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Why some horses don't succeed barefoot

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Although we’re seeing a rise in owners taking their horses barefoot, there is still a huge amount of horses that fail to transition fully. Many owners associate barefoot horses with the simple absence of shoes yet fail to recognise the importance of providing a species appropriate diet and management that works to fulfil the horses needs on a daily basis.

Anyone who has transitioned a horse to barefoot before will know that this is often met with comments from their fellow equestrians. This can be ‘my horse is crippled without shoes’, ‘my horse wears down his feet’ or ‘my horse is ridden so he can’t go barefoot’. Despite the number of professional riders and horse owners riding, hacking, jumping, competing, eventing and team chasing barefoot, there is still this giant misconception that barefoot horses are unable to do what shod horses can do.

When a horse fails barefoot, it is typically due to an aspect of their diet, management or trim being off. Sub-clinical Laminitis takes the top spot for reasons many horses fail barefoot, causing soreness and discomfort over any terrain that isn’t grass. This is one of the warning signs that your horse is suffering from inflammation in the early stages yet is so often ignored and covered up with the use of shoes. We like to use the term ‘stuck a plaster on it’ when talking about this particular scenario because when shoes are used to mask their sensitivity, the underlying cause of inflammation is still compromising the body and often results in further problems down the line. More than often, the culprit is the abundance of grass we have in the UK and the idea of removing the grass can seem impossible or simply ridiculous when so many of us are led to believe horses eat grass, without considering the type of grass and the nutritional profile of said grass.

Blood in the white line aka Laminitis

Additionally, there is also a widespread fear of riding horses without shoes and wearing the hoof away. Most issues or concerns regarding wear can be traced back to diet, movement and trim.

1) Diet affects the quality of hoof horn, the tightness of the white line and new growth. A hoof that has poor quality hoof horn that chips and splits is in need of a diet overhaul. Shoeing may help in the sense the feet ‘look’ better, but this will not remove the fact that the horse is struggling with the diet they are currently on.

2) Movement, with the correct diet in place, is needed to stimulate new growth. Without reoccurring hoof to floor contact and daily movement, the rate of growth can be drastically affected, playing into this idea that ridden horses simply can’t go without shoes. Many confuse self-trimming with hoof’s that don’t grow but it’s actually very difficult to self-trim properly in the UK with what we have available, so if your hoof care professional is taking little to no hoof wall off at each trim, then chances are your horse isn’t getting enough movement and this will be reflected when ridden.

3) Shoeing itself tends to cause a whole heap of issues for both owner and horse, one of which is circulation and upper body issues. Referring back to the hoof to floor contract, we know shoes largely reduce circulation to the hoofs which again plays an important part in hoof growth. Additionally, upper body problems and conformation issues are commonly caused by shoeing and the tightness and imbalance they caused further up, sometimes contributing to uneven wearing of the shoe or hoof. A classic example of this is one of our most recent rehab cases Louie, who struggles with tightness through his hamstrings and SI area caused by contracted heels and deep central sulcus thrush inflicted by shoes (and diet).

Louie's hind hoof - before and after

Regardless of your reason for shoeing your horse, be it thin soles, flare, heel pain or arthritis, we need to remember that our horses are living, breathing animals and not machines. Rather than assuming your horse is just incapable of being without shoes despite being born with a perfectly good, intact set of feet, we need to be looking at WHY your horse can not go barefoot right now? Then, instead of brushing the problem under the rug, or in this case covering it with some pretty shoes, we address the problem so they’re not just ridable, but they’re also healthy and sound with their needs being met.

If your horse isn't sound without shoes, then they're not sound full stop.

Photo courtesy of Rebekah on her horse Dan - Ramelia's Hoofprints

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