Veterinary Madness

A while ago, my attention was once again drawn to a typically poor article on Not unusually, this is an article about feet and, also not unusual, it is written by a vet and contains citations by other vets.

Many people will obviously start to say that 'the vet will know...' so why criticise - but there lies the crux, the vets clearly don't know. The problem lies in the fact that vets are first and foremost biologists - or at least veterinary education is centred around biology with a fair bit of chemistry thrown in. This does have a sound reason; the daily work of a vet is being involved with biological processes and their associated chemical reactions. The latter being aided or modified by often symptom specific drugs. But the mechanical side of things is much less well represented. Particularly when it comes to the limbs. Veterinary science finds itself still stuck in the Middle Ages with techniques and theories that were not even conceived by vets! And this latest article on just underlines the case once more.

The article How Healthy Horse Hooves Help Arthritic Joints by Nancy S. Loving DVM dates from October 2018.

Dr Loving is aided in her article by comments by Andrew Parks, a university professor of veterinary medicine, and Steve Kraus, farrier and instructor at Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine...this last is typically laughable. To have somebody who advocates the nailing of overweight pieces of metal to an animal's feet being the resident of a university of veterinary medicine should be a major embarrassment.

When offering arthritic horses relief, start from the ground up

The degenerative joint disease arthritis is all too common in active and aging horses. In an effort to slow the progressive deterioration of joint tissue, owners and veterinarians often reach for anti-inflammatory medications and/or regenerative therapies. After all, our goal is to keep these joints comfortable.

One often-overlooked strategy in this effort is hoof care. Certain trimming and shoeing techniques can alter a horse’s limb biomechanics—for better or worse. In this article we’ll discuss how to care for arthritic horses’ hooves for maximum comfort.

As with much of veterinary medicine, this article starts immediately with a treatment rather than with prevention.

If we were to prevent, or at least do what we can to prevent, the onset of a disease –in this case arthritis– then our horses would be in a much more favourable situation. And with many degenerative diseases, prevention or delayed onset is not so difficult to achieve. For the horse, adequate management can mean the difference between a full and comfortable life and a short painful one.

Arthritis is indeed common in active and ageing horses but its roots lie not so much in the age, nor the activity, of the horse but rather its (mis)management. A shod horse is far more likely to develop arthritis than an unshod one, as the article briefly explains. The combination of horseshoes with inappropriate activity will exacerbate the problem and the longer the horse is exposed and thus the older it is, the more severe the problem will become.

The equine world, professional, amateur and veterinary, is very reliant upon the pharmaceutical industry and as the author of the article says, '...owners and veterinarians often reach for anti-inflammatory medications and/or regenerative therapies...'. All too frequently, the anti-inflammatory medication will be one or other proprietary variant of phenylbutazone –a medication so widely abused that if it was in human medicine, a vast number of doctors would have long been struck off the register. Phenylbutazone is indicated exclusively for chronic laminitis.

Quite correctly, the author indicates that hoof-care is an often overlooked strategy. But clearly, even in this early paragraph, has little grasp of the biomechanical consequences of shoeing and trimming.

What Exacerbates Joint Pain?

Arthritic horses try to minimize their joint pain by reducing the load on the affected limb(s) and shortening stride length. “This suggests that pain is associated with the concussion of impact and extreme ranges in motion (ROM),” says Andrew Parks, DVM, Vet MB, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Athens.

Professor Parks explains the problem fairly well here. So why can't he follow up on it with a logical, mechanics-related, conclusion?

Force of impact

The limb’s loading rate (deceleration) when the foot lands affects the force of impact on that leg, as can footing type. “The impact of baked clay in summer or frozen ground in winter is quite different from a soft dirt paddock, bedded stall, or engineered arena,” says Parks. “Anything that slows down the rate of deceleration of the foot is likely to decrease the effect of impact. Materials that absorb energy on hoof landing—either from the ground surface or within the shoeing apparatus—also reduce impact.”

