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.

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