Much is discussed on the interweb – and as far as horses go, probably the most discussed is barefoot. Not surprising since so many people are realising that the “art” of shoeing has little to do with either welfare or the requirements of the modern equestrian age.
All manner of advice gets bandied around by experts and experts alike! And aside “choosing the right feed and supplements”*, probably the most asked question is how to treat a “footy” horse. This question immediately highlights the lack of information passed on to the owner and the conflicting expectations caused by this lack. But even more surprising is the regular reaction of the experts… Hoof boots!
So maybe this is a good moment to delve quickly into history:
Why were horses shod in the first place?
Quite simple – it began with the military, as with most equine “traditions”. The requirement that horses should be ready for action at a moment’s notice with little or no preparation led quickly to keeping them in confining boxes or stalls. Standing all day in excreta is not exactly the ideal situation and the hoofs rapidly degraded to the point that the horses were unusable – the solution, hammer a chunk of metal onto the hoof wall. This rendered the hoof insensitive and thus the horse was again capable of being put into action. The added advantage was that the lack of sensitivity also meant the horse would cross all manner of terrain unquestioningly. A big plus during military campaigns. The fact that the horse could severely injure itself was of no consequence – the military had a lot of horses and could always commandeer more.
Of course, if the military did it, it must have been good! So the farmers followed suit as did the gentry (who were often related in some way to the military) and so was born a tradition not based upon science but simple – mistaken – observation. Why mistaken? Because the thought was that the horse walked upon its hoof wall – a misconception that persists to this day even among many barefoot specialists.
So what is “footy”?
Many barefoot riders will complain of this “malady”. They have been led to believe that a horse should be able to cope with every surface without showing the slightest difficulty. There seems to be no reflection that, even if we wear shoes, we will prefer smoother surfaces to rough, flattened tracks to rocky ones… It is fairly logical – if we can put our feet down on a flat surface, we will be more stable and comfortable than on an uneven one. Nevertheless, we still walk the rough paths and scale the rocky tracks, only we do it – generally – with more care. Why then, do we expect the horse to do otherwise? “Footy” is not a malady; in fact, it is not footy. Rather it is “feely” or in more conventional language, “careful”. A horse will not willingly break its neck any more than we would. By feeling its way around, it ensures it does not misstep, twist an ankle, knee or whatever. It will protect the tendo-muscular chain.
Well, if it’s “feely” won’t I be better off with boots?
Difficult to answer with either yes or no – it is really a question of what you want, or demand, from your horse. If you want your horse to remain as injury free as possible, then the answer is a resounding no, whereas if you expect your horse to rattle over every possible surface without batting an eyelid then boots will allow that – but at a price.
At a price?
Boots weigh up to 25% more than a conventional horseshoe. This extra weight – being put to use when the horse is at its most active – severely disrupts the locomotion of the horse. Just as with traditional shoes, the extra energy needed to lift, accelerate and decelerate the hoof puts extra strain on the joints and the tendo-muscular chain (try running in an pair of Doc Martins!!!) The lack of proprioception – or more correctly, exteroception – caused by wearing boots heightens the chance of misstepping. Furthermore, the extra weight often triggers the horse to lift its feet far higher than necessary, expending a lot of energy and it remains questionable as to whether the frog and digital cushions are adequately activated.
Surely the horse is more comfortable?
Not necessarily. Wearing boots is a form of sensory deprivation. Compare it with driving at night wearing sunglasses – not completely inhibiting but certainly not comfortable.
Ultimately it is the rider’s choice but I am always dismayed at the insistence of so many people that call themselves barefoot professionals that boots are necessary for transition and, in some cases, for riding out. They are not. It is the rider’s style and expectations that dictate. Hoof boots are really not much more than companies playing to a current trend…