This is actually a bit nonsensical. It is rather typical of the biologists reversed view of mechanics!

It is not the loading rate that affects the force of impact on the leg, it is quite the reverse. The force of the impact –kinetic energy– is the product of mass and velocity. The speed with which this force is dissipated is the deceleration. This dissipation of energy will be found on both sides of the impact point (remember Newton's third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.) and, as Professor Parks points out, will be affected by the hardness of the surface landed upon. Where he misses a beat is in his assertion that the shoeing apparatus will reduce impact.

The addition of any extra weight to the distal point of the limb will by its very existence increase the kinetic energy of the limb. So immediately we must build-in yet more absorption to compensate for the extra weight...whereas the foot in its lightest form will be able to work together with the tendons, muscles and leg-articulation to create the optimum absorption of impact.

Range of motion

You’re probably already familiar with this concept: Your veterinarian maximizes a joint’s range of motion when he or she performs a diagnostic flexion test to pinpoint soreness in a painful joint. Excessive flexion or extension/dorsiflexion (backward bending or bowing) can aggravate arthritis.

Owners and farriers should handle arthritic horses’ legs with care. “Check range of motion and flexion ability, and don’t force an arthritic horse to bend or flex its limbs beyond its comfort zone,” says Steve Kraus, CJF, resident farrier and instructor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ithaca, New York. “Use of a foot stand (when trimming or shoeing) keeps hind limbs low and supports the front legs to provide better comfort for both horse and farrier.”

To modify or limit range of motion extremes in locomotion, Parks recommends farriers help the foot lift and roll over (called breakover) more easily. “This may mean not only rolling the toe but also the whole perimeter of the shoe and even the heels,” he says. The easier it is for the horse to lift his heels off the ground, the less dorsiflexion the foot will experience at breakover.

Kraus is right, the limb should not be flexed beyond the comfort zone – ever. It is one of the frequent tests when purchasing a horse to flex the leg and hold it in position. If the horse then limps, there is supposedly something wrong (...but you try walking after forcing your leg into an uncomfortable position for any length of time!).

This is all sound common sense - apart from '...rolling the shoe...' We don't need a shoe; in fact, we MUST NOT shoe – even less so in an arthritic horse. The shoe will by definition add length and depth to the hoof; this in itself exacerbates the problem demanding rolling of the shoe. Losing the shoe removes this and all other problems in one fell swoop – and if the horse is still having 'rollover' problems, then there are two solutions: walk the horse on hard –preferably even– surfaces for a short while every day or, if that is too much effort, add a so-called 'Mustang roll' (or simply trim the toe shorter).

Acutely imbalanced horse hoof


Hoof balance is key to keeping an arthritic horse comfortable. Create a more level landing surface by picking out gravel and other debris from hooves daily. Have the feet trimmed every four to seven weeks (depending on hoof growth rate) to help balance the hooves and reduce the horse’s risk of developing long toes and collapsed heels, which can make him more likely to stumble.

“Farriers can manage the hoof capsule with trimming and shoeing to provide proper limb alignment so that forces are distributed equally through the joints,” says Kraus.

If a foot is acutely imbalanced (say, for example, one side has been wedged or trimmed shorter than the other), the joint on the elevated side of the hoof will narrow—something that’s visible on radiographs (X rays) taken immediately following this practice. “However,” says Parks, “if you look at feet with obvious (chronic) coronary band asymmetry and hoof imbalance, an interesting finding is that the imbalance in the joint space usually is not evident on radiographic images.”

This compensatory phenomenon is related to the coffin bone’s movement relative to the hoof capsule. The hoof’s growth rate also changes, slowing on the side experiencing the greater load.

Parks reminds us that the same principles that encourage bone remodeling might also apply to other tissues. Overloading on one side of the hoof might, in fact, slow the rate of cell replication in the coronary band on that side.

