Six Reasons Why Natural Hoof Care (AND Shoeing) Doesn’t Work

Six Reasons Why Natural Hoof Care (AND Shoeing) Doesn't Work

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In today’s article, I’ll be sharing my two cents on what has become somewhat of a controversial issue in the barrel horse and performance world. Before I begin, I’ll say that it’s not my goal to specifically determine what’s best for you and your horses but to share what I’ve learned as licensed Vet. Tech., a long time barrel racer, and a natural trimmer for 12+ years.

My education in this area began at a young age. Barefoot horses suited my needs as a youngster, and with corrective trimming even my foundered rescue pony was brought back to complete health.

Taking matters into my own hands
Taking matters into my own hands

Many years later when my horses were shod (mainly for protection from rocky trails in the Big Horn Mountains), soundness issues started coming up. This also happened to be when the natural hoof care movement was gaining steam. After quite a bit of research backed by my already existing education, I decided to be my horse’s advocate, and took matters (and a rasp) into my own hands.

I restored my horses to soundness and continued to learn, trim and compete barefoot for many years with great success. I appreciated how effective natural hoof care was for completely eliminating cracks, chips, flares, and for supporting and maintaining truly healthy feet from the inside out.

After all, even most farriers will say that one of the most damaging things you can do to a foot is nail a shoe to it. It makes sense – the restricted circulation, limited weight bearing surface (peripheral loading), the ridged metal that limits expansion (which can contribute to wear and tear throughout the rest of the body), the potential for contracted heels, etc.

Cadaver leg
Exploring internal structures by dissecting a cadaver
leg at a trimming clinic (edited due to graphic content)

Going “natural” just made obvious sense, and if you want to do what’s best for your horse’s overall health, AND if you REALLY research and understand the anatomy and function of the equine foot and how the health of the whole horse depends on the health of the feet, you’re likely to agree with many of the philosophies surrounding natural hoof care as well.

On the other hand, there are certain reasons natural trimming doesn’t work for some people. I say people, because for the most part, that’s where much of the problem lies.

One reason “barefoot” doesn’t work, is that some folks going au natural aren’t necessarily naturally trimming their horses, or they aren’t being trimmed properly. “Barefoot” and natural hoof care aren’t one in the same, and not all trimmers/farriers are created equally. On top of that, even within the world of natural hoof care there are different techniques and methods that exist.

Just like any tool or method can be used for good, if it’s not used properly, it can have negative effects. It’s not so much whether someone holds a rasp or a shoe in their hand, but what they DO with it that matters most. When something isn’t working, it’s not always that the technique is bad, but the way it’s being applied.

Grazing on pasture
Moving, grazing, being healthy

A second reason natural hoof care doesn’t seem to work has a lot to do with management, which is the human’s choice and responsibility.

If your horse is being properly naturally trimmed at regular intervals, but is kept in a stall most of the time, fed high amounts of sugary feed, and is rarely if ever given the opportunity to build healthy internal structures of the foot, including callused soul (through plenty of movement) and healthy corium beneath it, a horse is likely to continue to be ouchy on hard surfaces or have intermittent sore feet.

Sometimes the time and management practices that come along with making natural hoof care a success are more involved than most PEOPLE are willing to commit to, even if they do positively impact their horse’s well-being.

Unfortunately, human convenience often trumps horse health.

Because healthy feet and healthy horses are a top priority at our place, my husband and I have a couple inches of pea gravel under the overhang of our barn where the horses come in for shade and water. Our horses live primarily on pasture at home – during the afternoons, and especially during the times of year when sugar content is high in the grass, instead of being penned up, the horses are turned out on a track system so they can keep foraging in limited amounts while also being naturally encouraged to move.

Paddock paradise
Dot Com lounging on the track

When it comes to tender feet, it’s important to realize that a horse who is only sound on soft ground is NOT a sound horse. A horse that gets “ouchy” on and off or is gimpy only when crossing gravel parking lots is also NOT a sound horse.

