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Cindy Nielsen DVM

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How many feet on a horse?

Going Bare - Transitioning There

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The hooves in the photo are of wild horses - their feet completely untouched by anyone

Barefoot trims

Many horse owners wonder if their horse(s) can go barefoot, or even should. It is a well-accepted fact among top equine podiatrists that being barefoot is, in general, healthier than being shod.  The purpose of this article, however, is not to debate shod versus barefoot, but to give you the results of my journey into natural hoof care.

I was under the impression when I first started investigating the barefoot world that all horses can go barefoot.  Eventually I realized that there are some horses, some management situations, and/or owner issues where it is not the best option.  I still do believe, however, that many more horses could go barefoot than most realize, if only they were “transitioned” properly after shoe removal.

Two requirements for successfully taking a horse barefoot are (1) a committed owner, and (2) proper transitioning. Owners must be committed to putting in the extra time and effort that some horses will require during transition to protect temporarily tender feet, as well as providing for a lot more movement and exercise on a regular basis. Many shod horses will be foot sore if we simply pull the shoes, trim and then “see what happens.”  Anyone desiring to take his or her horse barefoot should employ a knowledgeable natural hoof care professional who is ready to assist the horse through the transition period using hoof boots (please see extensive info on www.easycare.com), glue-on composite shoes such as Eponas (in my opinion the best composite shoe on the market by far, www.eponashoe.com), or casting material such as Equicast.  Hooves shod for extended periods are not used to having the sole, bars and frog share in weight-bearing to the degree Mother Nature intended. Wearing shoes tends to lift the frog, bars and sole up away from the ground, transferring more force to the walls themselves. It’s just a fact of physics and mechanics. As internationally-recognized equine podiatrist Scott Morrison DVM writes “...The arch of the sole and durable outer sole callus are also designed to support some portion of the load.  In most healthy, barefoot horses, the texture and conformation of the sole can be readily recognized as supporting structures. However, many domesticated shod horses lack a functional sole and probably depend more on the laminar interface for support. The sole is often suspended off the ground, disengaged from weight bearing, atrophied, or sometimes even intentionally and radically trimmed out to form a convex contour.”

Of course the mechanics and function of the foot depend partly on the surface the horse is on - for example, in deep sand most of the bottom of the foot will be sharing weight-bearing duties regardless of the presence of shoes. On firmer less-deformable surfaces shod walls will take up more of the weight-bearing forces. When prevented from functioning naturally, the sole and walls frequently become thin, the frog atrophies, and the soft tissue structures inside the back of the foot responsible for shock absorption and concussion dampening may be weak, underdeveloped or even crushed and shrunken. Thus the transitioning hoof can require time, lots of movement with proper heel-first landings, and conservative trimming to harden and strengthen so it can take on its normal mode of functioning and state of maximum health and performance.

Indeed, many horses can comfortably trot off immediately after shoe removal.  However, it is unfair to the potentially tender-footed horse to not offer at least one of several available forms of temporary protection; this would be inhumane and a recipe for failure. Several very good natural hoof care organizations train professionals who can successfully transition most horses to barefoot very comfortably.  Dr. Nielsen is a certified member and mentor with one of the best in the West, the Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners (www.pacifichoofcare.org). Individuals certified by such organizations have in-depth training in use of modalities such as hoof boots and casts, as well as composite shoes.