“If the hoof wall is imbalanced side-to-side (uneven hoof wall height between medial and lateral—inner and outer—sides), then theoretically, unequal overload stresses can create degenerative joint disease (DJD),” says Parks. “However, a horse’s natural compensatory hoof mechanisms tend to minimize changes within the joints. You may have appreciated how quickly the hoof capsule changes shape once a horse shoe is removed—usually within 24 to 48 hours.”

That said, he points out that if mediolateral imbalance within the foot’s internal structures persists, a horse can develop DJD. Uneven forces place undue pressure on joint components, especially cartilage, which can then create or exacerbate joint deterioration and arthritis, adds Kraus.

Genetics and/or inappropriate trimming can also create dorsopalmar (front to back) imbalances, which affect the hoof-pastern axis (when correct, the front hoof wall should be parallel to the pastern angle).

Here we descend into the mythical world created by the farrier and carried on by many a barefoot 'specialist'.

Kraus' claim that 'farriers can manage the hoof provide proper limb alignment...' is typical of the bilge peddled by this dubious profession and, sadly, believed in all sincerity by a poorly educated veterinary community. There is absolutely NO WAY that a farrier or a barefoot 'specialist' will ever be able to sight up a hoof and limb and 'correct' or 'compensate' for so-called imbalance. For a start, a study some years ago –sadly now lost to the mists of time– showed that farriers were incapable of reproducing treatment during successive visits in around 80% of cases. This is not at all surprising since the hoof is a dynamic structure that the farrier 'analyses' in a static situation; the problem is further exacerbated by already present shoes, where applicable, and by the absence of knowledge of what exactly is the horse's conformation.

Even X-ray photographs cannot give an accurate representation since the foot and leg is always in an 'artificial' situation – the horse will never be standing in absolutely perfect balance. Furthermore, as most veterinary surgeons will tell you, often that which is causing pain or discomfort is that which cannot be seen on the X-ray.

In the end, only the horse can correct its stance and its foot conformation. The easiest way to achieve this is to simply trim the hoof adequately and allow the horse to walk on a hard surface like concrete or tarmac to achieve its own personal 'balance'.

Long Term Imbalance

When trimming and shoeing for balance, one of the farrier’s main goals is to make sure the foot is placed properly beneath the skeletal column, says Kraus. “Caudal (rear) heel support relies on supporting the heels in their proper location beneath the leg,” he says. “This support is important to minimizing arthritic discomfort. As the hoof first strikes the ground, the heels act as a fulcrum. If positioned too far forward under the limb, the leg tends to rock backward on that point of the heels. The horse must exert muscular force to overcome this, which strains the joints. Proper heel support requires trimming the hoof to the widest, highest, rearmost area of the frog. If that cannot be done, it is possible to provide support with shoeing.”

To align the heel properly, farriers usually fit the horse with an appropriately sized shoe that increases the hoof wall’s surface area contact with the ground, says Kraus. This prevents rocking back on the heels or sinking into soft ground, either of which stress joints whether they’re arthritic or healthy.

Farriers might apply egg bar shoes to horses with low-angled, underrun heels, says Kraus. “Caudal heel support from the bars (found at the rearward ends of the hoof wall) reduces backward sinking of the hoof, while also providing a greater bearing surface to spread out the horse’s weight,” he says.

Parks says elevating the heels has been shown to alter the distribution of pressure in the coffin joint, which could potentially increase wear and tear.

“The ideal relationship between the pastern and the hoof is when the dorsal (front) wall of the hoof is parallel to the dorsal pastern, and if the foot is trimmed so that this relationship is not parallel, it has the potential to increase the overall force on the foot during the course of the stride,” says Parks. “Additionally, a long toe increases the lever arm at breakover, which increases the force required to lift the heels off the ground. These phenomena exacerbate arthritic pain in the distal (lower) joints.”

Kraus adds that when horses strain to move their lower limbs and break over a long toe, they can aggravate low or high ringbone (coffin or pastern joint ­arthritis).

