Barefootin' Horse Pals


Hawk and Sydney enjoying a moment under a big oak tree
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My path to being a barefooter...

My mare, Sydney, has been shod since she was two (she's five now). She always had nail cracks and some superficial cracks (well, that's what people called them but I knew they were there for a reason). My experience with three professional farriers did not satisfy my desire to truly understand the hoof. The farriers each seemed preoccupied with other things and sometimes annoyed that someone would have questions about the work they were doing or the mechanics of the hoof. My last farrier was a kind man who knew and loved horses. He even believed barefooting was best and would recommend leaving shoes off although it made less money for him. But when he trimmed my horses for barefoot, he left the walls long (believing she would be too tender otherwise) and the time lapse between trimmings was allowing the hooves to grow far too long. Plus Sydney, would still be tenderfooted on rocky ground. Because of this, I was under the belief she needed to be shod. Two farriers and one veterinarian had advised me she had genetically weak hooves...that it was the luck of the draw and common in purebred horses. I had supplemented her diet and over months her feet improved but she never got over her gimpiness when barefoot and the inevitable chipping that occured without shoes so she remained shod in the summer and barefoot all winter. Everytime I looked at her shod hoof, I thought that it must really be causing some concussion to walk on those metal irons and it nagged at me...little did I know the voice inside was really trying to wake me up!

Someone introduced me to the 4-point trim and I was mildly interested but it still didn't click. So I forgot about it for awhile.

The Journey Begins

Eventually I once again was wanting to finding answers and about that time a woman named Anna posted a link on the Horse Forum to a website about Jaime Jackson. I read it and began to find the answers to my questions. Mr. Jackson had been a professional farrier for 20 years but was also dissatisfied with the damage of nails and shoes to the hooves of the horses. I had seen Anna bring up the topic before on other horse boards but hadn't realized the full extent of what she was trying to get across to us. My time had come to learn about this and I knew it.

I then read Marjorie's barefoot website , a woman in Rhode Island who had followed these teaching for several years and who is now consulting with others and helping them. I emailed her and she wrote back with lots of instructional information. She rides classical French dressage with her horses and joins others in citing instances of endurance riders, jumpers and other performance horses who are competing successfully while barefoot. But barefoot meant so much more than just pulling shoes, I learned, to have it work.

I purchased Jaime Jackson's book "Horse Owner's Guide to Natural Hoof Care - How to Create the Perfect Hoof". I also ordered "A Lifetime of Soundness," by reknown German Veterinarian Hiltrud Strasser, which is the single most holistic horse book I've read...loaded with easy to read information that every caring horse owner would appreciate. I highly recommend both books because together they give a very complete picture!! Then I joined the Tribe Equus web ring, which is the most comprehensive site on the internet for people seeking to go barefoot and in need of resources and support. This site also features a 12 step illustrated instruction to aid those trimming the barefoot horse.. I also discovered Gretchen's site, with many case histories for treating founder with correct trimming. The article in this link also gave scientific back-up for what I believed to be true.

What I Learned

From these various sources I saw what a frog is supposed to look like (nothing like I'd ever seen on a horse in my 30+ years of owning and being around them). I learned about the mustang roll, the "hoof mechanism" and how the high heels that we are conditioned to believe are good are direct causes of many serious (and unfortunately, common) hoof problems. I learned that a sound horse can have a low heel and still maintain hoof angles in the 50's. I learned that virtually every shod hoof I had ever seen was contracted to some degree. I learned about the bars and what they do (and shouldn't be doing on every horse that is shod). I learned about the numbness and lack of blood circulation shoes cause and why a horse goes through a transition period (sometimes including lameness) when its hoof wakes up and comes alive again...and how some horses "seem" to be sound in shoes but are not, simply because they have lost the sensation of feeling in their feet so appear to be fine. I learned that this numbness causes some horses to stumble while shod since they can not feel the ground. I learned what part of the hoof is supposed to be passive when trimmed (that's why my mare's quarters were chipping and breaking!), how the entire hoof interacts with itself. I learned that the heel bulbs in shod horses are a deformed version of nature's intention. I learned about the optimum hairline degree. I learned about exercise, water, rocks and feed. Not that I didn't know some of this, but it was all coming together in a complete holistic picture finally. For the first time I was grateful that we never had the money to build a barn. That our horses have been kept outside in the elements on roomy ground...with protection from storms and the ability to move about to graze (lush pastures are not the best thing for a horse...but variety is). I learned that "stall rest" can be the worst thing for a horse. I learned that some trail riders, barrel racers, jumpers, racers (standardbred, thoroughbred and endurance), dressage horses, etc. were among those who were successfully going barefoot with this method. I learned that many hoof, leg and back ailments are a direct result of horses wearing shoes...and that the treatment of these ailments with yet more shoes was capable of doing more harm than good.

