of the field rests over the summer. It can be strip grazed or a cut of hay can be taken, then the grass is left to grow. The horses graze the middle of the field in the winter when grass is lower in sugar and safer for them to eat. And because it was rested there is plenty of winter feed, which makes up for the hay that was fed during the summer.

Setting up this system requires a modest initial outlay, but costs a fraction of traditional livery and quickly pays for itself. The advantages for the horse are:

1. Always in the fresh air rather than a poorly ventilated stable, so respiratory problems disappear.

2. Constant movement, so no filled legs or stiff older horses, palmar foot develops (digital cushion/lateral cartilages), improved circulation (to feet and rest of body).

3. Increased fitness – our horses like to have regular gallops around the track, and even lazy trigger joins in because he doesn’t like to be left behind. This is a great bonus when you don’t have time to ride as often as you should as the horses are always fit and ready when we do have time.

4. Weight control – less grass, more exercise. 

5. Relaxed and content horses – the horses behave as a herd and interact normally with each other.

WORMING.

Some horses can be sensitive to chemical wormers. In the barefoot horse this will be seen as increased sole sensitivity or soreness over stony ground. In extreme cases worming has caused laminitic episodes. Worm resistance to chemical wormers is becoming an increasing problem for all horse owners. Worm counts are recommended before routine worming to ensure chemicals are not given needlessly. Others measures to reduce the lands worm burden are removing droppings from fields every couple of days before the eggs hatch, rotation and resting of fields, and grazing with sheep or cattle, as horse worms are killed by the their digestive systems. Its worth feeding a probiotic at worming time to support the digestive system while the chemicals pass through.

FEEDING.

Start reading the ingredients on feed bags. It is surprising how many feeds contain molasis, which is sugar and bad for feet. Avoid feeds containing syrups and Moglo (another form of molassis). If the bag does not list the ingredients then you have no way of knowing what you are feeding your horse. Be careful of feeding cereals, these are usually only needed by hard working horses. Stick to high fibre feeds such as unmolassed sugar beet. Consider whether your horse really needs more than a token bucket feed – the average leisure horse can get all his calories from hay.

The best way to ensure the horse is getting the correct balance of minerals is to have your forage tested and a bespoke supplement made up. If forage testing is not practical use a broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement, or alternatively good natural sources of vitamins and minerals are seaweed, linseed and brewers yeast. 

Avoid sugary or molassis based treats and stable licks.

HOOF BOOTS.

Hoof boots are usually needed when a horse first comes out of shoes. If a horse is flat footed or thin soled, or has a stony area to negotiate (even is it is just the path to the field) I won’t remove the shoes unless the owner buys boots at the same time. It just isn’t worth risking bruising the soles. Briused soles will really set back the transition process and can develop into sub-solar abscesses.

Sometimes they will always be needed for rough and stony going. I have found the Renegagdes (www.renegadehoofboots.com), Easyboot Gloves and Epics (www.easycareinc.com), and Cavallo hoof boots (www.cavallo-inc.com) to be very effective. But there is lots of choice and some models fit certain hoof shapes better than others. www.thesaddleryshop.co.uk hire boots so you can try before you buy.www.horseandmore.co.uk have the best priced Cavallo boots. Ebay is a good place to look for new and second hand hoof boot bargains.

What makes a good hoof?

Most people can identify a hoof that has superficial damage, for example overdue for shoeing or has cracks in the hoof wall. But the trouble is that we don’t understand how to assess the internal health of a hoof. To do this you need to examine the digital cushion. Heres how…

  • Make fist and squeeze the thumb muscle – it feels firm.
  • Next relax your hand, squeeze the thumb muscle again – it feels soft.
  • Now you can squeeze the back of the horses foot and see how the digital cushion feels – firm and elastic, or soft and squishy.
  • You need to feel lots of feet, including healthy hard working barefeet, to develop an idea of good and bad.

WHY IS THIS A GOOD INDICATOR OF HOOF HEALTH?

