People have been attaching shoes of one kind or another onto their horses’ hooves since at least 400 BC. They’ve been excavated by archaeologists and are mentioned in writings from that time. Before that, it’s known that many riders tried to attach boots to their mounts’ feet made of leather or leaves. That tradition has continued on to present times, in an effort to protect the hoof capsule of domesticated horses. Most horses in competition and many used for pleasure riding are fitted with metal shoes. But not all – and interest in keeping horses barefoot has grown significantly in recent years.
Anne Riddell started off raising and showing hunter ponies. It’s not uncommon to leave ponies unshod; they have a reputation for having tough little hooves and many compete barefoot. She was pleased by how healthy the ponies’ feet were.
When she and her partner decided to enter the Thoroughbred racing industry in 2000, she said she “felt strongly that my racehorses didn’t need shoes either. We have the technology and research today that demonstrates the detrimental effects of shoes.”
At the time, it was rare for horses to race without shoes. “The people running the tracks tried to say we couldn’t race our horses barefoot, but they couldn’t find a rule against it, so they had to let us. Usually, our horse would be the only one in the race without shoes,” Riddell said. Today, horses are competing barefoot in many sports, including steeplechasing, hunting, dressage, jumping and racing. There are several Thoroughbred race trainers in Canada, the USA and Australia who have had considerable success racing horses without shoes.
After studying with a number of barefoot and natural horse care advocates, including Jaime Jackson, Pete Ramey, Dr. Robert Bowker, Dr. Eleanor Kellon, Katy Watts and Dr. Chris Politt, Riddell was certified by the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners in 2004. She uses the “wild horse trim” for her own horses and for all of her clients. She is board certified by the American Hoof Association.
What is a “barefoot trim”?
Riddell explained, “We do not look at angles, but rather read the sole. The sole is the window to the foot and the state of the horse’s health.” Using only a rasp, knife and nippers, she will trim the bars and walls to just above the live sole, not touching the sole or the frog unless it needs to have loose material sloughed off. Riddell will lightly top dress the hoof wall to blend flares and finish with a mustang roll – a rounded bevel around the bottom edge of the hoof wall.
“We do not carve concavity,” she emphasized. “Concavity is achieved when the horse has a tight connection between the epidermal and dermal laminae, which is achieved through proper diet and nutrition and a natural lifestyle.”
With this trim, Riddell said the whole foot can flex the way it is supposed to. “In a healthy natural bare hoof, when the horse lands heel first, the hoof capsule expands, allowing blood to enter the hoof on a microscopic level, nourishing the tissue and nerves. This diffusion of blood throughout the entire foot acts as a shock absorber. On the other hand, when the hoof is held up by the farrier to apply a shoe, the hoof is in a contracted state and there is less blood flowing into the hoof. The farrier applies the shoe to that contracted hoof, and once the hoof loads, it can no longer expand normally. It sets the horse up to land incorrectly and starts a cascade of pathology.”
Riddell’s approach is based in part on research by Dr. Robert Bowker of Michigan State University, who has studied blood flow to and from the hoof, and the role it plays in energy dissipation. His Equine Foot Lab website states: “These study results led Bowker to believe that the modern-day horse should be trimmed so that more of the back part of the foot – including the frog – bears the initial ground impact forces and weight. His research demonstrated that if the foot was trimmed so that the frog rests on the ground, the back part of the foot would be stimulated to grow more fibrous and fibrocartilaginous tissue in the digital cushion, which appears to be protective of the more chronic foot problems.”
In 2013, Dr. Hilary Clayton and her co-researchers studied seven Arabian horses used at Michigan State University. They kept the horses barefoot for the 16-month duration and trimmed them every six weeks of the study to lower the hoof to the live sole, bevel the toe and round the peripheral wall. The horses performed well and remained sound throughout.
The researchers measured and assessed the changes in the shape of the hoof and foot and its function. They found that the horse’s heel would actually shift backwards to be more under the horse’s leg, increasing the weight-bearing area and increasing the heel angle. In her commentary, Dr. Clayton stressed that these positive changes did not happen immediately, but took time. However, these observations do offer hope for horses with underrun heels and other soundness problems.
Transitioning to barefoot
Dr. Debra Taylor, of Auburn University, presented a paper in 2013 outlining her research on the effects of transitioning to barefoot. She said going barefoot puts the horse’s heel in contact with the ground and it adapts and changes. These changes then affect the rest of the hoof structure, including the thickness of the sole and the concavity of the hoof, improving the position of the coffin bone. This, in turn, can increase the length of the horse’s stride and reduce soreness.