I heard the following paraphrase from several people and began to ponder it myself...



"If we have to tell ourselves that our horses need shoes to not be lame, then we also need to ask ourselves, what has happened to the horses' hoof that has damaged and weakened it to this degree that it now requires this damaging crutch to function? Understanding the hoof mechanism and all the factors that come into play answers this question and gives new hope and solid answers to those willing to learn."


I also learned that some were not open to it and would speak negatively to me about my interest. Rather than ask serious questions, they would create animosity on topics that really had nothing to do with the horse or the actual trim. When I saw that they did not have the time or desire to become educated or to do all that was required to have a healthy barefoot horse, I kept searching for more people who were successfully practicing barefooting and willing to share their experiences. I learned there are different factions of barefooting, too, and that I had to make a choice. When one woman told me I should use the "Ric Redden" method and said she wanted to teach me how to do it, I was excited because she lived in my town! But then I was told by a long time barefooter on the east coast to be cautious of Mr. Redden's methods because his hooves were not getting the same results. I mentioned this to the woman in my town because I wanted to hear her feedback and she never talked to me again. This put me back on my original path of what first got my attention. By this time I knew I did not want to compromise. I had seen too many examples of all types of horses succeeding and improving on all kind of terrain with Jaime Jackson and Hiltrud Strasser's teachings, so I made the commitment to follow through. I had already been learning so much about saddle fitting, balanced riding and nutrition for my horses. I owed it to them to learn about their very important feet, too!!

A Word About Gurus

Make no man or woman your guru! Learn what they can teach you and always...always...listen to your own instinct and most of all, your horse. While I have learned much from both Jackson and Strasser...I still have my own mind and do not do everything they recommend. We are all individuals...always remember that! It is very annoying when the dissenters try to label you in a negative way. But I don't let their guilt or anger get under my skin. It's more about them than it is about me...or you.

Going Alone

I had let my mare go far too long without a trim, simply because the farriers' trims weren't helping her and I was not wishing to put shoes on. I was starting to get a strong feeling of being marooned without a lifeboat! I suddenly realized how desperate my horse was for help. But there was nobody knowledgable around to help me. Sydney's breeder, trainer, farrier and vet would surely be upset if they saw her now. I took some photos of her hoof and compared it to the photos in the books and websites I had been studying. We bought the nippers and the rasp, a couple hoof knives , a leather apron, with some gloves....and took a big sigh. I asked Tommy (my husband) to hold each hoof, while I trimmed and rasped them (I'm not in shape yet for the rigors of holding a foot AND trimming! LOL). When I got tired we traded places! In his book Jaime has one page where he lists the important do's and don'ts when trimming. This was before the illustrated trim site was on the internet. So I read his book over and over and studied the pics and then laid the book out beside us on the ground while we did the first trim! It was a bit scarey but at least her feet looked better when we were done! It was actually quite satisfying (and liberating, too!) The barefoot trim by Jackson is very different than what I'd ever seen a farrier do, in person or in print. I have read where some people criticize people like me who take trimming into their own hands but... if you have done your homework, and believe you know what you are doing, then you will KNOW that you are on the right path...particularly when there is no one to help you. Also, most people take too little off, rather than too much, because of their caution...so usually the horse only improves.

Help Arrives!

Two days later I learned of Debbie Dutra in Truckee, California, (thank you, Marjorie!) who was an expert in the method we were learning and I called her. She came to our place (VERY reasonably priced) and luckily (whew!) she said we had done a pretty good job on my mare, all things considered. She went ahead and fine-tuned the trim and spent three hours going over the how-to's and what to look for. She even drew us some diagrams and loaned us some other books and a video tape. I was so pleased with the time, energy and volumes of wisdom she had to share that I made her a simple website to promote her availability to others. She will even hop on a plane or drive long distances to do a clinic in your area. For Debbie, it's real clear that her love for horses is what propels her. She has helped horses with navicular using her experience. Her site also links to an affordable convenient hoof stand that you can make yourself. Debbie is a natural horsemanship instructor as well.

We went ahead and ordered a hoof stand from Star Ridge to help us (it's a lifesaver!) and we are back to doing it on our own. You don't trim the barefoot on a regular schedule, like the shoers do. On some horses it's several time a week (with the rasp) and others can go longer, depending upon the individual wear and the conditions. Remember, in the wild, the hoof is being worn on a continuous basis...this is what we are attempting to emulate.

Above - Sydney's over-grown hoof with her long toe, long heels and rolled under bars (left). I had let her go too long because I wanted to find something better... so we (hubby & me) finally bit the bullet and trimmed her ourselves (right). She was still very sore but we figured we had given her a start. We were very careful to only remove what we had confidence in taking off. It was our thinking that too little was better than too much.


