Taking your horse barefoot is not a silver bullet. Earlier in my practice as a natural hoof care practitioner, clients would contact me as a last-ditch effort to save their horse. The tales owners would tell all had a similar theme. Their horse went lame, either from an abscess, laminitis, injury, or navicular diagnosis. The vet called, x-rays taken, and instructions given for the farrier to start a therapeutic shoeing program.
Initially, there would be some improvement. A few lucky horses would improve, but most after a few shoeing cycles would have the issue relapse. In some cases, the original issue would be worse. The vet and farrier called again, and both with good intentions would double down in their efforts to help the horse. More drugs prescribed and ever more elaborate shoes applied. Still, the problems would persist, resulting in the vet’s recommendation for euthanasia, and the farrier resided to the fact that some horses “just have bad feet.”
The owner, however, not wanting to give up, would look online for another answer, not believing there was nothing more to be done. Eventually, they would hear and read about the barefoot option and find me.
Thankfully these days, my clients usually find me before things get that bad. Today natural hoof care is much more common and well known. While there are advantages of taking your horse barefoot, there is more to a thriving natural hoof care lifestyle than just pulling the shoes. Here are some things you should know and consider if your horse is barefoot or if you are contemplating pulling off the shoes.
1. Natural Hoof Care
In hoof care, there is a correct way to trim the hoof. Your practitioner’s technique and training will have a significant effect on the success of your barefoot experience.
There are as many trimming methods out there as you can imagine. Methods range from pasture trims to the invasive and harmful to no trimming at all. How is one to know what is right? Fortunately, nature has given us a perfect guide to the hoof and how to trim it.
The Natural Trim, as Jaime Jackson first coined the term in the early ’80s, was derived from the natural wear patterns of the Great Basin’s wild horses. The Natural Trim applies these wear patterns to each hoof individually. You can find a qualified NHC practitioner here or contact me if there are non in your area. Try to avoid generic and pasture barefoot trims.
2. Lifestyle/Paddock Paradise
Natural lifestyle, vital to horse health, is how the horse is kept and cared for in the space you provide for it. Significant factors contributing to your horse’s hoof health are footing, movement, herd life, and mental stimulation. Horses should live on a dry, firm, and abrasive footing at least 80% of the time. Think a gravel or dirt backcountry road. You are trying to avoid mud or a soft grassy field. The hooves will only be as strong as where they stand. Hard ground equals hard hooves.
Movement, herd life, and mental stimulation are also critical in the horse’s life. You can’t keep a horse in a stall or tiny paddock by itself and expect it to have healthy hooves. So how does one create a good lifestyle for the horse? Paddock Paradise is far and above the best horse care solution. The track, as it’s known, provides an environment that best simulates a natural environment. The book Paddock paradise is an excellent place to start to learn more.
A poor diet will undo all the best NHC and Paddock Paradise. If the menu is sufficiently bad, the horse can suffer from a whole horse inflammatory condition called laminitis, manifested in the hoof. Unfortunately, sub-clinical laminitis is common in most domestic horses. Diet plays a crucial role in hoof health because it is directly affected by the horse’s metabolic health.
Avoid feeding your horse processed, commercial grains. These feeds are full of filler byproducts from the cereal grain industry, lightly fortified with vitamins and minerals, and sprayed with molasses to palate them. An engaged horse owner can mix up their own easily made feed that will be safe and have better nutrient content. Avoid fillers such as rice bran, bran mash, beet pulp, and so-called hay stretchers. All of these are potentially dangerous byproducts that are unnatural for horses.
Avoid grass pasture turn out unless you live in the Great Basin or similar biome elsewhere. Your grass will likely have sugar content higher than natural for the horse. Grass pasture always leads to some level of laminitis.
Hay fed free choice in small hole hay nets is the most important thing to feed your horse; this is a critical point. A mix of various grass hays will cover almost all of the horse’s needs. Timothy, Orchard, Teff, and Bermuda are examples of suitable grass hay varieties.
4. Natural Horsemanship
When I think of natural horsemanship, my mind flashes to one of the many trainers in the horse world today with their particular branded method of training. Unfortunately, this group is often anything but natural. Natural has become a tag word coopted to sell you something. These systems give a framework on which to interact with horses, but miss the nature, essence, and instinct of the wild horse. Natural horsemanship is not a simple action/reaction roll-play. Specific training methods and tools are helpful, but a deep understanding of the natural horse is vital.
Thus natural horsemanship is when “the equestrian goals of the natural rider are aligned with the natural locomotive behaviors of the horse,” as Jackson wrote in The Natural Horse.
How does one learn this? From years of practice and study. Learn from everyone, especially the Spanish and Portuguese classical masters of old, but always overlay the natural horse to take the good and leave the rest. Finally, how does this relate to horses’ hooves? If the horse is not moving naturally, he will not have correctly shaped hooves.
Implementing the above four pillars of natural horse care is essential to a barefoot horse’s overall success. Natural hoof care is a holistic lifestyle approach.