Once again, the farrier descends into nonsensical theorising. Talk of '...aligning the heel properly...' and '[applying] egg bar shoes to horses with low-angled, underrun heels...' just goes to show how far from reality these people are. As already explained above, the farrier –indeed, any external agent– will never be in a position to 'align the heel properly'. Anybody claiming this is a fraud and if you believe him, you are doing yourself an injustice. Three years of farriers' school, even with a nice diploma at the end, is not an indication of competence; it is an indication that someone is trained in middle-age thinking and practices.

Underrun heels need to be treated, not compensated for. They need correctly trimming to remove the underrun, not the addition of egg-bars to raise the caudal section of the P3. This is nothing more than bone-idleness on the part of the profession and ignorance on the part of the individual farrier.

Smart Trimming & Shoeing Techniques

Backing up the toes

Many farriers attempt to correct a long-toe, low-heel hoof configuration by setting the shoe back at the toe. While Parks says this improves breakover for the short-term, leaving the toe hanging too far over the toe of the shoe means the wall at the toe is not in direct contact with the shoe. Therefore, it receives less mechanical stimulation than the wall that is in direct contact with the shoe from the toe-quarter junction (pillars) to the heels. “This affects the way the wall grows,” he says, reminding us that the wall under greater stress will grow slower and vice versa. “Biofeedback tries to restore a previous state,” he says.

Kraus says farriers often apply rocker or rolled toe shoes to horses with arthritic conditions. “These shoes artificially shorten the distance and, hence, the ­leverage in front of the center of rotation on the foot beyond what can safely be trimmed away,” he says. “Sound, properly trimmed horses need normal toe length for optimum propulsion, but horses with arthritis in their lower joints do better with less-than-normal leverage (i.e., shorter toes).”

Parks says he’s a fan of rocker and roller shoes but warns against removing too much dorsal hoof wall in the shoeing process. “If the farrier uses a rasp to gradually thin the wall at the toe, it may not change hoof wall growth, provided enough stiff wall (the outer one-third to one-half of the wall) is left in contact with the shoe,” he says. “In contrast, if the toe wall is chopped away at a 45-degree angle, while this may ease breakover so that the dorsal wall isn’t in contact with the shoe, it isn’t under as much stress as the adjacent wall. Therefore, on the reasonable assumption that wall under less stress grows faster, the toe will outgrow the adjacent wall, thus changing the conformation of the foot, which may add to arthritic pain.”

One thing that we can clearly add is that the hoof wall is NOT the weight-bearing structure of the foot. It is therefore of little importance where the shoe is affixed, forward, backward, it will always be in the wrong place, transferring the weight of the horse to the hoof wall and thus through the delicate laminae which can easily be demonstrated as not being designed for such use.

The growth of the hoof wall is not slowed but rather stimulated by 'stress' or, as it can also be termed, 'use'. This is readily demonstrable in any horse that has the good luck to be barefoot; intense use does not wear down the hoof but rather stimulates its growth. Again, a farrier's fable that the unshod horse will wear its hoofs out working on hard surfaces.

With arthritic horses, it’s a delicate balance between slip and grip.

Steve Kraus, CJF

Protecting the hind limb

Most shoeing practices only have a direct effect on the lowest limb joints—the coffin and pastern joints. However, farriers do attempt shoeing strategies to influence higher joints, such as using lateral extensions or egg bar shoes on the rear hooves of horses with distal hock arthritis (bone spavin). Kraus says a lateral hind shoe extension provides support to prevent a base-­narrow horse’s hocks from rotating outward, while an egg bar shoe might reduce excessive hinge motion that otherwise stresses hock joints.

Study results, however, show that neither rear-foot lateral extensions nor egg bar shoes have a significant effect on stabilizing affected hock joints.

Then there are trailers (or caulks) on hind shoes, which some veterinarians and farriers argue against using because they can cause a foot to stick and torque the joints. Their use, however, often depends on the equestrian activity and terrain conditions.

