More and more horse owners are choosing to maintain their horses without shoes these days. Some are attracted by the fact that it is less expensive, others are comforted knowing they will never lose another shoe, and some feel safer with the increased surefootedness of a barefoot horse. For many, the main reason to “go bare” is they believe there are substantial health benefits, not just for the hooves, but for the entire horse.
However, if you are considering making the switch from shod to barefoot, it is important to know the process is often more involved than simply pulling the shoes and riding off on your merry way. While it is certainly possible for the vast majority of horses to make the change to barefoot, the transition is much more likely to be smooth and successful if you know what to expect, what you need to do and how to make it all happen. As a starting point, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:
1. How healthy are my horse’s feet?
If your horse has compromised or seriously distorted feet, the transition to barefoot will likely take longer than it would for a horse whose feet are relatively healthy. This is not to say that if your shod horse has hoof problems you shouldn’t try going barefoot – many would say that the fact that your horse has hoof problems is the very reason you should try barefoot. You do need to be aware, however, that a foot with pre-existing challenges may require more attention and patience to make the switch, so just be ready for it.
2. Am I willing to make use of hoof boots?
Some horses will need some support in the form of hoof boots, possibly with pads, for a while after the shoes come off. Padded hoof boots can make a huge difference during the transition period, allowing the foot to remain comfortable while it develops and strengthens. How long the boots will be needed is completely individual. Some horses will need them only for a brief period, while others may always need boots to ride out on rough ground, especially if they live on softer footing.
3. Is the terrain my horse lives on similar to what I want him to work on?
In general, a horse that lives on footing similar to what he is expected to work on is going to have an easier time going barefoot. For example, a horse that lives in a soft environment or a stall is not going to have the toughest feet, but if he only gets ridden in a cushy arena, he may sail from shod to barefoot with no issues, especially if his feet are healthy to start with. But take that same horse and expect him to go out and blast down rock strewn trails every weekend, and he is probably going to need boots for those rides, possibly indefinitely. Carrying the weight of a rider and tack can also influence how comfortable some horses are on rough terrain, regardless of what they live on.
4. Does my horse get plenty of movement?
Movement is a huge factor in overall hoof health and it is often a critical one for helping horses do well barefoot. Horses living with 24/7 turn out in a large area that encourages them to move over varied terrain is ideal for developing strong, bare hooves. This is not to say that horses in less than ideal living conditions can’t succeed barefoot, but the more movement they get, the easier the transition is likely to be.
5. Is my hoof care provider truly knowledgeable about barefoot trimming and hoof care?
One of the most important factors, and one that can make or break your chances at barefoot success, is how much your hoof care provider knows about barefoot hoof care. There are specific ways to trim the hoof to maximize barefoot comfort and function, and these are often quite different than what is taught to many farriers. If you have the option to use someone who specializes in barefoot trimming, that may be a good bet. However, just as in everything else in life, not every barefoot trimmer is a good one. So, how can you, as the horse owner, tell the difference? One dead giveaway is the trimmer’s approach to the sole. Trimmers who use invasive techniques that remove live sole or carve out the bars can make horses sore, cause abscesses and worse. If your horse is consistently sore after every trim, get another trimmer – pronto.
Another red flag is when trimmers say all feet should have the same specific angles, regardless of hoof conformation, current or past pathology, or how those angles relate to the rest of the limb. Such trimmers may carry around a collection of measuring devices to help them see what they need to do to force your horse’s feet to conform to their preconceived ideals. A good trimmer, on the other hand, will assess your horse’s feet based on the unique characteristics and challenges present in each individual foot, and then come up with a plan to help each foot get as close to its own ideal as possible.
It should also be noted that there are plenty of “regular” farriers out there who do a very good job working with barefoot horses. If you are trying to assess whether that might be the case with a farrier you know, ask them what their take is on barefoot hoof care, and whether or not they have many sound, actively ridden barefoot horses among their clientele. If you start hearing talk along the lines of, “Sure, I trim some barefoot horses, but they are pretty much pasture pets,” or “Really, horses need shoes if you expect them to work,” that is probably not the right person for the job.
6. Is my horse’s diet going to impede the transition to barefoot?
Bare hooves are very honest, as there is nothing covering them to dull down or hide their problems. This is especially evident when it comes to diets that are too high in non-structural carbohydrates. When a horse is eating excessive amounts of sugar and/or starch, his body will experience low grade inflammation that can easily cause foot soreness. Since a formerly shod barefoot horse is likely to have increased feeling in its feet due to improved perfusion (blood flow), he is more likely to notice the effects of carb-related inflammation than he would have when he was in shoes. Shoeing does not prevent inflammation – it just makes it so your horse can’t feel it as easily, which means that all kinds of damage could be taking place and you wouldn’t know a thing about it. Common culprits that cause foot soreness can include grains, molasses, apples, carrots and grass – especially in the spring or fall. Also pay attention to anything else going into the horse’s body in the form of supplements, vaccines, medications, injections, dewormers, etc., as all of these can cause tender feet in some horses.
7. Do I have the time to let my horse adjust?
Even if a horse has fairly good feet, there may be an adjustment period while he gets used to being barefoot after being shod for an extended period. The foot will function a bit differently, the frog and soles may need to thicken up and the horse may need to get used to feeling the ground in a new way. Sometimes this transition is almost instantaneous, but it can take weeks, months or even longer if a horse has foot issues.
One last note: When you start looking into the idea of going barefoot, you will undoubtedly hear stories from people who tried it but found that “It just didn’t work.” Take such stories with a grain of salt, as it is very easy to create a barefoot failure if you are not aware of all the components that go into creating a barefoot success. That said, there are a few horses out there that, for whatever reasons, are never able to adjust to being barefoot, even with great care. If that is your horse, it might be best to put the shoes back on. Barefoot is not for everyone, and ultimately, keeping your horse as sound and comfortable as he can be is what matters most.