Yesterday, I spoke to the owner of a twelve year-old horse, shod for at least the past six years. She asked me particularly about the transition to barefoot (the conviction is there but the uncertainties about how and when remain…).
I won’t go into all the implications of transition here – suffice to say that a horse shod for fifteen years can make an imperceptible transition while another, shod for a short misinformed moment, goes through an absolute drama. There is nothing so unpredictable as the horse!
And so the question arose: what about hoof boots (EasyBoots® etc.)? Would that help?
The short of it is ‘No!’. People often justify their own use of hoof boots by recounting that their horse is more comfortable when riding out. The reality is the they are riding out before the horse is ready to be ridden. There is a consensus among many riders and so-called barefoot specialists, that the horse should transition from being shod to being a rock-cruncher in no time flat, and completely without difficulty. This is pure fantasy. And particularly if the horse has been shod for a longer period of time. We must not be tempted into believing that a horse, shod for five years or more, with five years or more of damage to its feet, is going to transition to rock-cruncher in 5 days…or even five months for that matter.
Someone once joked that the most important piece of equipment in the trimmer’s armoury is an almost unlimited supply of whisky/gin/vodka to calm the worried owner. Transition requires the right mindset – without it, the owner/rider will be lost. So before we look at the problems of the hoof boot, let’s take a quick look at the problems of the wrong mindset:
- A hoof with damaged internal structures –as a result of shoeing or laminitis, for example– needs time to heal. We know that the hoof takes about a year to grow from the coronet to the ground but if they are particularly badly affected, the internal structures around the coffin bone can take four years or more.
- Even under favourable circumstances, the horse must be afforded time to get accustomed to its new situation. Jumping straight on and expecting the horse to perform is bound to disappoint. Taking time out with the horse, groundwork, walking in the hand and a gentle acclimatisation will be of benefit to all.
- An iron shoe renders the horse insensitive to irregular surfaces. This is often seen as an advantage by the rider because it means that he/she can steer the horse anywhere with impunity. However, the horse, unable to judge the viability of the surface over which it is travelling, is highly susceptible to injury –this in addition to the insidious damage to the joints and back in the long term.
- The recurrence of abscesses is NOT as a result of going barefoot but the consequence of being shod. The presence of an abscess is in fact a sign that the damage in the foot, caused by shoeing†, is starting to heal.
- Despite tales to the contrary, horses are generally NOT rock-crunchers. Post-transition, the rider often complains that the horse is no longer ‘go-anywhere’. In fact, this is far from the truth –the horse is now more than ever capable of ‘going anywhere’ but will take more care in doing so. Just as we would prefer to walk on an even grassy track rather than on one scattered with stones –even wearing walking boots– so it is with the horse. But that makes neither of us incapable of using the stony track, with care, if there is no alternative.
So, why not use hoof boots?
First and foremost, the problem is not in the feet but in the mind of the owner/rider (see above). In order for the feet to heal/become accustomed to being unshod, they need to work, not to be protected. To reiterate, hoof boots provide the rider with the ability to ride the horse when the horse is in fact not ready to be ridden.
Although in itself, not living tissue, the hoof is growing constantly. This means that its size relative to a hoof boot is never constant –the boot will generally either be too large or too small even assuming we can trim the hoof exactly to the size of the boot. The length of the hoof wall will also determine how much contact the bottom of the hoof makes. It has now been long established that the hoof wall is not the part of the foot that carries the weight of the horse. By applying boots, we are often obliging the hoof wall to do just this, there not being a proper surface contact for the sole or the frog –just the very parts of the foot that need the maximum stimulation to develop into healthy structures. Some boot manufacturers provide inserts aimed at circumventing this problem but the essential hoof mechanism remains restricted and the hoof wall does not undergo any wear at all.
In addition, one of the reasons for removing horseshoes is their excess, damaging, weight – and yet, on average, a hoof boot weights upwards of 20% more than a horseshoe…
Thus, our aim of stimulating the sole and frog is actually being exasperated by our natural desire to help the horse recover in comfort. In fact, most of the time it is much less uncomfortable than we imagine. Very often, that which the rider perceives as ‘walking on eggs’ or ‘footy’ or any other version of ‘difficult’ we might like to apply, is in fact simply the horse getting used to new sensations and/or protecting its own well-being. Ironically, the moment when the horse will really profit from being barefoot is the moment when so many riders –who often claim to ride barefoot– actually apply what they feel to be protection. All they are doing is in fact at best prolonging the period of recovery, at worst, continuing the negative effects on the skeleton caused by shoeing.
† Hot shoeing –despite what a farrier might tell you– damages the internal structures of the hoof. The effect of reapplying fairly intense heat at regular intervals, obviates the development of abscesses by the simple effect of cauterisation. This vicious cycle continues throughout the shod life of the horse until the day the abscesses are allowed to develop because the horse is no longer being shod.