It can be very regularly demonstrated that the shod horse suffers from shoeing right up the legs and into the shoulders, the hips and ultimately the back. Therefore it cannot be said that the application of shoes does not just affect the distal structures. Just as Kraus declares that there is little result shown in shoeing for proximal structure problems, it should be clear that the addition of shoes will sooner be detrimental – to give him the benefit of the doubt, we could say that any envisaged amelioration will be cancelled out by detriment!

Caulks, trailers, studs –whatever name you might want to use– are always going to turn an already damaging situation into a potential disaster. As stated in the article, the possibility of sticking and 'torquing' –spraining– joints brings some veterinary surgeons and farriers, quite rightly, to argue against their use. The final statement rather clinches it though: '[their use] often depends on the equestrian activity and terrain conditions'. We are talking arthritic horses here. We should be adapting our activities to the condition of the horse, not trying to prop it up to get it through next year's equestrian calendar. This is welfare at its lowest – the needs of the rider always seem to go before the needs of the horse. And to say that all this –actually worthless– treatment is for the horse's welfare, is pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, the rider's included. 

Applying pads

Traditionally, farriers have applied pads beneath shoes to provide sole protection and shock absorption. Kraus says that in his experience, polyurethane pads provide limited shock absorption and are better suited simply for sole protection. Leather pads do improve shock absorption but deteriorate over time, he says.

“Some synthetic pads are designed to absorb shock; however, with only 1/8-inch of material on a 1,000-pound (or more) horse, how much shock can really be absorbed?” he says. “A pour-in pad or packing a shoe with synthetic gel may be a better option to achieve shock absorption” for arthritic horses. These materials conform to the sole and frog for a more uniform distribution of shock absorption throughout the hoof.

Anything applied to the bottom of the foot is, first and foremost, detrimental to the locomotion of the horse creating an imbalance in movement and moment, raising the heart-rate above normal –partially due to the severe reduction in the hoof-mechanism– increasing the effort exerted for every step.

As the article states, pads have been applied traditionally to provide shock absorption – except generally, they don't. And in any case, the foot is designed to carry the weight of the horse and, more importantly, to cope with the enormous amounts of kinetic energy generated. It is often argued that the horse is not designed to carry riders, which is true, therefore we must 'protect the hoof' against this extra weight. In reality, a horse weighing 500kg will generate almost the same amount of kinetic energy at 16m/s (full gallop) as a 500kg horse with 70kg of rider and tack at 15m/s. The arthritic horses will not –or should not– often be achieving such speeds therefore we should be able to consider that he is already equipped with all the shock absorption he will ever need. And the first point of shock absorption is the frog. Shoeing the horse removes almost all function of the frog and it is not by any means unusual to find this structure almost completely atrophied in the shod horse. 

Considering shoe weight and type

Any type of shoe on a horse’s foot adds weight that the animal must lift from the ground at breakover. To reduce shoe weight, try applying aluminum shoes, which are one-third the weight of steel, says Kraus. “Or, an alternative to bar shoes is the Myron McLane pad that includes frog and heel support,” he says. Wide web shoes are another support option and weigh less than egg bar shoes.

Synthetic shoes—nonmetal or a metal composite with nonmetal materials—absorb the most shock. You can choose from many types of those shoes, both nail-on and glue-on. Remember, however, that plastic materials can be slippery on wet grass or ice and might wear more quickly than steel shoes. “With arthritic horses, it’s a delicate balance between slip and grip,” says Kraus.

'Try aluminium shoes to reduce weight...they are a third of the weight of steel' – but they still increase the distal mass by around 50%. This is still a locomotive impediment. And worse still, the weight of the horse is still being moved out onto the non weight-bearing structures: the hoof wall and the laminae, and the impact concussion is not being absorbed but rather amplified (there are numerous videos on the internet which show exactly how this amplification makes itself visible).