Horse owner Kristina is one of Riddell’s clients who has seen positive outcomes for her Paso Fino, MDF. “I was a new horse owner when I got MDF,” she said. “I didn’t realize the risks when we left him on very rich pasture. He gained a lot of weight and foundered when he was seven.”
Despite efforts to restrict MDF’s diet, he foundered again at age nine. Riddell began a program of trimming MDF’s hoofs every four weeks, gradually working up to trims every six weeks. “She made sure he had a low heel – I think that is very important – and a tucked toe with no flaring,” said Kristina. “MDF has never had any cracking in his hooves with this care.”
Just as importantly, Kristina said, she began following Riddell’s instructions for feeding and exercise. MDF is now in a “paddock paradise” arrangement where he is walking most of the day and eating only hay, no grass or grain (see left for more information on this management strategy). He’s lost weight, is off all medication, and is sound enough to be ridden regularly. “We go on two- or three-hour rides and he’s perfectly fine,” said Kristina.
Gaye is another horse owner who worked with Riddell. Her Appaloosa, Pepper, had not been shod when she first bought her, but, she said, the farrier didn’t trim her feet properly. “There was lots of flaring and cracking,” Gaye explained. With the next farrier, Pepper was lame after trimming and showed early signs of laminitis, so the farrier recommended putting shoes on her. At first, this seemed to work, but Gaye soon found Pepper would be lame for two or three weeks after each trim and shoeing.
Her veterinarian x-rayed Pepper’s hooves and recommended resting her for a year. When that didn’t solve the problem, the vet told Gaye to retire the horse. “He said don’t ride her, don’t breed her, there’s nothing to be done,” said Gaye.
At that point, Gaye turned to Riddell, who removed Pepper’s shoes, put boots on her, and changed her diet using the paddock paradise system. By spring, the horse’s problems had resolved and Gaye began riding again. Several years down the road, Pepper’s still an excellent trail horse that can be ridden on pavement, gravel or grass without pain. “Her feet are perfect now,” Gaye said.
Riddell believes barefoot horses do well on any kind of footing. She said “One winter day one of our Thoroughbred mares got out and ran out on the road which was sheer ice. We thought for sure she was going to go down, but her natural bare hoof just grabbed onto the ice and held her steady. That was enough proof for my partner and me.”
Owning a barefoot horse can be less costly than having a farrier shoe the horse on a regular basis, Riddell also pointed out, and many horse owners learn how to trim their animals themselves. The basic tools (hoof knife, rasp and nippers) are inexpensive compared to shoeing.
Riddell said horses can be sensitive at first when shoes are removed and will do better if boots with pads are used until they have time to adapt. This adaptation to barefoot depends on the individual horse and his history of shoeing and diet.
A horse should not be sore after trimming, she added. “If the horse
is sore, that can be a sign of pre-laminitis. It can also mean that the farrier has trimmed the horse’s sole down too much in the past, and it can take a long time for that sole to grow back.”
The future of the barefoot horse seems bright. Riddell said “Interest in going barefoot is increasing, and horse owners are seeing the benefits. High performance horses are showing up and competing barefoot and doing extremely well.”
Increasingly, farriers are adding various types of barefoot trims to their repertoires as well. However, Riddell stressed that the lifestyle and nutrition components are also important in helping the horse develop a healthy hoof.
Riddell said removing shoes is just one part of her approach. She stated that many of the hoof or foot problems horse owners see may have more to do with the horse’s immune system and the food the animal is eating. “For example, if you see bruising on the wall of the hoof, that is not because the horse has hurt it, it’s because there have been internal changes in the horse, usually related to diet. Diet and other [health] issues are also the cause of ridges on the wall, cracking and thrush.”
Riddell does not believe in grain for horses, except in rare situations, and prefers that they have low-sugar hay for foraging. She recommended that horse owners test their hay for minerals and simply supplement the horses as needed.
Riddell advised that horses should be kept outdoors as much as possible – “even our racehorses stayed out 24/7 except when they were stabled at the track” – and in a “paddock paradise” system, developed by Jamie Jackson, to maximize their movements and toughen their feet. She pointed out that studies of wild horses show they walk 25 miles a day, at their own pace, looking for food. The paddock paradise concept takes an ordinary square pasture and adds fencing inside to create paths for the horses to follow. Hay is set out at various points along the path so the horses keep moving looking for more.
You don’t need a lot of space to make this work, said Riddell. Her first paddock paradise was just one acre in size, but she was able to create a path and keep her horses active. It also allows her to avoid the problem of horses accessing too much fresh grass, a common cause of founder.
Anne Riddell is an experienced barefoot trimmer from Barrie, Ontario, and a staunch advocate of doing away with metal shoes altogether. To learn more, see her website at barefoothorsecanada.com.