If you have a barefoot horse, especially at a barn where that is not the norm, I am sure you have heard the same things while walking down the barn aisle that I have like:
“Oh my horse could never go barefoot!”
“My horse has always been in shoes, it’s just what works for her.”
“You’re so lucky your horse can go barefoot!”
“You’re so luck your horse has nice feet!”
“We tried going barefoot for a few weeks, it didn’t work.”
“I have a (fill in the breed) and they’ve bred the feet off of them, he needs shoes.”
For some reason, so many people I come across think that horses can either be barefoot or they can’t, that they either have good feet or they don’t, and that they’re either born with healthy feet or unhealthy feet. In reality, healthy and functional hooves are more of a spectrum than a black and white definition. But I hear the above statements all the time.
Horses can be barefoot — though barefoot doesn’t work for all horses or all owners for various reasons. I know as a barefoot trimmer, I’m not supposed to admit that. And I truly believe 90%+ of horses would be healthier + stay sounder longer barefoot. BUT there are reasons why being barefoot doesn’t work for certain situations.
Horses have healthy or unhealthy feet for specific and multiple reasons — diet, lifestyle, nutrition, environment, level of care, trim cycle length, chronic issues, and more.
Horses are often born with healthy feet — being born with unhealthy feet is rare, though it happens. Many babies have beautiful feet, but don’t receive good hoof care (regular trim appointments from birth and onwards) or are shod much too early before their hooves are finished developing.
Saying that your fellow barn mate is so “lucky” because their horse “has good feet” is ignoring all the hard work it takes to both heal unhealthy feet and to maintain healthy feet. It is not so simple as “good” or “bad” feet.
Basic Foundation of Healthy Feet
So, how do you get healthy hooves? I’ll share the basic foundation to healthy feet to get you started on your research.
- Regular trim cycle with a talented hoofcare professional: 4-6 weeks is optimal for most horses.
- Treatment of any infection: address infection in the hoof with a treatment that will not harm healthy tissue. Do not think it will go away or “dry up” on its own. Treat until you see and smell a difference. If tissue has been harmed, treat until the tissue has healed.
- Movement: the more turnout, the better! Ride, lunge, and do ground work, too.
- Boots: if needed, boot for extra cushion and support.
- Balanced diet and nutrition: perhaps the most important out of anything in this list, and the most often ignored. You can heal hooves from the inside out. Horses do not thrive on commercial grains and poor quality hay. Your hoofcare provider can point out hoof issues that are related to nutritional issues.
Identify Your Current Status
First, you need to find out what you are working with. Look at your horse’s feet – what do you see? Do you know what a healthy foot looks like? Look at their diet – what are they eating and drinking daily? Look at their lifestyle – what is their exercise level like? Are they turned out in a herd or alone? Look at their environment – what kind of footing at they on? How much turnout do they have? Do they have dry areas to stand? Are they walking on a variety of terrain? Look at their stress level – what bothers them? Look at their medical history – do they deal with chronic issues? Are they on medication? Compile a big picture look at their current situation.
Decide What Needs to Change
Second, figure out what you would like to change. Some things may be permanent, especially if your horse is in a boarding facility. Decide what your priorities are – what can you afford to change for the better? Think short term and long term. Your vet, hoofcare provider, bodyworker, and chiropractor are great resources to help you prioritize your list. Of course, they may not all agree, but they can open your eyes to things you may not see.
Your horse may need a total diet overhaul. They may need a shorter trim cycle. They may need time off. They may need to be moved to a different pasture due to herd dynamics. They may need a new supplement (or two or three). They may need bloodwork. They may need a grazing muzzle. No matter what they need, it’s up to you to figure it out. You are their voice. What about their bodies or minds needs healing?
Third, go for it! Make a list, start making big or little changes as you are able, and track your progress. Some of my clients, especially those who are transitioning from shod to barefoot, keep a journal for each horse. Write down what changes you are making, why, and when, and pay close attention to your results. Don’t get discouraged, this is all an experiment to find out what works best for you and your horse. You may have some setbacks. People may not understand why you care so much or may (will) criticize for your choices. But your horse is your horse!
Specifics for Healthy Hooves
Here are some specifics on achieving healthy hooves to consider.
Sugar causes inflammation. Inflammation harms the body and the feet. Pay attention to ingredients in their diet and how much grass they get. Some horses need grazing muzzles and some need to be on a dry lot. Some horses are sensitive to synthetic vitamins/minerals and need a whole foods focused diet.
Horses need many vitamins and minerals that they do not get. They also may be overloaded on certain things like sugar and iron. Iron is added to many grains and supplements, and many horses have way too much iron in their diet.
Thrush is an infection and can eat into the sensitive structures of the hoof. Some horses can go lame from a severe thrush infection alone. Treat, treat, treat!
Horses need as much turnout and movement as possible. A great situation (of course there are always exceptions) is for them to live with a herd outside 24/7 with access to a sturdy shelter for inclement weather.
Other Things to Consider
The whole body is connected. You can’t separate the hooves from the rest of the horse. So here are some things to consider that you might not immediately relate to hoof health…
Horses need regular dentals. There is a huge body of research showing how connected the teeth and the hooves are.
Horses are designed to be constantly moving and eating.
Horses need regular chiropractic care and bodywork. Of course this may be limited by your budget, but even occasional appointments are helpful. The way your horse moves and balances directly affects her hooves, and vice versa.
Stress is hard on the equine body, just like the human body. It causes inflammation, taxes the immune system, causes depression and anxiety, exacerbates chronic medical conditions, is a catalyst for unwanted or harmful behaviors, and is easily missed especially if you have a stoic horse. Pay attention to what stresses your horse and see what you might be able to do to help his stress level.
This is all off the top of my head, I am sure I am forgetting many more things. But this is just a starting place for your journey towards better hoof health.
Healthy hooves don’t magically exist – they become and stay healthy through lots of time, attention, and trims.