Barefoot or Shod?

“Leaving a horse barefoot is generally good, particularly in a nonperforming horse with arthritis,” says Parks. “In most cases, the unshod hoof capsule provides the best damping to assimilate the shock of foot impact. And, a barefoot horse is able to ‘roll’ its own hooves through natural abrasion.”

“When barefoot arthritic horses wear their hooves to their comfort level, this shouldn’t be confused with conformational defects that often wear the hoof in the opposite direction than the horse needs,” says Kraus. However, “barefoot horses with thin soles may become sore-footed and then alter their gait in such a way to strain arthritic joints.”

Still, barefoot advantages might outweigh disadvantages to help curb arthritic pain, and owners can apply hoof boots for riding or navigating rough terrain, if needed. Our sources recommend using a lightweight boot with built-in breakover and adding a viscoelastic pad inside.

There is no question here – the horse should never be shod, arthritic or not. The idea that the horse will get out of its comfort zone implies that we are doing too much with the horse.

Take-Home Message

Before making trimming and shoeing changes, have your veterinarian perform a thorough diagnostic work-up of your horse’s lameness problem. Ask him or her take radiographs to visualize the angles of internal hoof structures, the extent of osteoarthritis in a joint, and the depth of sole a farrier has to work with.

“Shoeing methods for arthritic horses ideally incorporate ways to transfer motion to the ground instead of to painful joints,” says Kraus.

“Shoes modified properly to help with arthritic problems may be a more permanent way to manage some horses with arthritis,” says Parks. “Trimming and shoeing practices are useful adjuncts to multitreatment modalities that include joint injections, non-steroidal anti-­inflammatories, IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein), and in some cases regenerative therapies.”

There is no single trimming or shoeing recipe that farriers can apply to every horse. Following basic principles of balancing the foot, easing breakover, supporting the heels, and aligning the hoof-pastern axis provide the best foundation for both normal and arthritic horses.

The take-home message is clear. DO NOT SHOE. The article states that '...[there] is no single trimming or shoeing recipe that farriers can apply to every horse...', but there is. It is impossible to correct or compensate for arthritic problems with either shoes or trimming. But we can give the horse the ability to find its own balance, its own correction or compensation:

Make sure your horse is trimmed regularly and correctly. That means NOT how the farrier will generally trim, after all, the farrier knows how to trim to shoe, but not for the functioning of the locomotor apparatus; his training will not have given him insight into this (although subsequent experience may). Heels down, wall short. If your horse is high-heeled or underrun, then any changes must be made gradually – this applies just as much to the fully fit as to the arthritic horse.

Remember that it is his welfare we should be considering. Shoes are never the solution and if your horse cannot do what you ask barefoot, then you are either asking the wrong thing, or you are not thinking of his welfare. Shoes and welfare never mix. Riders and owners often say that they shoe because they are thinking of the horse's welfare and then ask the horse to do those things which are not going to be good for his health...

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: 


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.


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!


W(h)ither the Peripheral Cushion?

There are giant misunderstandings surrounding horse’s hoofs – even among barefoot practitioners. Vast numbers of trimmers are daily trying to balance off hooves, applying magical mapping templates, doing their best to ensure the heels are at the right height and allowing just the right length of hoof wall to protrude below the sole. They all pay homage to the reference manuals, instruction books, websites and fora that define this, describe that and advise on anything remotely resembling a hoof, be it “good” or “bad” – according to the prevailing wind!

blood vessels of the hoofBut in all this information, a small but key piece of anatomy keeps being overlooked: the peripheral cushion. In fact, you won’t find the peripheral cushion specifically named – it is a “made up” name, albeit accurate, and attributed to Pierre Enoff, the French hoof and locomotion specialist.
There are reams of drawings of hoof cross-sections; and yet not one actually fully depicts the sagittal dissection of a hoof. The peripheral cushion is clearly visible under the tip of the third phalanx (the coffin bone) and is in fact present around the whole of the periphery of the P3 – also being clearly represented in the casts of the circulatory system in the hoof. If we look carefully at Dr C. v. Horst’s now famous cast, we see a thickening up of the vessel structures just under the rim of the P3.

