Deshoeing and is it necessary to boot?

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.

Mindset

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.

Renegade® hoofbootAlthough 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.

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The “Footy” Horse

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…

A step too far…

Hufschuh Seminar

hufcheck.de advertising a hoofboot sale and seminar

We all know – or at least, those that want to know – that horseshoes are a destructive and irrelevant relic of the middle ages. We know that they cause more than just superficial damage to the hoof but that the damage continues right through the bones and joints into the vertebrae causing anything from (crippling) arthritis in the joints to severe lumbar pain or even damaged discs.

Happily for the majority that go down the barefoot path, there are now professionals around to help the transition and thereafter. True, not all are as well versed in either reasoning or technique, or both, and there are still the traditional farriers1 that convince some customers that they too can do a “natural trim”. But there is another worrying trend. More and more trimmers are discovering a way of boosting income – and unfortunately in a rather dubious way. Almost everyone seems to be promoting hoof boots these days. A perfect solution during transition and also for later “when the going gets tough”. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. Hoof boots have one very important advantage over horseshoes – they can be removed easily after use. And that’s all.

The weight of the average hoof is 250g. Just about every hoof boot will double this with ease – just as a horseshoe will. Surprisingly, not one of the best known manufacturers or their distributors appears to publish full specifications. One distributor does make mention of a special version of the Renegade boot with built-in gel pad; this would add ±60g to the weight. **UPDATE The Renegade, size 2W, weighs about 420g…** And this is probably one of the lightest boots on the market. One of the significant points to remember about the horse’s hoof is that it is a “superleggera” construction. It is designed by nature to be tough but at the same time extremely lightweight. This ensures the ease of setting into motion, good acceleration, effective deceleration and accurate placement. The addition of an extra weight at the end of the leg completely disrupts this system and essentially reintroduces a number of the destructive factors found in the use of horseshoes.

Because the hoof is now “protected” by the hoof boot, we also see an immediate reduction in the hoof mechanism and in the ability to facilitate it. There is little or no active stimulation of the sole, frog and heel bulbs and, if not adequately trimmed, the hoof wall becomes the principle load-bearing structure once more.
Additionally, the whole geometry of the hoof is realigned by the shoe since – like the horseshoe – the foot is raised and, to allow fitting room, the external dimensions are larger than the hoof creating an unavoidable lengthening of the roll-over point.

If we look at one or two quotes:

Cavallo:
You can ride over any terrain with compete hoof protection.” But the hoof IS protection. This is like wearing two crash helmets!
“Trail Riding – Under 25 miles per week or per ride √” If your horse cannot manage this without boots, it is probably dead.
“Turnout √” Since when did a horse need to wear boots at turnout???

Renegade:
“…instead of needing shoes, horses can be fitted with boots that honestly protect hooves from excess wear…” …dishonestly… Hoofs do not wear out.
“… allow a horse to heal more quickly and completely from common hoof diseases such as laminitis and founder, navicular syndrome, quarter cracks and contracted heels…” NO NO NO! Laminitis, founder and so-called navicular should not be treated with some sort of artificial structure which alters the geometry of the hoof – it is just this alteration which has contributed to the problem in the first place. As for quarter cracks, a decent trim will get rid of those just a fast and contracted heels only decontract with time, not with boots.
“A hoof fitted comfortably inside a boot made of tough, elastic materials is free to expand and contract…” …and wobble around and not sit comfortably and loose traction because of twisting and…

Easyboot:
Q. Do you need horseshoes in addition to Easyboots? Pardon?
A. No. Easyboots provide complete hoof protection and traction. They may also be worn over regular shoes. Would you like to repeat that?
A. No… They may also be worn over regular shoes. I thought that’s what you said. Surely that makes for very heavy feet… and doesn’t it increase wear on the Easyboot?

Q. Does wearing Easyboot over iron shoes increase wear on the Easyboot? Ah yes, I just asked that
A. Yes. Although Easyboots can be worn over steel shoes in a variety of situations, wear of the Easyboot is increased when fitted over shoes and will void the wear warranty. So you can but it does void the warranty

Q. What is the projected useful life of an Easyboot? Good question…
A. Easyboots are fully guaranteed for 90 days…. Wrong answer. The question was “…projected useful life…” And in Europe, at least, a guarantee must be for a minimum of 1 year – and is actually for the reasonable lifetime of the product!

Q. Will Easyboots give good traction on pavement? No better than the horse’s own hoofs
A. Yes. They provide sure footing for the horse and safety for the rider. Shod horses can be dangerous on pavement. Easyboots prevent slipping. They make excellent parade footwear and reduce shock on paved surfaces. If the horse cannot feel where it is putting its feet, that is not exactly increasing the safety of the rider. Shod horses are not dangerous – shoes are. The Easyboots may prevent slipping in a shod horse, but we have just read that booting a shod horse invalidates the warranty. 

So, it is clear that not only do the manufacturers try to bluff us with misinformation about the “values” of hoof boots, they are also a little short on being consequent or in some cases on the right side of consumer protection.

The hoof is a specialist design, perfected over 50 million years. Sadly, humans at war added shoes to enable the horse to carry on irrespective of its own desires for self preservation and now, five centuries further, we are still treating the horse as if it is a war animal and not giving due credit to the forces of nature that formed it. By booting our horses rather than shoeing them, we are not helping them transition, rather we are perpetuating a bloody history and loading it with myth.

 

 
1 The traditional farrier tends to think the “prairie trim” is the same as a natural trim. It is not. The prairie trim is in fact no more than a precursor to shoeing.

Boots

People often ask me which hoof boots I would recommend, usually as a cautionary precursor to riding barefoot outdoors.

My answer is very simple – but not always satisfactory! I do not recommend any make of hoof boot.

20140221-202741.jpgAmong the various reasons why horses should not be shod, is also the question of physics and mechanics. The addition of a horseshoe to the end of the horse’s leg creates a physical imbalance in the mechanics of the leg – the extra weight means more energy is needed to lift the hoof from the ground and put it into motion and yet more excess energy is needed to slow it down to place it where the horse wants it. The extra weight is also transmitted in the form of a shockwave through the limbs. Additionally, because the front feet are slow to leave the ground, the chance that the rear feet collide with the front – and worse still, with the tendons at the back of the front legs – is greatly increased. A hoof boot – however light – will always add to the mass of the hoof.
Furthermore, another of the important aspects of being unshod is the action of the hoof on the ground, stimulating the hoof mechanism and activating the blood circulation which in turn insures good hoof health. By applying a hoof boot, we are once again creating an artificial barrier between the ground and the natural movement of the hoof.

And that is the reason why I never recommend hoof boots.