The digital cushion is a crucial shock absorbing structure. If it is weak it is not able to perform this function and the horses weight impacting on this area is painful. This will cause the horse to place his feet on the ground toe first rather than heel first. The toe wall is fairly rigidly attached to the pedal bone, so shock absorption in this area of the hoof is limited and concussion travels up the leg. With a toe first landing the deep digital flexor tendon is under increased tension and squeezes the navicular bone. This eventually leads to damage to the navicular bone and lesions on the tendon.

Below: The deep digital flexor tendon (outlined in purple) passes over the navicular bone (outlined in green).

WHAT CAUSES A POOR DIGITAL CUSHION?

When a foal is born he has digital cusions that are made of soft fatty tissue. This is tough enough to absorb the impact of the foals light weight. As he grows and gets heavier the impact forces increase. Fibrous cartilage begins to grow into the digital cushion and it turns into a fibro-fatty pad capable of absorbing greater impact without the horse experiencing any discomfort. However, for this to happen the horse must be able to move around as it is the pressure and release stimulation and expansion and contraction of the hoof that makes it happen. If a foal has little opertunity to move around or lives on soft ground the digital cushions don’t develop properly. Coupled with early shoeing with prevents full expansion/contraction of the hoof the horse can reach adult weight with immature digital cushions.  Bar shoes are used in this situation to stabilise the back of the foot and protect the digital cushion. However, the foot becomes weaker, just as the muscles of your arm would if you wore a plaster cast. Bar shoes may keep a horse in work for a few extra years, but don’t cause any healing or development of the hoof.

Continued stimulation is necessary to maintain the health of the digital cushion. The following photos are of the same horses feet. On the left she has excellent digital cushions. On the right the digital cushions have weakened and the frogs have receeded. This was due to a year of on and off box rest following a ligament injury. The good news is the digital cushions will build up again once work recommences.

Suceeding with natural hoof care

Whilst you may want your horse to enjoy the health benefits of natural hoof care, it is not the easy or cheap option, and can be challenging in our wet lush UK climate. In some cases people have tried to ride their horse barefoot only to be forced to return to shoes. However, there are many horses in the UK out performing their shod selves, and many owners enjoying the challange of providing a more natural and healthy lifestyle. I find my own barefoot horses trouble free and easier to manage than when they were shod. So how can you succeed in maintaining a happy, healthy barefoot horse and enjoy riding as you want?

Firstly don’t rush into it. Study the links and resources listed on this site. Doing your homework and knowing the facts will help you to understand the changes your horse will experience.

The main elements of natural hoof care are;

  • Regular natural trims to replace natural wear in an abrasive environment. 
  • A natural diet; low in sugar and high in fibre. 
  • As much movement as possible. This means providing as close to a natural environment and lifestyle as circumstances allow.

 THE TRIM.

  • Enlist the help of an experienced trimmer, preferably before your horses’ shoes are removed. It is essential to remove the shoes at the end of the shoeing cycle (ie. when the horse is due to be shod). This allows the sole that was trimmed prior to shoeing to grow back, ensuring maximum comfort at shoe removal. While you are waiting for the shoes to come off you can be making important changes to diet and lifestyle that will make transition to barefoot easier.
  • The first trim is important and is best done by a specialist barefoot trimmer who will also be able to give advice on other management issues, and insure a trouble free transition to barefoot. A standard farriers pasture trim is unlikely give the desired results, and farriers often habitually remove calloused sole, as they would to provide a flat surface for the shoe, this will make the horse footsore without shoes.
  • The trim should be non-invasive and only remove excess growth. The horse should be as comfortable, or more comfortable after the trim than he was in shoes (when first out of shoes he may be sensitive on stones of course). If the trimmer tells you that lameness or bleeding is part of the healing process don’t allow them to trim your horse.
  • Your horse will need frequent trims at 4-8 week intervals depending on the health of the hoof and the amount of exercise he gets. If the hoof gets overgrown it will begin to deform. If you are used to calling the farrier when your horses’ feet look bad, then be prepared for more frequent visits and the extra cost this entails.

DIET.