So what is this structure and what should it tell us?

Well, a look at that other well fed area might give us a clue – the digital cushion. As we (should) know, the digital cushion is a tremendously well fed area of the hoof designed to absorb, and retransmit, the impact of landing. It is this area of the hoof that is subjected to upward of 50.000 joules of kinetic energy when the -unshod – horse is in full flight. As anyone who has ever seen athletics and gymnastics will know, we need a very thick cushion to take up the impact of the pole-vaulter when he lands but the floor exercises only demand a thin layer since the landing is from a low height and the gymnast also needs to have sufficient purchase to make her/his figures.

We can thus conclude that this area is not intended to receive an impact of any great intensity whereas the digital cushion is. It is therefore of tremendous consternation that we see just where the impact of landing is concentrated in the shod horse. The digital cushion is rendered to all intents and purposes ineffectual – it cannot contact the ground and, if it should, it is not acting as a cushion but rather as suspended elastic which is not its design ethic.

Heel meter

Example of a heel template

It is basic mechanics but it is ignored by so many, owners, farriers, vets and, sadly, even a large number of barefoot specialists. Even among the last group, there are still many tied to the idea that the hoof wall is part of the weight bearing structure. They will try and “balance” the hoof to make sure there is even contact around the hoof wall, or try applying templates to “get the height right”. Pete Ramey states that the hoof wall should protrude about 1/16″ (about 1.6mm) below the level of the sole. Aside of the conceived ability to be so accurate, this is the application of the flawed insights of the farrier.

These insights are often also perpetuated by the equine specialists in the veterinary world. A reason for many people to point to these techniques as being “right” despite the majority of vets having only very restricted mechanical knowledge. Typically, the specialist clinics treating laminitis will suggest the application of special orthopædic shoes to support the hoof. When we realise that the susceptible, loose, laminitic hoof wall is now being used as the support point to aid healing, we cannot help but wonder about the teachings of veterinary colleges and farriers’ schools.

Warning Shot

Unbelievable how a bit of sharp criticism can change things even when the criticism isn’t believed! I recently pointed out to a horse owner that his farrier was doing a very bad job of looking after the horse’s hoofs – and explained exactly why. The upshot was an owner that told me I was talking nonsense and a farrier who defended himself by bluff and a CV that was intended to impress.

By chance, I visited my horse owner contact again this week and noticed that the farrier had been recently; and, surprise, surprise, the work carried out was of a considerably higher standard than what I had seen in previous months. Not ideal, but enough of my criticism had been taken to heart to be noticeable!

And they say I talk rubbish… 😉

New v. Old?

It is a funny game this, nature conscious hoof care. Not that there is anything to laugh about when you see some of the hoofs out there. Ruinous neglect that can, with relatively little effort, be kept at least in check.

Only yesterday I came across four horses together, three of which had reasonable fairly well kept hoofs and the fourth had hoofs running to seed at the back. Similarly a couple of weeks ago, another group of horses, otherwise obviously reasonably well looked after, all showed in varying degrees poor to bad hoofs.

The question is why? Certainly in some cases money plays its part – the attentions of the farrier always come at a price be it reasonable or extortionate! But if you think your farrier is charging the earth – and even worse, doing a bad job for it – then it is time for a change; if on the other hand your farrier is reasonably priced and you still cannot afford it, then you should be asking yourself if it is fair to your horse…

But the other problem is “tradition” – the farrier is the man for horses’ hoofs be they with or without shoes. And anyway, the farrier is the old established expert and not someone peddling new-fangled ideas.