Above - same hoof 3 days later. It still needs to go through some changes. My goal is to get the same look as the wild horses in the Horse Owner's Guide. GOOD NEWS! Three days after this trim, Sydney was no longer tender!


Above - the hind hoof of Sydney's new barefoot look...showing good concavity, natural low heel bulbs and de-contraction of the frog / heel area. Yay!

Hoof Boots

There is an increasing number of hoofboots becoming more available as interest grows. Some are helpful and others are as dysfunctional as shoes. I was about to order a pair of horsesneakers for Sydney's front feet because she was tender in the front. I asked a hoof care provider and she said, "No, skip the boot. It really just prolongs the transition and your ground is soft enough here." I had read where some horses take as long as two years to recover from being shod and others just a few weeks. I figured my mare was worth waiting for and after a time it sure was rewarding to see her go from walking with a gimp and refusing to trot to now where she is cantering freely. We went on a 12 mile trail ride in the mountains recently she wanted to go and go...with not a single gimp or misstep, even in the rocky dry creekbeds. I was elated for her to say the least. Pretty good for a horse diagnosed with "genetically poor hooves," eh?


Sydney runs freely now

I would still get hoofboots if I felt I needed them and just use them during the riding so that my horse is comfortable. Then take them off and let the hoof be on its own while at liberty so it can work on the changes. I did go ahead and buy the Davis soaking boots (they're only about $19) because it's not always feasible for me to get our horses in the water so these will allow them to soak for a small amount of time in fresh water. Debbie also recommended I add raw apple cider vinegar to the water to aid Sydney in the release of some tiny abcesses she has (part of the natural healing / transition phases)...I didn't even know she had them! Not to worry, though...abcesses are a part of the healing from having been shod. It's the body's way of sloughing out the dead material to make room for the new growth. Be sure to consult with a hoof care provider before you buy one of the many hoof boots on the market because some boots are more recommended than others due to their shape being different that the healthy barefoot hoof. Some boots are as bad as shoes!

Changed Vision

That's how we got started. Once you begin to learn and understand the "hoof mechanism" and how it works, you find yourself looking a every horse you see with shoes on them and visualizing them barefoot and healthy! I find that my attention now immediately goes to the foot. You are retraining your eye.

Water Controversy

I want to say something about water because it's controversial on the horse message boards. On one board in particular, a few people were saying "Never ever soak your horses' feet." One woman even insists on towel drying her horses' feet if they get any water on them at all.

Being that I'm now a practitioner of the barefoot horse and the teachers of this practice say get the feet wet, I wanted to resolve this in my mind since I'm not one to make any singular person a "guru" so here's what I considered.

The big arguement according to these anti-wet people was that wetting the hoof breaks down the connective tissue. My thought is: Okay...so what if it does? What if what they're saying is true? What if nature purposely breaks down (I prefer to use the word "softens") the connective tissue during this occasional short term soaking period that takes place any time a wild horse "chooses" to stand in the water while it drinks. And what if it serves the hoof to do so in that once the horse leaves the moist area and heads out across the miles of rough ground to resume feeding and other horse activities that the softening actually aids in the ongoing definition of the hoof by allowing it to adapt to the continuous changes? Perhaps this is nature's means to alternate between drying and hardening and wetting and softening to keep its shape flexible and congruent with the environment. I'm no scientist but this made sense to me and I tend to trust nature, given that other factors are in play.

These other "factors" could lead to a very important decision about the water. For people like me who's horses have full turn out available, eat as close to natural diet as possible and get lots of exercise at liberty, get frequent trims, etc., then the water is helpful and necessary as part of the program. It protects the hoof from cracking during extreme weather changes such as from wet spring to sudden dryness.

But what about the people who keep their horses stalled, shod and on soft ground? In their case, where the hoof does not have the opportunity to live the life for which it was intended, the softening properties of water could actually be detrimental. Once man interferes with things it tends to set off a chain reaction. And when the hoof is shod and the heel contracts and forms deep crevices in the frog, excessive moisture can indeed be a bad thing. The way I see it, these people actually encourage too much moisture by their practices alone, so in their fear of it they sometimes resort to chemicals and strange practices as an attempt to control what they've created.

So perhaps there's two schools of thought that can be mutually understood. For those of us who believe in doing the most we can to emulate nature's evolution for a healthy sound horse, some water is okay. For those who have reshaped the horse to suit their hobby or show pursuits then water worries them because it gets in the way of their unnatural lifestyle. The shod hoof does not have the ability to employ its full mechanism (even with the "balanced shoes" from what I've read). I'm stating this to help the anti-water people understand me when they are tempted to say I am doing a bad thing to allow my horses feet to get wet. I am emulating nature because in the wild horses will soak their feet in watering holes regularly and it is in the wild where we find the healthiest hooves. And the wild horses have the best hooves on the planet!! People sometimes try to overrule nature...and it sometimes means a price is paid...by them or their horses. I don't discount the fact that these people love their horses and are doing the best they can and know how...only that I am wired to seek a different path.