  • This is a crucial element of successful barefoot riding, and is the main reason for failure.
  • Make the necessary changes to the horses diet at least a month before shoe removal to reduce tenderness.
  • The general rule is high fibre – low sugar. Some horses are more sensitive to sugar/carbohydrate than others. Some are not so sensitive and can work barefoot without major changes to their diet. Sensitive horses will always be sore over stones while their diet contains too much sugar, possibly needing their grazing restricted as they are sensitive to the sugars in grass. At the far end of the spectrum are horses that are so sensitive to the sugars in grass that they need to be kept off it all together in order to be completely sound on stony ground barefoot.  
  • Many people enjoy feeding their horses and find it hard to be objective about their weight. People often want to give feeds that they think look appetising, regardless as to whether it is suitable for their horse. It is easy to be influenced by the advertising of the big feed companies without considering the suitability of the feed for the individual horse.
  • Don’t feed molasis (another form of sugar). It is surprising how many low calorie feeds contain it. Read the ingredients lists on feed bags to be sure what you are feeding. 
  • Horses should have ad-lib hay or haylage to provide enough roughage for a healthy digestive system. Horses that gain too much weight on ad-lib hay or haylage can have it soaked for a few hours before feeding. This has been shown to reduce the sugar and carbohydrate content by 18-30%, enabling you to control your horses weight without him having to go without food for long periods.
  • Be prepared to make changes to your horses diet, this is likley to be necessary in order to achieve the level of barefoot performance that you desire.

EXERCISE AND ENVIRONMENT.

  • Movement increases blood flow to the hoof, which increases healing and growth. 24/7 turnout is the ideal. However, you may need to restrict your horses grass intake so an area of hard core or similar is ideal for some of the day. If that is not possible it may be better to stable your horse for part of the day. 
  • Regular ridden exercise is important too (as much as possible), especially if turnout is limited.
  • Wet conditions can allow fungus and bacteria to thrive, again a hardcore area will allow the feet to dry out. During the winter months my horses are stabled at night.

  TRANSITION.

  • Another reason for failure if you are not prepared.
  • If your horse was sound in shoes, then he should be straight away barefoot on grass and arenas. He is likely to be sensitive on stony ground until his soles thicken and develop a tough calus. Hoof boots will allow you to continue riding on all surfaces during transition. Some horses always need boots on stony ground, especially if your circumstances don’t allow for optimum diet and environment.
  • If your horse was lame in shoes then he may need some time off when the shoes are removed. Hoof boots with pads will get you back in the saddle as soon as possible though.
  • Be patient and considerate. It took time for those hooves to become sick and deformed – it takes time for them to become healthy again. People are sometimes unrealistic, even thoughtless when their horse first comes out of shoes, expecting the horse to cope immediately on long rides, then when the horse struggles the shoes go back on.

Taking a horse barefoot requires the owner to take a lot of responsibility for their horses’ feet. Gone will be the days of arranging the farrier every 6-8 weeks and not thinking any further about it.

  • A lot of thought must be given to the diet the horse eats, the environment it lives in and the amount of movement it is able to get.
  • Hygiene must be maintained to a high standard; the horses bedding must be clean and dry, the feet must be kept clean by picking them out every day.
  • Anti-fungal treatments may be needed between visits from the trimmer.
  • The horses’ comfort must be monitored, as foot soreness can be an early warning of problems elsewhere in the horses’ system, commonly dietary.
  • The horse must be ridden with consideration using hoof boots when necessary.
  • Be prepared to tolerate the opinions of other horse owners who may feel that transitioning your horse out of shoes is unnecessary, even cruel.

If you still think natural hoofcare is for you, then you have chosen a method of horse management that is challenging, but the benefits for the horse in terms of health, soundness, performance and longevity are well worth the extra effort. 

Basic Hoof Anatomy

A basic knowledge of anatomy is needed to understand how the hoof functions and why certain problems can develop. Understanding anatomical terms will help you when discussing issues with your trimmer, farrier or vet. This is a brief overview of the anatomy of the hoof.

THE BONES OF THE FOOT.

Long Pastern Bone – Also called the first phalanx, proximal phalanx or P1. Articulates with the short pastern to form the pastern joint.

Short Pastern Bone – Also called the second phalanx, middle phalanx, or P2. It sits with its lower end inside the hoof capsule. It articulates with the pedal bone to form the coffin joint and the long pastern to form the pastern joint.