But that’s where it all falls down. The farrier is indeed established – for several hundred years, the farrier has been plying his trade and sadly fro several hundred years, it has seen little change. The techniques taught today have little changed from those taught in the 18th century – even the insights are much the same. Perpetuated by an established order and assisted by a large supportive veterinary fraternity that also has changed very little in more than one hundred years when considering the mechanics of movement (internal medicine, on the other hand, has seen many changes, not least of which through vivisection and the availability of effective drugs). Farriers tend to hang on to these traditions too – after all, they also have the backing of many a vet. The same vet that will advocate horseshoes to improve shock-damping!

Nevertheless, the farrier is actually the new man on the scene – Xenophon, the great Greek general from the 5th century B.C. advocated horses with strong hoofs, but does not mention horseshoes! The North American Indians did not shoe their horses; the Mongolians still don’t shoe their horses and if we look at the feral horses of America or the Camargue, or the Konicks horses introduced into various natural habitats in Europe, although we see differing forms in the hoofs, we see a general underlying healthiness.

So the new-fangled nature-conscious way is actually the older of the two since all it does, is assist horses in not-so-natural environments with the development of the best protection they have for their feet: namely their hoofs.

Regular Neglect

The title might seem an oxymoron but all will become clear in a moment.
20120519-130927.jpgThis photo is of a pony that was shod about three weeks earlier.
Sadly his owners are of the opinion that they are getting good service from their farrier – he visits once every eight weeks to tend all ten ponies/horses and he charges an average of £45 (€49/$55) a time per pony. Seems reasonable, you may think, was it not for the work that he carries out and its quality.
The ponies are unshod in the winter and half-shod in the summer (because they are ridden outside a couple of times a week!) so what we see here is the first shoeing of the summer season. Enough conclusions can be drawn about the state of this hoof after a winter indoors and the obvious question is why does the farrier deem it necessary to use a rear shoe on a front hoof? As just about any good farrier will tell you, rear shoes just are not intended for front hooves – the shape of the shoe and the position of the holes for the nails is all wrong. If the farrier considers a shoe unsuitable, then he should (re)manufacture one such that it will fit and not resort to bad practice.
But the real shock comes when we look at the rear hoofs of almost all the ponies; their condition is bordering upon neglect. They are splintered, chipped, high-heeled, with partially hollowed or separated walls; there is no sign of any form of roll around the edges and the bars are almost universally untouched. The latter is in one case so bad that the bars have grown almost as far forward as the point of the frog and have folded over and collapsed upon themselves.
This means that the farrier has the affront to charge good money to allow him to (badly) shoe sixty hooves and near enough neglect 180 other hooves every year…

The Other Approach…

It is interesting at times to take a look at how ones “colleagues” go about their profession. It has a couple of benefits: you can pick up tips and tricks – particularly in those activities that you only carry out once in a while; you see someone else’s technique – again to compare with and maybe even to hone your own; you can catch up with the latest thoughts and trends.

Obviously, you can also be surprised or even horrified by what you see… Happily this does not happen too often but just now and again you see techniques where you can seriously start asking questions about the “knowledge” being applied.

Last weekend, I spent a day with a trained farrier who was demonstrating how to trim horses’ hoofs. He was certainly in a position to demonstrate – after all, he is also a teacher at a farriers’ school! Basically, the man had a reasonable technique, albeit rather rough and ready and an eye for what he was doing – but I missed several fundamental points.

To begin, his approach was not to trim the hoofs so much based upon their wear as upon the “incorrect” gait of the horse. If the horse walked in a certain – unacceptable – way, then he would trim to “correct” this inadequacy.

Secondly, he only used a trimming knife and hammer to trim – including cleaning out the “bowl” in the sole of the hoof. Naturally he also used this knife to rigorously cut back the frog.

Thirdly, he made absolutely no attempt to trim the quarters – necessary for the hoof mechanism to be really effective.

Fourthly, if he wasn’t trying to correct any particular “inadequacy”, no attempt was made to insure the even height of the heels.