If you join a barefoot Facebook group or scroll through a barefoot trimmer’s website, it’s easy to get completely overwhelmed OR develop some false expectations about what “going barefoot” might be like. There are many methods of trimming, different schools of thought, and more opinions than you know what to do with. Someone says “do this, don’t do that” but then someone else says the opposite. So I thought I would write a post about what the reality of pulling shoes and going barefoot might look like for you and your horses.
Is going barefoot magical? Yes!
But there is a lot about it that doesn’t feel like a magical solution (because those don’t really exist). It actually means research, being an advocate for your horse, and putting in some emotional and mental work.
*I also wrote a follow up post about the financial cost of going barefoot and what to plan for.*
1. Pull the Shoes
Step 1 obviously is actually taking the shoes off. Your barefoot trimmer may request that you have a farrier remove the shoes (especially if they are in a special shoe package), and then come in and trim behind them. Or they may have all the equipment they need to pull shoes or remove glue ons. I request that IF someone else pulls the shoes, that they do not trim the horse at all. I do a specific trim for horses coming out of shoes to hopefully maximize their comfort level.
Some horses come out of shoes perfectly sound. Others come out of shoes sounder than they were in shoes. Some horses come out of shoes comfortable for turnout but need boots to be ridden. Others come out of shoes ouchy on some surfaces, but sound on others. And some come out of shoes extremely sore or even lame and need immediate support through cushioning and booting.
Some horses who are initially tender will strengthen and be totally sound barefoot. Others may need boots periodically for riding (surface dependent), or when a chronic issues flares up. Some horses have so much damage that they may always need boots to be comfortable for riding. You don’t know what will happen until you pull the shoes and see.
My personal philosophy is that if your horse is sore, you need to cater to that. They may need soft footing for turnout, they may need boots, they may need to not be ridden for a bit, they may need pain relief in the first few days or weeks of having no shoes on. The goal is to make them as comfortable as possible and help heal any damage of dysfunction their feet have.
The transition process is a spectrum. Many horses need a year to truly adjust to their new feet, a new trim, and to rehab. Going barefoot may mean you can’t ride for a few months (if they were already sore/off before pulling shoes), or you may be able to hop right back on with your horse in boots. Each horse is a unique individual, and you can’t always predict what will happen.
2. Adjust the Diet + Nutrition
Step 2 is adjusting the diet and nutrition. Your hoofcare provider should look at your whole horse. The big picture matters, as everything in the body is connected. Some people elect to adjust their horse’s diet first before pulling the shoes. That is one way of easing into things. Your horse may need less grass or more hay. I have my own recommendations for clients who are transitioning, including reading all the ingredient labels on anything they are eating, removing processed grains and supplements, adding in trace minerals, and much more.
It is entirely possible to just pull your horse’s shoes and leave their diet as is. But your trimmer may or may not be able to make progress with their feet if they are lacking nutritional elements that they need for good hoof health.
3. Adjust the Lifestyle
Step 3 is adjusting your horse’s lifestyle in any way possible to benefit their feet. The more movement they get, the better. Barefoot horses need turnout. They need to be exercised in a way that is comfortable for them, but gets them moving. This may mean turnout with a herd who will move, or lunging in the arena, or going for a ride as often as you can. If they are stressed, you may need to make changes to help them relax. You may need to add pea gravel in their turnout area. You may want to try a track system to encourage movement. There are lots of options.
Going Barefoot in a Less than Perfect World…
All of these steps happen around the same time in a perfect world. But not everyone is in total control of their horse’s life. Not everyone can change their horse’s turnout schedule, some barn managers refuse to boot their boarder’s horses for turnout…..but there is a difference between not being willing and not being able. You need to change the things you can in order to balance for the things you cannot adjust.
Helping owners try barefoot is my life’s passion. There is a special moment that happens every time I pull a shoe off a hoof and set it down. Sometimes horses blink and thoughtfully feel the ground. Some horses let out a breath it seems they have been holding for a long time. Some horses lick and chew. And some turn around and nudge me, as if they are saying “thank you.”
It’s not always an easy process. Lots of people in the barefoot community are excited about their horse’s rehab process and how they have healed. But it’s not fair to promise that this will be easy. Those who are riding their sound barefoot horses out on trail may have forgotten those difficult, early days.
Don’t let the insane amount of conflicting information and opinions keep you from finding someone you trust and trying it.