My Horses' Diets

Our horses eat as close to what their evolution requires as we can get. They are on full time turnout and I feed them quality mountain meadow grass hay (with orchard, timothy and other grasses for nutritional variety). I feed a low-nutrition hay so they can eat for longer periods of time. This satisfies their natural desire to chew and allows their digestives system to work on a continuous basis as it was designed to do. I like feeding the hay even though they are on pasture for several reasons. They are also supplemented with free choice minerals (horses actually know and seek what to consume for their deficiencies). One source for free choice minerals is Advanced Biological Concepts. I feed very little alfalfa and treat this legume as a supplement and not a full time feed. Alfalfa tends to be too concentrated and highly acidic. I want to maintain a good ph balance in my horses' diets. Horses often develop ulcers unbeknownst to their owners because of a high acid diet and also because of long periods of no eating, particularly in stalled situations. This occurs because their system keeps producing the acid but there is nothing in the stomach to digest, thus the ulcers. Horses must satisfy their chewing instinct and without grass they will start to chew on wood and other substances. Feeding good grass hay around the clock satisfies this need. If your horse is fat, don't cut back on his hay...instead give him more exercise! All of the above contributes largely to a healthy hoof in your horse!

Think It Through

An important consideration: If you aren't prepared yet to be committed to barefooting it, then maybe it's not for you...and you shouldn't feel bad. You will be challenged by some around you who have not given it thorough study or those who rely solely on status quo practices. Sometimes someone tries barefooting but leaves out an important element (as I said it takes a holistic approach to work successfully) or they fail to understand the transition period and their attempt ends in disaster. Someone hears about it and not knowing any better, thinks that barefooting is bad and spreads the word about the negative experience they heard. Consider this when you are contemplating barefoot horses. Still others will want to persuade you to rejoin their way of thinking simply because they've never known an unshod horse nor understood why a horse is tender when the shoes are removed. But at the very least you have been given some information to study and if one day it "clicks" with you as it did with me and others, then I wish you the same successes we are enjoying with this knowledge. I've read some remarkable stories in my studies about mysterious lamenesses suddenly disappearing once holistic barefoot is put into practice...and this was after much expense was put out to vets and farriers to no avail.

Conclusion

I wrote this story because I am what some circles would refer to as a backyard horse owner. Because I don't have horses to show or breed, people like me are not always regarded with esteem by those who measure their horse and their experience against the peers in their particular groups. But I like to think my independent ongoing education is making a positive difference in my horses' lives. While some of us may not have a showcase of ribbons in our homes, our horses are living the best life possible. A life without confinement, pain, drugs, damaged hooves, isolation, injury and excessive stress. They do not have ulcers from a concentrated diet with hours of no food inbetween. They are not stalled for extended periods or suited with halters or tailsets during their "time off."

I am not against show people or competitors in the least. I have met some fine and caring people in these areas of horsemanship who are patient and good with their horses. It is my own desire to compete with my horses one day as a barrel racer and when I do I will remain barefoot like a woman I know who races successfully without horseshoes. I have also crossed paths with some backyard owners who were despicable in their treatment of animals so both the good and the bad are across the board. My point is simply to say that because some of us are not in it for the business, does not in anyway affect the level to which we should be respected...by our farriers, our veterinarians, our trainers and by fellow horse people who are making a living through horses. Even though two of my horses are well bred and suitable for show and despite my passion for horses since the time I was born, I made a choice to not do it for a business. I still ride often and I study horsemanship, performance, saddle fitting, centered riding, and more. Our arena is the mountains around us and my prize is a very personal experience. But I can see why showing can be fun and enjoyable as well as an enriching social experience for both horse and human alike. I am encouraged whenever I see a professional or show person integrating barefoot practices into their program.

So I want you to know that if you are a person like me who has horses because you love them for who they are and how nature created them, then look out in your pasture with peace the next time you get a twinge because someone calls you a "backyard horse owner" with a lowly tone in their voice. You made a choice and it was a good one for you...and your horses. Please don't get discouraged and think that you can't pursue what you believe to be a better way because your resident expert puts it down. Always listen to what they say and if it doesn't fit, keep looking! Seek and you shall find the answers!

Please know I am not recommending or telling anyone what they should or should not do. This is just a story of my personal journey at this time with my horses. You have to trust yourself and follow your own guidance, whatever path that is, shoes or no shoes. That's the basis of this story...be strong in your faith. We are all here to learn and Heaven help us should we ever decide we know it all...any of us.


All I can say for myself is now that I know better...
I will do better

Love,

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