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by Kim Kizzier, LMT, CMT
It seems like everything is going ‘natural’ these days. We are constantly looking for natural solutions, practices, and products that can help us and our horses to stay healthy, happy and environmentally responsible. With the natural horsemanship trends, it only makes sense that natural hoof care would go hand-in-hand.
The ‘Natural Barefoot Trim’ and the theories surrounding it offer fairly new concepts to what we’ve learned as ‘normal’ over the past 1,000 years, yet it appears to be taking the horse world by storm. This trim, including the idea of pulling shoes and going barefoot is frequently looked upon as alternative and is often not yet fully understood within traditional horse and hoof care professions. Most veterinarians and farriers will admit that horses are healthier if they can be barefoot. The arguing word seems to be “if.”
Barefoot proponents believe every horse should go barefoot and that with proper trimming, conditioning and support, every horse will develop healthier feet and bodies and perform better barefoot. Others believe shoes are a necessary evil and point to genetic predisposition to bad feet, hoof pathology, or intense training programs that require more support.
Yet, there is a very strong and active ‘barefoot movement’ that is gaining momentum and we are hearing more and more about the natural trimming method and its many benefits including the fact that horse owners can learn to maintain the trim on their own.
An article in the April, 2010 Barrel Horse News magazine reported on many professional barrel racers, including NFR qualifiers who have found the benefit of ‘losing the shoes’. They even claimed horses had better traction and less slipping in the arena. Clinician, Clinton Anderson, promotes the barefoot trim and except for sliders on the hind feet of his reining horses, has reportedly ‘gone barefoot.’ Endurance riders have long acknowledged that barefoot horses are generally more sound and comfortable. The Horse’s Hoof Magazine (www.TheHorsesHoof.com) is devoted to promoting barefoot horses and shares success stories each month. So what is this movement all about, where did it start, what is different about it and why is it becoming so rapidly popular even for performance horses?
Evolution of the Natural Barefoot Trim
During the 80’s, Jamie Jackson studied free roaming wild horses and their living conditions. Noticing that these horses were rarely lame despite traveling 20+ miles per day on rough surfaces, he began to document the parameters and intricacies of these sound, hardy hooves. About the same time, Dr. Hiltrud Strausser, DVM, of Germany, was researching anatomy, physiology, pathology, and rehabilitation of the equine foot. Her primary interest became foot balance and trimming methods. Jamie Jackson and Dr. Strausser’s research was documented and each one, on different continents, began to promote very similar trimming methods.
Later, Pete Ramey, who began his career as a traditional farrier studied with Jamie Jackson and soon had a strong barefoot practice. He not only quit shoeing horses, but also became one of the foremost voices along with Jackson and Dr. Stausser in teaching and promoting the barefoot trim. Ramey’s first book, Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You offered an easy to understand, step-by-step explanation of the trim. He also has a very extensive DVD series for serious students.
Both Jamie Jackson and Dr. Strausser have published several in-depth and very informative books. Although each practitioner teaches a slightly different approach to the barefoot trim, the similarities are more than the differences and the results, when done correctly are quite similar. There are now several barefoot trimming schools available for professionally minded students and a couple different associations offering certification for barefoot trimmers.
The Barefoot Movement on the Home Front
Time and again, I talk to horse owners who have become barefoot enthusiasts and some have even gone on to pursue becoming professional trimmers after a brief introduction to the trim. It really is that fascinating and the results speak for themselves. Many forks, including myself, were mildly interested, but didn’t have big expectations. I attended my first clinic given by Mark Olson from Power to the Hoof because of my insatiable curiosity, but I didn’t want to have to trim my six horses. Four out of the six horses had some rather serious hoof issues that I didn’t feel I was prepared to deal with an my own. I hoped my farrier would attend the clinic so I could try this new trim without having to do the work. As it turned out, no farrier came and I was forced to get more involved in learning how to do it myself.
Olson helped me trim all six of my horses at that first clinic and showed me how to continue until he came through the area again. By the next time I saw him, I had purchased a Hoofjack®, all the tools in every shape and size for trimming, and forced myself to learn to use them correctly. By my second trim, I was noticing differences not only in my horse’s feet, but also their bodies. Toplines changed, muscling patterns looked smoother and saddles fit differently. Contracted heels, hoof cracks and extremely flat (pancake) feet were changing before my eyes.
A traditional farrier for nearly 30 years, Olson became interested in natural hoof care, attended a Pete Ramey clinic and put his last shoe on a horse in 2006. He acknowledges that he made the big switch when he realized that he was ‘fixing’ many of the problems he had actually created with shoeing. The son of an equine veterinarian who grew up in the traditional equine scene of training, breeding, and showing, Olson said making the change didn’t come easy. He worked and studied hard to team the art and skill it takes to be a quality farrier and he was proud of what he’d accomplished. Changing from a well respected farrier to a natural hoof trimmer might have felt to the ego like taking a step backwards, but Olson says he has never looked back. He admits that he still appreciates and respects quality farriery because he knows what it look to get there.
