How to become a Barefoot Trimmer...

hoof of foal 5 days oldI hope this article remains coherent in the reading – I have reread it and understand it, but then I wrote it! Some – no, a lot – of what I have to say will probably offend quite a lot of barefoot trimmers out there, certainly those claiming qualifications. Those who make their living by training others will probably want to crucify me…

Nevertheless, here goes.

Following a farriers training:

As most of you will say, it rather goes against your principles – and if you are of the opinion that shoes are detrimental to the health of the horse, then you should not begin such a course. Farriers will tell you they learn all about podiatry, orhthopædics and such like but the vast majority of their training is the art of being a blacksmith – making, forming and fitting horseshoes. The ‘art’ of the farrier has not in itself progressed in more than 300 years, only the materials used.
To train as a simple farrier, with an ordinary black and white licence, will take you at least three years.
The advantage of training and qualifying as a farrier is that you can work (more easily) in those countries that frown upon or attempt to persecute barefoot trimmers – like France. In the UK there is no legislation against barefoot practitioners as long as you stay out of the domain of the farrier which includes applying wraps, glue-on shoes etc. But as a good barefoot practitioner, these things will not in your domain anyway!
Some countries have no legislative restrictions – the US, Netherlands, Belgium, for example – while others actually specify an exception to farriery like Germany where the legal system, obliging trimmers to follow a farriers’ training, was challenged on the grounds of contravening the principles of barefoot. Barefoot trimmers now have a legal statute in Germany despite there not being any official certification.

Barefoot courses:

stage parageThis is the most difficult bit! Unlike farriers, and despite any claims or assertions you might hear or read elsewhere, there is NOT ONE accredited barefoot training anywhere in the world. There are the Jaime Jackson disciples with their AANHCP and ISNHCP – two private organizations run by Jaime Jackson; there are the disciples of K.C. Lapierre, the Diploma Accredited Equine Podiatrists (DAEPs) who like to tout their wares with the use of the word ‘Diploma’ but, like Jackson, it is a private organization with neither (American) national nor international status. There are Gene Ovnicek’s Natural Balance specialists… And all will tell you wonderful stories about how good they are and the fact that they are ‘qualified’ when in fact they are not – all they have done, is pay a lot of money for a private training which, at times, contains some very dubious science.
A little background information on the three gentlemen in question:
Jaime Jackson was a farrier but some thirty-plus years ago “saw the light” and decided to go barefoot. In itself a brave step and commendable. However, Jackson now considers that anyone not following his principles and his teachings, is severely mistreating their horses; what he, and most of his followers forget, is that although he is ostensibly barefoot, many of his theories were, and some still are, based upon those of the farriers and compounded by his mistaken observations. Not altogether a disaster, the final outcome is not particularly detrimental, but not something I would want to pay £7000 to learn about.
Not mentioned in the list above, but worth adding here, is Pete Ramey. Ramey was a student of Jackson who ended up branching off on his own. He too runs a series of clinics and such like – not cheap as far as I know – but you can always buy his (unintentionally hilarious!) DVD set, “Under the Horse”. Ramey’s background is similar to Jackson’s.
A second student of Jackson’s who has a claim to fame is Dr Hiltrud Strasser – she of the famous “Strasser Method”. Again, her methods are a derivation and personal enhancement of Jackson’s teachings. She has added a “veterinary twist” to Jackson’s work – but she is still saddled with a traditional farrier’s concept of the hoof as still taught, albeit very summarily, in all veterinary schools around the world.
K.C. Lapierre is another farrier turned barefoot, although in his case, not altogether. I have seen recent photos of his treatment of a horse (published by him) using shoes and various other trickery. K.C. Lapierre is neither original, nor genuine nor is he in any way scientifically correct (I’ll explain that bit in a moment).
Gene Ovnicek is yet another farrier (can you see a pattern here???) but in his case, he has remained a farrier for which, by the way, there is a 6-week course in the US. Ovnicek preaches ‘Natural Balance’ but shoes his horses as well “when it is necessary” – which, by all accounts, is often. I had a heated discussion with Joke Nibbelink, his Dutch representative, a couple of years ago and she could see no single reason why a shoe would be detrimental to the health of the horse…enough said!