This doesn’t mean they’re not ridable necessarily, but it’s certainly reason to pay attention, take note, and start learning and working toward building healthier feet.

Where there is inflammation and pain, you can bet that something on the inside is compromised. Obvious or not, where there is inflammation, bony changes are likely to follow. With good hoof care and good management, inflammation and pain can be brought under control and in many cases, internal damage can often be healed.

Sometimes a horse’s feet can benefit greatly simply from more use – just like exercise builds strong muscles, a horse that doesn’t move very much will tend to have poor circulation and therefore atrophied and unhealthy internal structures of the foot. Adequate movement can really help build stronger, more resilient, healthy feet (and is also great for a horse’s mental health).

However, if your horse is very tender with bare feet and you’re entered in a big race in two weeks, although it’s a good idea to make management choices that will help build a healthier foot in the long run, you may need to protect the feet or get existing inflammation under control ASAP, that’s where hoof boots, shoeing, supportive therapies and your Vet’s recommendations come in, including ruling out any actual injury to the internal structures (which continued riding and running could exacerbate).

Sometimes it’s a “get to” vs. “got to” situation. We just have to ensure that what we gain in the short term doesn’t create significant losses in the long run.

Depending on what’s going on, sometimes more movement, or ANY movement on hard surfaces creates even more pain and inflammation. In these cases, it’s helpful to get a clearer picture of exactly what is happening inside the foot – possible through an MRI.

Equine MRI
Pistol anesthetized and in the magnet suite

While 100% complete healing and soundness restoration may not always be possible, it’s important that we do all we can to understand what’s really going on with these chronic cases. Diet is a huge factor and bone density formulas like Equi-bone and CalDensity are bringing horses back to the arena, even well after all hope has been lost.

As mentioned, there ARE are basic management practices that will generally help support healthy feet in all horses, but when there has been a specific injury or pathology for example, it may require a more involved and very specific treatment plan to address it.

While an MRI is a significant financial investment that can come with risk (especially if your horse goes under go anesthesia, some facilities now offer standing MRIs), unless we get a view of what’s truly going on inside the foot, which is limited through x-ray, this process can become an even more expensive, experimental, and time-consuming.

A third reason certain hoof care practices don’t work, is that it’s common to fall into a rut of treating symptoms vs. getting to the source of the problem. Even if the symptoms need to be treated, and are relieved, the damage will ultimately continue if we don’t also work to discover and resolve the root cause of the problem.

Again, this often goes back to diet and management. Not only must the trimming OR shoeing be correct, balanced and supportive, but we have to consider and possibly change how the horse is ridden among other possible problem areas, such as mineral imbalances, saddle fit, restrictions in the horse’s body, poor riding habits, etc. Physical problem solving is an integrative process.

Giving your horse time off can be a great thing too, of course, but if the hoof care, the management practices, or the way the horse is ridden and used that contributes to the problem aren’t changed – if the reason the inflammation exists isn’t addressed and truly resolved, you’re likely to continue running into more and even greater problems as time goes on.

Next, let’s consider a few basic reasons horses are shod:

1. Protection from the environment
2. Improve the stride/flight of the feet
3. Correct and support healthy posture
4. Relieve discomfort caused by pathology

Conformation vs. posture
Conformation cannot be changed, but posture CAN

The thing is, we can protect a horse’s feet from harsh environments with hoof boots (great for trail riding, not so great for competing), and to a great degree, trimming can also improve a horse’s movement, encourage good posture, correct imbalances and even help relieve discomfort, but only if it’s done properly.

Despite the draw backs that DO come along with shoes, they can allow us to make corrections and offer adjustments to horses in a way that can be faster and more effective than trimming. Often in the performance horse world, it’s a time and convenience factor.

Many natural trimmers tend to primarily concern themselves with what’s happening below the coronary band. Any great farrier OR trimmer will look at the horse as a whole. When taking asymmetry and load issues into consideration, it opens a whole ‘nother can of worms. We essentially want to reduce the forces of leverage on the joints and surrounding soft tissues. To do this the feet should be balanced statically from the inside out with considerations for dynamic (moving) balance taken into account as well.

