Hoof Corner: Are Horse Shoes Ever an Option?

by James & Yvonne Welz ©2008

Okay, so what do we really think about shoes?

Maybe you assume that we are radicals, violently opposed to any horse shoe on principle alone - barefoot with a vengeance.

You may be surprised to find out that we are very conservative, traditional people! It took a major crisis with our personal horse to send us down this barefoot path almost a decade ago.

But once we were on this path, it just made sense. We continually asked, would that activity be possible with bare hooves? Would that other activity be possible? Eventually, horses began to show up in nearly every discipline, barefoot. We discovered that there existed research science (Dr. Robert Bowker) actually backing up some long-held barefoot theories. We observed horses in our care developing hooves that became healthier and healthier over time. Not just a few, but all of them. Over the years, perhaps a thousand horses by now.

Our focus is not really barefoot hooves: our focus is actually healthy hooves. The sad, simple, bare-bones truth is that hooves can't be healthy in shoes, at least not in the long-term. A very healthy hoof can tolerate shoes for a period of time, when shod well by a good farrier. Good farriers know how to best minimize the damage of shoes - unfortunately, there aren't many of them around these days. Any horse poorly shod will suffer the negative effects quickly. Nonetheless, all shod hooves are peripherally-loaded. Peripheral loading drastically and negatively affects the blood supply inside the hoof. Over time, this causes a lot of damage. How can it not?

That said, there are many barefoot hooves that are peripherally-loaded or even worse! Some of the most deformed hooves we have ever seen belonged to "barefooted horses" whose owners were very proud of that. Such a sad irony. Overgrown, unnatural hooves are a shame, whether they belong to bare or shod hooves.

This is not about barefoot versus shod. This is about learning what we can do to improve the health of the hooves of our horses. Nothing can be more important than that! Healthy hooves can do just about anything you want, without any artificial devices needed. With all the hoof boots out on the market now, if a horse needs "protection" or something to cushion its feet, why not use a removable boot? You don't nail shoes to your feet, why put permanent shoes on your horse? To us, it is just common sense these days, not even necessary to argue about.

Are regular, nailed-on horse shoes ever necessary? For our own personal horses, we have the knowledge and the know-how, and it would never be necessary. For ordinary people, if you don't have the knowledge, know-how and support system, you may find it difficult to go without horse shoes. Or you may be unable to rehabilitate your shod horse to be able to go barefoot. A horse with healthy feet will not feel pain from walking on the ground barefoot. Horses with damaged feet (and that is pretty much the majority of the captive equines of the world, including barefoot ones!) will need some time to grow healthy new feet before they can resume normal activities. You can use horse shoes to make the horse feel better, even with damaged feet - but the damage will continue. There is a price to pay. It's as simple as that.

One of the things that we hear repeatedly coming from the circles of traditional folks is the concern that "my horse will wear off too much hoof, and that is why horses require shoes." Although it is rare, horses can wear off too much hoof when their circulation is impaired, and the hoof is unhealthy, which can happen when shoes are removed. This can also happen when poor, inadequate, unbalanced trimming is applied to any hoof, of any age. Usually these trims are peripherally loaded, with hoof walls very long, and the hoof form very unnatural - so the "overworn" part is probably the only correct part of the hoof! ANY HOOF FORM OTHER THAN THAT OF THE WILD HORSE WAS INVENTED BY MAN. By turning back to the natural form, we have found that we can create, through trimming, domestic hooves that not only LOOK like wild horse hooves, but function like them.

In our experience, with hundreds of barefoot trims per month for nearly a decade now, there has never been an issue of a horse wearing off too much hoof (even after removing shoes). Unfortunately, quite the contrary: the healthier the hoof, the faster they grow. Our trims are done at a minimum of 4 weeks, and more often than that on our personal horses. Healthy horses grow a lot of hoof. If your young horses are "wearing off" too much hoof, research the natural hoof form, and find a trim that really works.

If you have tried barefoot, and it just didn't work for you, keep in mind that there are many different types of barefoot trims, and some that create healthier hooves than others. You may need to try a different type of trim, because the trim will be crucial for success. It is important to be realistic, and come to terms with how damaged your horse's feet are. If they were healthy, barefoot would be a breeze. Boots are a good option while transitioning a horse, of course, and there are new hoof casts and hoof wraps now available. We've noticed that plastic shoes seem to leave hooves healthier than metal shoes. If you REALLY feel you must shoe, make sure to take regular breaks from the shoes, such as 3 months off each winter. Year-round metal shoes are a recipe for major hoof problems.

The fastest way to barefoot success might be to buy young horses and raise them with healthy trimming and lifestyle - that's what we did, and that's what we recommend for anyone interested in performance. Sure, it will take a few years, but you will develop hooves far superior to the other hooves out there, and that will give you a competitive edge. (August 2008)

This area of The Horse's Hoof represents OUR own personal opinions and recommendations regarding hooves and hoof care. We are James & Yvonne Welz, owners of The Horse's Hoof Magazine and website. While the emphasis of The Horse's Hoof is to promote barefoot as a whole, and provide a place for practitioners of all methods to gather and interact, we do have our own personal way of doing things. Throughout this past decade, we have been quietly practicing barefoot horse care on hundreds of horses, ironing out what really works, and here we will share our knowledge with you.

©2008 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

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