What is natural?

perceived measurements of the hoofAfter all, one of the in-phrases is “The Natural Trim”. Most detractors will say “trimming is not natural” – and they would be right. It is not. However, it is not the trimming that is natural but rather the state of the hoof after it has been trimmed. Or at least, that is the theory. And unfortunately that is where the whole concept breaks down. The theory is still rooted in the teachings of the farriers. Whether we look at Jackson, Lapierre, Ramey, Strasser, Ovnicek or any of the others like Cheryl Edwards-Henderson or Maureen Tierney, we are still hanging on to the outdated and incorrect preachings of the farriery trade.
Only the other day, I challenged someone to define the “physiologically correct” hoof that they prescribed. Her answer was that since I was a barefoot trimmer, I would undoubtedly know what it was…It might come as a surprise to many when I say that I don’t know! But apparently, neither does she! And that is where the ship seems to remain stranded in the barefoot sea. We carry on with this preconception – started by the constraints of military conformity, perpetuated by farriers and, amazingly, still eagerly grasped at by the barefoot movement – that there exists “The Perfect Hoof” with the correct shape, dimensions and proportions. It does not. If there was such a perfection, we too would have feet that were identical and every shoe on the market would fit perfectly!
Vitruvian hoofNevertheless, so many of our barefoot professional friends do their utmost to create the perfect hoof by “shaping” and “balancing” and the trainers persist on creating templates for defining the right shape. This is always amusing because, the hoof being a rounded shape, one can draw any number of straight lines across it to play join-the-dots… And how to you “balance” a hoof? How do you know when it is balanced? After all, the front feet of the average horse are carrying ±180kg each when the horse is AT REST!!! Trying to assess the static hoof when it is being held in the hand is as accurate as reading tealeaves. The dynamics of putting the hoof into motion with the kinetic energy involved, is actually impossible to calculate accurately. We know how much energy is expounded – that is a simple equation – but with each individual hoof being slightly different, we can never know exactly how and where we should be optimally shaping the hoof. But the horse does! All we can do is put the hoof into a conformation where it can then shape itself.
I am also frequently confronted with comments about how often “science is proved wrong”. However, the science that is proved wrong is biological science. The science of physics – certainly basic terrestrial physics – is long established and immutable (quantum physics is another matter but that and Large Hadron Colliders and Higgs-Bosun particles are not part of the world of simple mechanics). Every body on this earth MUST conform to the basic physical laws – and to answer that, biology – or nature – has come up with many ingenious solutions. But every one answers to the laws of physics imposed upon it. You can’t use a length of string as table legs, it does not have the intrinsic strength. Likewise, an elephant’s body could not be supported by the legs of a deer… And yet, biologists – such as vets – have a tendency to start from the biological standpoint and base everything else upon perceived observation. This same default we find in the theories of the farriers and subsequently the barefooters. One point that does seem to be trickling through to one or two barefooters now is the realization that the hoof wall is not load-bearing. For the first time, I have seen one or two people touting a meme that finally accepts that when we put a load on the wall, it might not be the root cause but it will certainly exacerbate laminitis. Even Jackson and Ramey are letting the old load-bearing idea go, although the Ramey disciples in the Netherlands still appear to be rooted in the past. Unfortunately, this trend is not (currently) accepted by mainstream veterinary science nor by farriers. But veterinary science has never studied the unshod hoof as such – only the deshod hoof. And the basis of their understanding is laughable… check out this video: 

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Where does that leave us – or rather, you?

I believe that in the UK, like in the Netherlands and Belgium, there are two day courses, which, naturally, are written off by potential clients, many professionals and certainly every farrier, as being inadequate – because trimming must be far too complex to learn in just a weekend.
I concur, I am of mixed opinion here. Certainly for the amateur looking to trim his own horse now and again it is a reasonable, if not always ideal, introduction. The theories expounded are often dubious and, I know from the experience of clients, can be made very confusing (I sometimes wonder if this is not intentional); the trimming experience is good insofar as one gets to see somewhat better how a hoof is constructed – in almost every case, we are talking cadaver hoofs and they can be trimmed to complete destruction. The downside is that cadaver hoofs are not like live hoofs. For a start, we can often trim them to the point where they look fabulous, but we should be glad the original owner is dead because he would not survive such a trim in reality. We can put a cadaver hoof into an untold number of positions to trim it beautifully, whereas live, we are restricted by the horse’s articulation AND by his willingness to be trimmed! This alone is a fabulous learning curve 🙂
Another problem with cadaver hoofs is that they have usually been frozen and they shrink (compare it with a bit of frozen steak that has been badly wrapped). This changes the relationship between the three principle structures of the hoof and thus the look – and “trimability” – of what is being trimmed. Added to this, these, now dead, horses often didn’t die of nothing and the state of the hoofs leaves little to be desired – and certainly a lot more work if it was a live horse than would be taught in a normal weekend course. If you can find a course that works on live horses and preferably more than just your own horse, because that is also a favourite – bring your own horse to the course – then you are going to learn more about the realities of the practical side. However, you are still unlikely to be trimming “naturally”.