The long and short pastern bones should have the same angle as the toe wall, this is known as the hoof-pastern axis.

Pedal Bone – Also called the coffin bone, distal phalanx, third phalanx or P3. It sits within the front half of the hoof capsule and articulates with the short pastern bone and navicular bone. The common digital extensor tendon runs down the front of the leg and attaches to the extensor process at the front of the pedal bone. The deep digital flexor tendon runs down the back of the leg, passes over the navicular bone and attaches to the underside of the pedal bone. The 2nd illustration shows the shape of the pedal bone in cross section. This is the shape seen on x-ray (which shows the densest part of the bone). Surrounding the coffin bone is a highly vascular layer called the corium. The horn of the hoof capsule grows from the corium.  

Navicular Bone – Also called the distal sesamoid bone. It sits behind and articulates with the pedal bone. It acts as a fulcrum point for the deep digital flexor tendon, ensuring that it maintains a correct angle of insertion onto the pedal bone. Below: Navicular bone is highlighted in green, deep digital flexor tendon is highlighted in purple.

Hoof Wall – This is made up of 2 layers. The outer layer is pigmented and harder, forming a protective outer shell. The inner layer is called the water line. This is white (it has no pigment) and is more durable. This is the part of the wall that bears weight in the naturally trimmed hoof. The hoof wall grows down from the coronary band at a rate of approximately ½ cm to 1cm a month.

Periople – A thin skin of soft horn which forms a layer over the join between the coronary band and the hoof wall. This is the same as the cuticle on your own nails. Sometimes it extends further down the hoof and becomes more obvious (below), and in wet weather it will swell up and turn whiter.

Sole – Grows down from the underside of the pedal bone. Barefoot trimmers talk of live sole, which is hard and waxy in appearance. A shod or overgrown bare hoof will have a covering of unexfoliated sole, which is flaky or chalky in appearance. This forms when the sole is not making contact with and being abraded by the ground, because of the shoe or excessively long hoof walls.

Frog – Functions as a shock absorber and traction aid and is a hinge allowing the hoof wall to flex and expand with the hoof mechanism. The central cleft (or central sulcas) should be open. If the hoof is contracted it will be a narrow, deep crack which is a perfect home for fungus and thrush. The frog contains sensory nerves called messner receptors. We have them in our finger tips. These highly sensitive nerves allow the horse to feel what he is standing on another reason to ensure the frog makes contact with the ground. 

Bars – These are a continuation of the hoof wall. They strengthen the hoof preventing it from flexing too much. The bars should be straight and end about halfway along the frog.

Seat Of Corn – The angle between the hoof wall and bars. If the shoe is left on too long its heel presses into this area causing a corn (bruise), hence the name.

Collateral Grooves – These are the grooves running along either side of the frog. Their depth is a guide to the position of the pedal bone within the hoof. If the collateral groove is very shallow it indicates that the pedal bone is sitting low in the hoof.

White Line – The white line is the join between the pedal bone and hoof wall. Growing out from the wall of the pedal bone are the dermal laminae. These look like the flukes on the underside of a mushroom and contain the blood supply (below left). Sticking inward from the hoof wall are the epidermal laminae (below right), these interlock with the dermal laminae to form a strong bond.

Lateral Cartilage – Extends from the palmar process of the pedal bone into the rear of the hoof and above the hair line where it can be felt (shown as the green area in the photo below). It is involved in hoof mechanism, flexing as the hoof moves and absorbing concussion.

Digital Cushion – A fibro-fatty pad that sits in the back half of the hoof, above the frog and between the lateral cartilages (outlined in red in the photo below). Functions in the hoof mechanism and as a shock absorber.

HOOF TERMS. 

Hoof Mechanism – The hoof mechanism is a complex process that pumps blood around the hoof and back up the leg. The movement of blood in the hoof also absorbs concussion. Basically during the support phase of the stride (when the horses’ weight is on the hoof) the hoof expands and the blood vessels within the hoof fill with blood. During the flight phase (when the hoof is off the ground) the hoof contracts and the blood is squeezed out and back up the leg. The pumping action of the hoof aides the heart in circulating blood around the body.

