Going Barefoot

Of course we all know that without horseshoes, our horse will wear its hooves down too fast on hard ground, will have little grip on soft ground, find it painful to walk over stones, gravel and chippings and is as likely as not going to get damaged tendons. Any farrier will tell you this along with many veterinary surgeons and professionals within the horse fraternity.

And yet, there is a growing movement towards going barefoot. Why?

Many of our convictions are based upon habit. At the risk of wandering off the subject, think for a moment about two other “rules” that we have with regard to handling horses:

  1. always mount your horse from the left side and never from the right.
  2. always lead your horse from the left side and never from the right.

These are very sensible and irrefutable rules – provided you are a knight with an enormous sword at your left hip! The only reason we might avoid mounting from the right side these days is because our horse is not used to it – which ultimately means it’s about time he was. After all, if we are in a situation where mounting from the left is impossible, then we have a problem.

And what about leading the horse? Again, that sword. Without it, you are free to walk on either side – as with mounting, this can be very desirable depending upon the terrein where you are walking.
I teach handicapped riding in, amongst other places, a riding ring. Naturally the horses do not just make left-hand-circuits, they make right-hand ones too. When we are leading the horses – which is very often the case, since our riders frequently are unable to take full control of their horse – we always lead on the side away from the wall; being trapped between a wall and 650Kg of Frisian horse is something one tends to try to avoid. Health and Safety are not keen either. Our horses are quite happy to be lead from the right-hand side.

What do these points tell us? Quite simply, we are bowing to tradition and not to common sense.
If we look at feral horses, they are unshod, can walk (/trot/canter) great distances and have negligible hoof problems. So why not the domestic horse?

True, our domestic horse is not living in the wild and does not have the truly natural wear and tear of its hooves that the feral horse has, but this does not preclude our domestic horse from going barefoot. On the contrary, since our domestic horse is not covering vast distances, then even more reason for going barefoot – his hooves certainly won’t get worn down too fast!

So let’s look at the arguments again:

  • Wear and tear on hard ground: the most important parts of the hoof as far as surface contact is concerned are the frog and the heel bulbs and the underlying structure that they essentially protect. This underlying structure is the digital cushion and with use, this will fill out (almost without exception, shod horses have seriously atrophied digital cushions). The outer surfaces develop into a thick protective layer.
  • Reduced grip on softer ground: a horse will generate as much grip on soft ground with bare feet as with horseshoes. In fact, because of the hoof mechanism and the grip generated by a fully developed frog, the bare hoof will actually generate more grip than conventional shoes. The only exception is the studded horseshoe; a solution only applicable in very restrictive circumstances. Studs should never be used on hard ground since they reduce the balance and grip of the hooves to a dangerous level whereby the risks of joint and tendon damage are raised enormously. On soft ground, they are less of a problem until they encounter a stone or when the horse makes a rapid turn. Again the risk of joint and tendon damage is greatly enhanced.
  • Sensitive feet on loose ground: as with humans – and any other animal, in fact – increased usage will create hardened skin (brickies weren’t born with hard skin on their hands – it develops with use; likewise the more we walk with bare feet the more hardened skin we develop on the soles of our feet). Regular exposure to rough ground will, together with the increased hoof mechanism, quickly encourage hardening of the frog and heel bulbs, together with the sole, and the domestic horse will have no more problems with this sort of surface.
  • An unshod horse is a tendon injury waiting to happen: tendons are extremely tough. They are very difficult to damage under normal/correct use. Where they do suffer damage, is when they undergo a whip effect. As almost any sportsman who has suffered tendon damage can testify, the injury is caused by a sudden movement and not simply by stretching. How does this relate to the the horse? If we look at the front leg of the horse, it forms an arc forwards while in motion; if this forward arc is maintained when contact is made with the ground, then the leg “snaps” into a backward arc – it is this snap, or whip, effect that is so damaging to the tendons. A shod horse has less time to straighten its leg before making contact with the ground; this is because of the extra momentum caused by the weight of the horseshoe at the end of the leg. Additionally, a naturally trimmed hoof, being shorter in the toe, has a shorter moment and lands – as designed – on the heel rather than the toe. You can try this yourself – try running with an oversized pair of shoes!

These points are all dealt with individually elsewhere on this site and on many others, including those in the list of links.