Addressing pathologies, such as soft tissue damage and bony remodeling in the foot are major considerations, especially for performance horses. I’d venture to say that there are many more foot pathologies existing out there than there are those which are actually known of and properly diagnosed.

Truth be told, even after some intense healing therapies, time and slow and careful reconditioning, my gelding Pistol is really not the same as he was before he sustained injury to the collateral ligaments in his feet in 2012. As the Vets. expected, he would make a recovery as a performance horse but would likely need special maintenance, which brought me to the situation I found myself in, during the summer of 2014.

Moving and feeling better than ever!
Moving and feeling better than ever!

Pistol wasn’t holding up so well to the stress and demands he was under, but I was fortunate to be in the presence of horse shoeing master who uses his art (and science) to correct posture imbalances, improve stride, and restore soundness in high level performance horses of all kinds.

Because his FEET had changed, my MIND had to change in that situation, in order to do what I felt was best for him under the specific circumstances, and he immediately traveled more athletically and comfortably.

This didn’t mean he would ALWAYS be in shoes, or that I can’t apply much of what I’ve learned to my future trimming (*he hasn’t been shod again since the “got to” situation that summer).

The most important thing is that I knew what we were dealing with going in, and the initial feedback Pistol offered was positive. It’s not so much that the shoes that “fixed” him – it was the expert eyes that analyzed him – his gait, stride, posture, muscular balance, conformation, etc. and then the hands that trimmed him, and applied the shoes.

I still believe there are drawbacks to shoeing, just as there are drawbacks to natural hoof care. I also believe they both have positive things to offer, but only IF we are open-minded, and if the concepts and techniques are applied in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time.

Whether you prefer shoes or going au natural, keep these tips in mind:

1. A horse that is only sore sometimes or on some surfaces is not a sound horse – consider working with a qualified Vet. and farrier to get a better picture and diagnosis of any chronic internal foot issues via x-ray or MRI.
2. No matter what trimming or shoeing technique is used, it won’t improve or support health and soundness if it’s not applied properly.
3. There is a difference between going “barefoot” and natural trimming, do your home work (see links below).
4. Natural hoof care (or shoeing) is less likely to “work” if you’re not also committed to general management practices that support truly healthy feet.
5. If you are easing symptoms with anti-inflammatories or corrective shoeing/trimming, ensure you are also working toward healing the foot (if possible) and genuinely resolving the actual cause of the problem at it’s source.
6. Performance horses and horses with previous injuries or pathologies can be healed and/or brought back to soundness, but some may also (or always) require special, additional considerations and care.

In the comments below, I’d love to hear YOUR experiences with shoeing OR natural hoof care!

This can become a heated issue, so while I invite you to share your opinion, this is positive, supportive place where barrel racers unite to learn, share and grow – please keep that in mind.

While you’re here, you’re welcome to also enjoy these additional resources to further support you in providing the very best hoof care for YOUR barrel horses:

13 replies
  1. Casey
    Casey says:

    I am currently working with my farrier on correcting some damage caused from previously poor shoeing techniques. I had a feeling something wasn’t right. I remembered when I was young learning to start at the feet and work your way through the horses body. When we first took off his shoes, he had bruising throughout the white line on every hoof. It was terribly difficult to see and made me realize how much of a noble steed my horse was/is. It’s been a long journey to getting him healthy, and he’s still a work in progress! He is currently barefoot and collectively trimmed; however, with that we’ve also added some body massage work to help correct and relax the muscles that were working incorrectly. My next plan of action is to begin taking lessons with my farrier (who’s just an awesome overall horsewoman) to teach me to teach my horse how to carry himself properly. It’s been a very long and VERY frustrating (many nights have been spent crying in frustration bc of this), but I know it’s worth it and I see improvements often!

