I originally chose a picture of an overdue shod hoof (from a client whose horse’s shoes I pulled last year) as the cover image for this blog. I honestly didn’t think anything of it at the time, it just happened to be one of the few pictures I had of a horse in shoes – since I don’t shoe and don’t pull shoes super often. This article has received some attention lately + I got criticized for my photo choice, which had nothing to with the content of this article.
I wanted to write something for people who tried barefoot before and are wondering why it didn’t work for their horse OR for people who are thinking about it, so they can be better set up for success.
This article has nothing to do with the pros and cons of shoes, just offering some things to think about if you want to transition to barefoot. So read on!
At almost every barn I go to, either my client or someone walking by will say, “oh I tried to go barefoot with (fill in horse name) and it just didn’t work.” Figuring out what is best for your horse IS an experiment, but I have found that there are many reasons why people “tried” going barefoot and felt it didn’t work for them or their horse. So if you’re considering going barefoot, you tried it once and you’re wondering what went wrong, or you want to know what to avoid, read on!
7 Reasons Why Going Barefoot Fails
The most common reason people try barefoot and end up back in shoes is because their horse was too uncomfortable or sore post shoe-removal. This is a big concern. No one wants to watch their horse limp around, and many owners want to continue riding their horses. It’s not okay for your horse to be in constant pain just to conform to some ideal of what is “best” or most “natural” for them.
However, here are some reasons why your horse was sore coming out of shoes….
1. Your horse was already uncomfortable/sore/lame in shoes.
I watch sore and stiff horses jump, leg yield, and lope at every barn I work in, barefoot as well as shod. Just because they’re willingly moving forward doesn’t mean they are comfortable or sound. Horses are biologically designed to hide their pain. And they try to cooperate to the best of their ability with their human partners. I know many horses who receive regular joint injections, are on joint supplements, have consistent body issues, deal with on and off again lameness, or just don’t move in a balanced way. Some of these horses have access to regular chiropractic and body work, others don’t. If your horse is not comfortable, you can never count out their feet as being the problem or part of the problem. The body is connected to the feet. Just because some horses are sore coming out of shoes doesn’t mean that barefoot is failing them.
2. The shoes were masking more serious issues.
Some horses are very stoic, some have numb feet or lower legs, and many have unhealthy feet under their shoes. Thrush alone can make a horse sore or lame. Heels can be underrun, but appear better with the right shoe or wedge pad combination. If you take the shoes off and your horse is lame, then there is some kind of dysfunction going on. It could be thin soles, thrush, rotated hoof capsule, nutritional deficiency….the list goes on. Putting the shoes back on won’t necessarily fix those problems.
*This isn’t to blame shoes or farriers who shoe. I often meet owners who suddenly had a lightbulb moment and started to pay attention to their horse’s hooves. Sometimes if you want to try something different, you experiment. For many people, this involves pulling the shoes and seeing what you have.*
3. The trim wasn’t right.
Horses who are shod are often done every 6-8 weeks. I recently read an American Farriers Association article that recommended a 5 week shoeing cycle as the new industry standard. Many horses need to be trimmed every 4-5 weeks. If they’re getting shod every 8 weeks, they are not getting trimmed often enough, regardless of shoes or not. No matter how skillfully the shoes are applied, the hoof may be growing too fast to make any progress on a longer shoeing/trim cycle. Barefoot trimmers specialize in trimming a hoof to meet the ground, not trimming a hoof for a shoe. Ideally, these two types of trims would look very similar. But in the real world, there are many types and styles of trims. I do a specific kind of trim for horses transitioning out of shoes to maintain their comfort level.
*Every horse is unique. Some horses do just fine on a longer cycle if they have slower growth, but in the beginning of the transition process from shod to barefoot, it helps to have a shorter cycle.*
4. The right support wasn’t offered.
Going barefoot means committing to a transition process. This looks different for every horse, but you must protect your horses feet when needed. Some horses come out of shoes completely comfortable. Others are a little tender for a few days as they adjust. Others have long term damage to recover from and will be sore or lame for a time. Right when the shoes come off is when people start to question, “is this the right choice?” Your horse is sore, your barn mates are saying, “SEE I told you so.” Your vet may or may not be supportive of this new venture. Pulling the shoes is only the first step. You need an educated eye to point out what is wrong with your horse’s feet, and a clear plan to move forward. You need to support your horse if they are sore. They made need a little time off as they adjust, or softer footing, or pain medication, or booting/padding….It’s not fair to just pull their shoes and expect for them to “transition” on their own.
Read here on what the transition process from shod to barefoot can be like.
Read here on the emotional aspects of going barefoot.
5. Diet and nutrition wasn’t analyzed or changed.
This is an important aspect of going barefoot. I try to discuss diet and nutrition at some point with every owner who is switching to barefoot. You can develop hoof health from the inside out. It is even recommended to analyze and adjust your horse’s diet before going barefoot to maximize their comfort and ability to grow a healthy hoof capsule. Any health condition that your horse has will be either exacerbated or healed by what they are eating. Commercial grains and supplements often have inflammatory ingredients in them that affect your horse’s feet. Too much grass or sugar/starch can make your horse tender-footed. If you are not open minded about your horse’s diet, than going barefoot may not work for you. This is a huge reason why barefoot fails — horses continue to be fed too much sugar or starch and the inflammation in their bodies is often shown in their feet. They may already be on a hoof supplement but many are too low in copper and zinc. Lots of horses are also overloaded with iron — another barrier to hoof health.
There are many schools of thought out there on what the best nutrition is for equines, so take the time to do some research. What can you add to your horse’s diet to maximize hoof health? What do you need to remove or substitute?
But where to start? The most simple Google search will result in so much information to wade through. Start with reading your horse’s grain and supplement labels. Do you recognize what is in them? Are any ingredients gibberish to you? Label reading and figuring out what your horse is actually eating is the best place to start. Are they getting what they need for quality nutrition?
More Reasons Why Going Barefoot Fails
6. The transition process was inconvenient for the owner.
Some owners don’t want to buy hoof boots, give their horse time off, or go against the traditional grain of the horse industry. I get that. In these cases, I would say that going barefoot didn’t fail, it just wasn’t what the owner chose to pursue.
7. The owner’s hoof health knowledge was not complete.
I love educating people about feet. Some people have no clue what hooves are supposed to look like. That used to be me, too. Maybe your vet or hoofcare provider has thrown around some big words and you’re just trusting the experts. You may have pulled shoes, watched your horse limp around for two weeks, and then decided this wasn’t going to work. Makes total sense. But every horse owner should need know what healthy feet look like. You notice if your horse is sore after a long trail ride or when they start throwing grain and need a dental, so why not develop eyes for healthy feet? I can’t tell you how many of my clients comment “well, wow, no one ever told me that!” Do some research and start asking questions. Hooves are the very foundation for your horse.
Read here for more on how to get healthy hooves.
Read here to learn about healthy and functional bare feet.
To conclude, I will add that the environment in which you take your horse barefoot can either set you up for success, or make the transition process more difficult. I have had clients who have had a hard time going barefoot because of the barn they were in, because their vet wasn’t supportive, because they felt awkward about hiring a new farrier/trimmer….the list goes on.
It’s okay to wait for the right time to jump into the barefoot waters. It’s also okay to leave the shoes on, for now, or forever. Hopefully you can adjust other things in your control to the best of your ability — diet, nutrition, turnout, treat any infection, have the chiropractor or bodyworker out, etc. I gear my material towards people who are already barefoot or who are considering it. But at the end of the day, it’s your horse and your decision.