Impressive bits of paper…

diplomaIt’s all a bit difficult but if you want to be able to wave a piece of, essentially worthless, paper around, then you have a choice of several courses which will set you back between £6000 and £10,000. But they won’t make you a better trimmer. And they certainly won’t give you a better understanding of the hoof and the locomotion of the horse. You could go down the “DIY” route and follow one of the one/two day courses offered – again, they are unlikely to give you a scientifically correct understanding of the hoof nor of locomotion but at least you will get a chance to hack at a few cadaver hoofs and get an idea of how that feels without the worry of damaging a real horse.
You could also follow the autodidactic route, and try and read up on the real science where possible – difficult because you need to discern between correctly and incorrectly formulated research – and “experiment” on your own horses…most people baulk at this because they are worried they might do something irreversible.
Actually, you would have to be extremely ham-fisted to do something irreversible. About the only thing you could really do wrong, and I doubt if the average horse would even let you get that far, is to cut so deeply into the hoof with a pair of nippers, that you break through all the layers of hoof and supporting tissues and end up nipping off a bit of coffin bone. Any horse that lets you get that far, is probably dead anyway! Otherwise, and here is the heresy that I preach, trimming horses’ hoofs is in general little more than cutting toenails. Because that is what they are. If you trim a little too much off, then the horse may be a little footsore for a couple of days – but it WILL grow back. Even if you trim to the point that it bleeds. How many times have you ripped a nail and it has bled. A couple of days later and you have almost forgotten it.
The problems come with things like abscesses and when you get confronted by your first case of laminitis or navicular syndrome. The latter is simply a case of making sure the shoes – if any – are removed, the heels – progressively – lowered and the horse is kept moving (NO box rest). Abscesses and laminitis are more difficult. Here you are treading the domain of the vet – and in some cases of the farrier who is legally entitled to carry out certain “veterinary” procedures. You should not be “diagnosing” since you are not trained for diagnosis (nor is a farrier). Nevertheless, on suspicion of an abscess, it is essential you act fast to bring relief (well, that is the defence). So, seeing the urgency of the situation, you can open up the abscess and let it drain… Of course, you can also suggest the owner soaks the foot in bicarb solution or sauerkraut…these remedies soften the corn and allow the abscess to burst itself. Such tricks you pick up left right and centre – just as everyone else including the vet does. A prevalent problem with abscesses is that when one makes its presence known, it is immediately after you performed the last trim and the owner will probably, at least initially, pin the blame on you – and when the vet arrives, the chances are that he will too…you’re not a farrier! Even DAEPs will get this sort of reaction at times… When treating laminitis, it is essential to work together with the vet but be prepared for a lot of differences in approach. The vet often has no concept of what is a good, and correct, treatment for laminitis and will fall back on the old textbook nonsense that has been peddled since time immemorial (I’m allowed to say this because my wife is a vet and will confirm every word I write). Nevertheless, treatment is very similar to navicular syndrome.

Conclusion

Probably to enrol in a one/two day course, if not for the “science” at least for a bit of practical experience; work on your own horses finding out just how far you can go before they start to complain; progress onto friends horses and then maybe you will start to get a few customers by word of mouth. When you feel confident and experienced enough, you can consider going professional – you will have to research the insurance side of things, as well as declaration of income etc. Remember, it is not a rich-making profession. You will be charging £35-40 a trim which must include income tax (±25%), cost of tools (good quality tools are not cheap: knife £25-30, rasp £20-30, nippers £250-300 – at least the nippers and knives should last a reasonable time if looked after, but you will eat through rasps) and possibly your travelling costs up to about 20/25 miles. Work it out, if you follow a DAEP or AANHCP type course, you will probably have to trim at least 500 horses before it starts to pay back – course, accommodation, travel, internship, income tax, travel expenses, tools and insurance all included. That is ten horses a week for a year that will bring not a penny of income in…if you can find that many in your first year!

 

I hope this has been sufficiently informative and not too discouraging! As you will no doubt appreciate, the farriers, despite their middle-age knowledge and thanks to the support of the majority of vets, are well organized and have very little dispute among themselves about their theories. The barefoot movement on the other hand, is a place of anarchy. There is no single defined movement, it is full of strife and rivalling parties all with similar but not quite sufficiently the same theories, most of which – without them realizing it – hark back to those of the farrier!

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