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January 20, 2014: Barefoot Horse, by Victoria Faeo

I met Victoria Faeo when she took a course I was teaching, Introduction to Animal Behavior. We became friends, and she eventually purchased Andi, an Icelandic colt. As of late Victoria has become increasing more interested in the subject of barefoot trimming. I asked her to write a dispatch on this subject, and she readily agreed. Her research findings follow.

Discoveries Advocating for the Barefoot Horse

Victoria Faeo

Suppose that you own a horse that has been shod with metal horseshoes most of its life, or at least most of the time under your care. And suppose your horse performs satisfactorily for you in your favorite discipline, whether it is trail riding, barrel racing, jumping, or dressage. Why, then, would you want to switch to a fulltime barefoot trim and always ride, or almost always ride, your horse barefoot? The answer to this question is the tremendous benefits that going barefoot give to your horse, and these are found in nature.

“But,” you might respond, “my horse is a domestic horse, not a wild horse, and can it be switched over quickly?” The answer to the second question is, yes, it can be switched quickly, and the answer to the first question is that there is absolutely no difference between the hoof of a domestic horse and that of a wild.

For the last fifteen years, farriers and others have been studying horses in the wild and dissecting their cadaver hooves. The findings have been astounding. When a band of wild horses each trot from left to right in front of your eyes, their movement and body condition are breathtaking. While trotting, their bodies appear to float above the ground. Even

Feral horse hoof

Feral Mustang Roll

on densely scattered lava rock, the horses’ movements are fluid, their muscles supple, and they never stumble or break intended stride. In analyzing videos of the wild horse gait, their hooves move like tires: the heal and back of the frog touch the ground first, then the quarter-hoof stretches out and downward, and finally the horse pushes off on its toe. But there is no visible moment of impact or definitive point of break-over. The movement is fluid, as if the horse’s hoof were round.

When looking at the cross-section of a feral cadaver hoof, the coffin bone is high in the hoof capsule, the coronet is low at the heal, the frog is thick, calloused, and protrudes above the hoof edge. The coffin bone is attached securely to the inside front of the hoof wall and shaped just like a miniature hoof. The bottom of the coffin bone is concave just like the outside sole of the hoof. And there are only about two inches between the visible tip of the frog and the tip of the hoof toe. So the hoof wall, growing down from the coronet to the toe, is straight, with no outward deviation or flaring.

In every hoof, domestic or wild, the thickness of the sole that protects the coffin bone and internal structures is always 7/16 or 3/8 to 5/8 or 3/4 of an inch from the bottom of the collateral groove (along the frog) to the calloused edge of the sole plane where it meets the hoof wall. When the sole is maintained at this natural thickness, it protects sensitive inner structures, becomes calloused, and the horse can navigate any terrain, including rocky terrain with conditioning.

When looking at the whole feral hoof from the side, the hoof wall is also concave from heel to toe on both quarter-sides of the hoof. This allows the sole to lower on impact, the internal structures and sole to flex downward and stretch outward, providing necessary energy dissipation and shock adsorption for the horse’s bones, ligaments, and tendons. This mandatory function of equine biomechanics is why barefoot horses and wild mustangs move with such fluidity and balance. It is why they have more endurance and strength than shod horses and such superb body condition. It is why they have a noticeable glow of energy and spirit.

When a horse wears metal horse shoes, the hoof cannot flex as it was meant to. Energy dissipation does not occur. Instead, repeated jarring to the hocks, shoulders, knees, and hips occur, eventually wearing the horse down in body and spirit.

According to Pete Ramey, a well-known farrier instructor, all of the major farrier textbooks say to avoid back-to-back shoeing and give the horse a 4-6 month break in the winter. The authors of these textbooks recognize the unnatural effects of the metal shoe. But the same books also recommend shaving the sole to create or maintain a concave shape, and lowering the frog so it does not become protruding. Horses accustomed to this procedure have historically had difficulty being unshod for more than a month, so they are usually re-shod again in a month’s time.

The reason for this difficulty is not the domestic horses’ need for metal shoes, it is the result of the continual thinning of the protective sole, as well as of the frog. The outer layer of the frog protects it from infection, so when it is shaved, especially during the wetter months, it is prone to thrush. An infected frog is very tender, causing the horse to impact its toe first in all of its gaits. Toe-first impact causes the hoof wall to be pulled away from the coffin bone, causing the hoof wall to flare (founder). It also causes the sole at the toe to thin. To correct the flaring - the perceived weakness of the hooves - metal horse shoes are again recommended. This viscous cycle has kept our domestic horses in shoes… until the proper barefoot trim was developed.

With a proper barefoot trim, any healthy horse can go barefoot for the rest of its life. If the horse is not regularly ridden on rocky terrain, and one rocky ride is desired, hoof boots work very well in that situation. Horses actually have better traction on ice, snow, mud, sand, rocks, and wet vegetation when barefoot, due to the flexion and expansion of the hoof and hoof wall as a unit.

 I have experienced this demonstration of sure-footedness myself with my own barefoot horse - a horse that wore metal shoes until I acquired him at the age of eight. I highly recommend allowing your horse to go barefoot, but only if you, or your farrier, also perform Pete Ramey’s methods of barefoot trimming. For information about barefoot trimming, go to: http://hoofrehab.com

Next: 21. 1/21/14: The Dog and Pony Show Continues