So, Why Go Barefoot
Natural hoof care looks at the whole horse, not just the hoof. The natural trim allows the foot to properly dissipate energy from the ground up and keeps the foot balanced and growing evenly from each corium. When the foot is trimmed to natural parameters, the coffin bone is balanced to the ground rather than pointing down into the sole causing pain and predisposition to laminitis and other pathologic conditions. Shoeing creates a peripheral loading of the hoof wall, which, in turn, causes blood flow to stop for a brief moment when standing. Shoes don’t allow for expansion of the foot or stimulation of the back two thirds of the hoof where you will find the lateral cartilage, digital cushion, frog, and heel bulbs.
Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD, Professor of Anatomy, Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has been conducting ongoing research in hoof health. He suggests that “evidence indicates so far that the sensory capabilities of the horse’s foot have exceeded our expectations in the horse’s ability to perceive the many and different stimuli within the environment, such as light touch and pressures with the frogs and soles much like our own feet. We believe that these sensory perceptions enable the horse to actively engage within its environment, as well as aid in the regulation of blood perfusion through the foot.”
Dr. Bowker has theorized a “hemodynamic flow” process in which he proposes that much of the blood in horse feet fulfills purposes other than providing nutrients to hoof tissues. “It dissipates energy within fee” that is created during the act of galloping, trotting or walking,” he said. “As the blood moves to the rear of the hoof through microvessels in the lateral hoof cartilage, it dissipates the energy caused by its impact on the ground, much like fluid-filled running shoes do,” he said. Bowkers’ theory not only proposes a new physiology for horse feet, it also suggests some of the more widely held views in the equine industry should be revised, or at least, reexamined. (MSU College of Veterinary Medicine website).
The Difference Between Trims
One of the most common concerns people have with going barefoot is that their horse’s feet will be too sensitive. Ramey says there may be some tenderness at first, but unless the hoof was already pathological, a horse should walk off sound and better from the first trim. Olson suggests that it can take from six months to a year to fully transition a hoof. The reason for this is not just developing tougher feet but, because with the natural barefoot trim, we are allowing the foot to develop differently, than we would with shoes or a regular trim.
Typically, the sole callous is trimmed off to allow for a well-fitting shoe and for a normal pasture trim. This sole callous is a huge component in the development of concavity which is imperative to a proper barefoot trim. As it develops, the callous eventually connects with the hoof wall and allows the hoof structure to become a tight-knit, thick soled, concave, and healthy foot. Going from barefoot to shod to barefoot will hinder transition to fully take place because you will continue to remove the sole callous in the shoeing process.
One of the most agreed upon and important aspects of the natural barefoot trim is to strive for a balanced foot with a short toe and short heel. Hoof wall flares should be removed and the sole callous left intact. As the hoof improves, a natural concavity will develop. The frog should be well developed and functional.
There are some differing opinions on trimming bars. Olson supports the theory that the heel and the bars should blend together to form a heel buttress. The bars should be well formed at the buttress and taper off as they get to the apex of the frog. The correlation of the depth of the apex and that of the collateral groove helps in developing natural concavity. He also follows Ramey’s goal for a heel first landing. Olson said that until he began the barefoot trim, be believed that a feel first landing only occurred through high level training. Now he sees it in naturally trimmed horses every day.
The “Mustang Roll” originating from Jackson’s work, finishes the trim by rolling the hoof wall in a manner that allows smooth break-over for the foot in any direction. The roll also helps create a thick, strong hoof wall that doesn’t chip or crack through normal wear.
Make the Transition from Shoes to Barefoot
Trimming is not the only aspect involved in producing a healthy, functioning bare foot. All natural hoof care professionals are adamant that nutrition, exercise, and living environment are just as important. A diet high in sugars, starches or protein will affect the horse’s metabolic health, creating a direct impact on the feet. Wild horses travel 15-20 miles per day. The more opportunity for exercise that we can provide for our domestic horses, the healthier their feet will become. It is important that horses have varying terrain to travel on. Stalls or soft paddocks and pastures will not provide enough stimulating surface to support stronger, tougher feet. If you are lacking in varied surfaces, placing pea gravel around water tanks or other gathering areas is one way to address this. “Paddock Paradise” by Jamie Jackson outlines ideas to improve our horses pasture time encouraging constant movement on varied terrain with 24/7 turnout.
Until our horse’s hooves are “rock crushing” tough or if they are in high impact situations, hoof boots are an excellent means of protection. There are several brands of boots to choose from with shapes and sizes for most riding purposes. Olson is a big fan of Easycare Easyboot® protection. Olson suggests that boots help achieve proper heel first landing. They allow the hoof to heal faster while custom padding increases heel comfort and provides support, which encourages the horse to move correctly. The heel becomes stronger, the sole becomes tougher, and the hoof wall becomes thicker.
The transition to barefoot may be easy or it may require considerable effort, but most horse owners to stick it through are happy they did in the end. Perhaps if all horses were started with natural hoof care to begin with, we wouldn’t have to transition or rehabilitate feet at all?
Going Natural with the Barefoot Trim originally printed in Today’s Horse Magazine.
Kim Kizzier is a licensed massage therapist and certified acupressure practitioner with 20+ years of equine health and training experience. Kim operates her business, Applied Integrative Therapy out of Gillette, WY. Stay up to date with Kim through her new web site at www.EquineMassageandBeyond.com.