Breakover – This is the moment that the heels leave the ground and the foot rotates over the toe. The point on the toe that the horse “breaks over” can be seen as an area of greater wear on the shoe, or with the bare hoof, an area that the horse keeps neatly bevelled by himself, and is often called the breakover point. A healthy bare hoof has a short toe which requires less effort to breakover. The longer the toe, the more effort is needed to breakover, and the greater the strain on the tendons and ligaments. 

ACTION.

Watching the horse from the side the foot should hit the ground heel first. This is because the shock absorbing structures are in the back of the foot. If the horse places the foot down toe first he is protecting the structures in the back of the foot due to soreness. 

Watching from the front on a flat, level surface, ideally the foot should be put down flat. However, it is common for the foot (particularly the hind) to meet the ground outside first. 

The negative effects of horse shoes

Many shod horses lead relatively sound and trouble free lives, but the problem with shoeing is the unacceptably high number of horses which are prematurely retired or euthanized due to chronic lameness; lameness caused or contributed to by shoes and unnatural living conditions. Whilst the shoe is applied for protection, it also impedes the normal functioning of the hoof.

REDUCES CIRCULATION -Expansion of the hoof is restricted by the nails and clips, this limits hoof mechanism and therefore blood flow. Shoes cause peripheral loading; the horse is forced to bear his weight on the hoof wall only. Veterinary researcher Robert Bowker has shown that peripheral loading reduces blood flow within the foot. These are the reasons why shod hooves feel colder than bare hooves. Blood carries nutrients and oxygen for growth and repair. This is why shod hooves grow more slowly than bare hooves. Reduced circulation also causes reduced feeling in the hoof.

Above: Thermographic images of the hind feet (left picture) and fore feet (right picture) of the same horse taken with the same temperature setting. The temperature is shown by the colours – red/yellow is warmer and blue/green is colder. The difference here is that the hind feet are bare, and the fore feet are shod.

INCREASES CONCUSSION – The shoe cancels out approximately 75% of the hoofs ability to absorb concussion. Concussion then travels up the leg damaging tendons and joints. Compare the footage on the links below.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=fql-xsofeg0%26hl%3Den%26fs%3D1%26

CAUSES CONTRACTION – The healthy hoof is a cone shape, wider at the ground surface, narrower at the coronary band (below left). As it grows longer it also gets wider at the bottom. Shoes fix the width to what it was when the shoe was applied; it cannot get wider, so the hoof can become a cylinder shape, the same width top and bottom (below right).

The heels become narrower, the soft structures in the back half of the foot become compressed and wither (below left). This leads to pain in the back half of the foot when it impacts on the ground.

UNBALANCES THE HOOF – When the horse is re-shod the farrier removes excess growth and balances the hoof. He then applies the shoe which adds weight and length. Immediately hoof balance is affected. As the hoof grows longer it also grows forward and out from under the horse, balance and bio-mechanics grow worse. By the time the farrier returns the hoof has been poorly balanced for weeks putting the horse at greater risk of injury.

There are also advantages to shoeing;

  • It allows horses to work on any surface without conditioning the hoof or adjusting diet and lifestyle. This enables us to keep the horse on an unnatural diet and in unnatural living conditions, which can lead to other health problems. 
  • It allows the application of studs to give the horse greater than natural traction. This puts extra strain on the joints and risks injury.
  • It allows us to change the horses action, to create a higher knee action, a longer stride, or to make the horse move straighter. This puts unnatural and damaging stresses on the limb.
  • It allows horses with the beginnings of lameness to continue working sound – until the lameness progresses to a more advanced stage, with more advanced damage and poorer prognosis for a return to soundness. This is because the shoe reduces blood circulation in the hoof, which reduces sensation and so has an analgesic (pain killing effect). However, it does not prevent degeneration or promote healing. 

Despite the above if the horses diet, environment and lifestyle are correct it is likely to have relatively healthy feet with shoes. Shoes put unnatural stresses and strains on the hoof, a healthy hoof has a better chance of withstanding these stresses. Horses with weak sick hooves are the ones that have the most to gain from natural hoof care, but often never have the chance as it is assumed their feet would collapse completely without shoes.