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Barefoot horses in work - with Rebekah Adshead

Running a Paddock Paradise livery that specifically caters to horses in need of rehabilitation and retirement means we don't get to show barefoot equines in action very often. More and more horses are being transitioned from shod to barefoot by the day but some owners still worry about barefoot horses in work.

Meet Rebekah, our good friend and horse owner to 4.

'Hi, my name is Rebekah Adshead, I'm 28 and I work both as a freelance groom/rider/trainer & pet portrait artist (when time allows)! I'm currently owned by my little herd of 4 horses, including my 2 competition horses and 2 retirees.

Over the last few years I've competed my 2 boys barefoot at BD to advance medium, unaff eventing, BE up to BE100 and unaff show jumping. We've been to Trailblazers showing championships as well including working hunter, team chasing and have recently taken up working equitation. When I'm not out competing or training, we can often be found tackling some decent terrain on our "adventure hacks" which can often be well over 10 miles.

I don't have an exciting, miracle cure, barefoot story to tell. In fact, my move towards keeping horses barefoot was initially simply because I had to start paying my own bills and as a teenager in college, working as a pet portrait artist part time, saving money seemed quite important. I pulled my gelding's hind shoes quite early on as "we didn't do much hacking anyway" then, one of those typical "excuses" that seemed readily used for not having a full set.

However somewhere along the way my teenage brain went "Hey, if it isn't broke... why am I fixing it? My horse owns 4 perfectly normal feet. Why shouldn't they function without shoes?". Weirdly just thinking back to that time makes me feel a bit nervous, like I was breaking some unspoken rule taking my horse (not a pony!) who was in work and removing all of his shoes. Admittedly, the next day I did something I'd later class as a bit crazy, and took him on a 8 mile round road hack to an 8 mile fun ride - 16 miles in total. I did get back to many comments about how "mean" I was and how he would be "crippled". However, apparently Dan never read whatever guide told him to be "crippled" and stayed wonderfully sound from day 1.

About this time I was spending a lot of time locked in my room trawling horse forums and learned that there was indeed plenty to be learned from keeping horses barefoot. I learned to watch and adjust Dan's diet, and over time to consider the many other aspects of his care. Yes, I am also very fortunate he was perhaps the easiest horse ever to transition but as he has gotten older I have started to have to really watch for any metabolic changes that are starting to influence him. I am grateful as he gave me confidence in starting on this journey and that horses CAN indeed cope without shoes!

My second competition horse is my Fell stallion, again blessed with the most fantastically hard feet, but so much so that they are that much harder to keep in good shape. If he was shod, I'm certain the lack of wear would be a nightmare for him. As it is, I maintain his feet weekly if I can, in-between his 6 weekly trims from our trimmer, Georgie Harrison of Hoof Matters. On top of this I also use roadwork as a part of purposely wearing his feet, although they could take far more than I can fit into my week!

For me, learning these skills is part of good horsemanship. I could never learn to shoe, and nor would it be sensible to remove and replace shoes weekly. However the roadwork allows nature to show me what is happening in his feet and body (a change in wear pattern possibly highlighting a problem higher up), and by being able to do minor maintenance myself I can help him to maintain and improve both in his feet and in his body rather than a dramatic change every 6 weeks which could bring a higher risk of injury. All of these things don't just impact his hoof health but also his body and mind. Hooves are literally the pillars upon which the horse stands, so as a ridden pony they have to be particularly functional to allow him to move well and to learn well also. A horse that is out of balance or sore is not one which is going to accept being cued readily or going to feel able to move its body in a supple and energetic way. I find it benefits me greatly to be able to see and work with the changes in their hooves as they are presented. Yes, I may have to be more aware at certain times of year that hooves may become sensitive, but as a horse owner, is that not a part of my job? As sensitivity can present quite quickly in the barefoot hoof, it allows me to get on top of issues quickly too. This prevents escalating problems which often in shod horses supposedly "come out of nowhere".

People often comment on the topic of competing on grass and the shocking idea of not using studs. My mentality is quite straight forward - if the ground is that poor that I would be concerned to run my horse on it, then I won't run and small chunks of metal wouldn't change that for me. Ground is a bit iffy? I can ride slower and make bigger turns. I could even miss a jump if needs be. In my eyes it is not worth compromising the horse for the potential of a win, especially when there is equal risk of injury. Yes, I do pick my venues perhaps a little based on ground conditions but again, I think that is just a part getting wiser. Training over different surfaces and terrain is important to me, and hacking plays a huge part in this as well as fast work or XC schooling as the slow work is when horses really start to think. Over time they learn to adapt to a little bit of slip as it's actually not all that abnormal to them (they all slip when hooning about in the field plenty!), but it's important to give them the time to feel their way and gain confidence in their own ability. My love of dressage has also set us in a good direction here, as I try to create balanced and supple horses first and foremost who can then go out and feel content in themselves when working on different surfaces.

I've certainly never found being barefoot to cause any hindrance to my boys whether it be in training or competing. Raises a few eyebrows when people question how you managed to lose all 4 shoes on XC! I'm a firm believer that horses are born with functional feet, and most of us will never come close to exceeding the limit of that functionality if the correct conditions are met. My now 18yr old gelding can still go out and do 10 miles of roadwork happily, or do 15 minutes fast canter work and his feet are as brilliant as ever. If anything, I wake up on show days knowing that I won't ever have to worry about them having lost a shoe in the field, and my chances of a last minute over reach injury are fairly minimal!

Whilst managing a barefoot horse may at times seem like more work, for me it is work that is simply often neglected in shod horses because it's not always apparent that it's required. Which may sound critical, but as a groom I see a lot of hooves and I do meet a lot of people who place the majority of responsibility for hoof care on their farrier. Whilst I do have a level of understanding about this, for me personally, I find so many benefits in taking more responsibility over my horses hoof care that I couldn't now imagine not being a part of it (even if I do loathe having to get the rasp out)! Equally it is wonderful to have access to a professional who doesn't just come and "do" my horses feet but also willingly advises on the other aspects of care that will influence their feet - be it feed, bodywork, training or routine.'

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