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Good for you (and your horses) Casey! When we REALLY dive in deep to learn and apply ourselves to our horse’s health in all these areas we’ll start to see what a truly healthy horse is!

      Reply
  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I leave my horses barefoot until the time comes that I feel they need shoes. I hate putting shoes on a horse. I feel guilty about it, but when they “tell” you they are ouchy & require some help it’s time to get it done.

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You’re welcome Chris! As long as we’re also first considering, and taking time to address the reasons WHY they’re sore, then based on the horse and our circumstances, it may be the best option.

      Reply
  3. Jeri Martin
    Jeri Martin says:

    Oh my gosh. You’ve read my mind. What a wonderful article. I begun to learn how to trim my own horses which included a 5 day course that has been very valuable to me.
    I am happy to say my young horses are still barefoot, but my barrel horse seems to feel better in shoes. Saying that, I finally pulled his shoes this month because I just couldn’t stand how his feet were looking. I have been working on his feet to help get them back to better health. However, if I want to continue to run this summer he will have to go back into shoes. I am hoping that I will only need two more sets until I can pull them off this winter.
    Again, thank you for the article and thanks for continuing to share your barefoot journey.
    Jeri

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You’re so welcome Jeri, I love sharing my experiences to help others AND their horses! 😉 So great to hear that you’re so invested in your horse’s hoof care – it pays off!

      Reply
  4. Romeo Beaulieu
    Romeo Beaulieu says:

    I’am a Master Farrier and been shoeing horses over 35 years.
    I shoe horses when it’s icy out and the torrain is very rocky, but if the ground sandy I run barefoot. I correct shoe and trim! Sometimes it depends on the horses feet and then I decide what best for the horse. I had a horse that got his foot cote in a culvert and tore of part of the foot and we put a shoe on it until it’s was all healed and that horse is jumping today!

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks for sharing Romeo! Glad to hear you’re correctly trimming and shoeing! It’s ALL about what’s best for the horse based on the ever-changing circumstances. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    My horse has been barefoot on the back but has this year has had to heel bulb abscesses . I was considering putting shoes on the back also. He is 7 and never been shoed on the back. I also trat ride and he has always been fine on whatever ground.

    Reply
  6. Tami
    Tami says:

    It also depends on where you live. My easy to maintain horses out west(even in Texas for 2 years) are not the same here in Indiana. Where I could go barefoot out west witg out a problem is not the same with the moisture here is too much with out the protection of a good balanced shoe. The different regions require different management in feed and hoof care. I have 3 that require a balanced shoe job to maintain a healthy foot and 4 that are barefoot with no problem. That isn’t even putting the completely different ground to run barrels on into the equation. It is about having a good, schooled farrier, That works with you and your individual horse, as well as good over all management. It has definitely been a learning process, but I think we finally have it figured out. Everyone is maintaining a fabulous foot! Yeah!

    Reply
  7. Haxstyn
    Haxstyn says:

    My horse, Reco has a navicular problem, the vet froze different parts of the leg to determine the source of the lameness though had stated that an x-ray may not show anything. We treat with corrective trimming and adding a wedge pad under the shoe as well as giving phenylbutazone as needed especially on longer rides or when I was competing (he was my barrel horse for 2.5 years). Because of the Bute I felt it was unfair to Reco to continue running him- he wasn’t a champion in that way anyways.

    Reply
  8. Valerie
    Valerie says:

    Great article! I too have been on a long journey to heal my one mare who has had chronic problems. It’s taught me alot about nutrition and feed. I cut out sugary, high carb feeds long ago. Went to one that was high fat, non GMO but she was still getting inflammation including 2 of my seniors. While I had substantially decreased the issue they were still having some issues. Changed to a whole foods feed and seeing even more improvement. Learned a ton about shoeing as well as barefoot over the years. I’m close but still not there. Your article was very informative and uplifting. We’re all on a journey to health for our horses and in the process I’ve learned alot about my own health. God bless…

    Reply

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