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. 

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