Can a horse cope barefoot?


Kaimanawa feral horses of New Zealand, adapted to cope barefoot

Kaimanawa feral horses of New Zealand, adapted to cope barefoot

So can a horse cope barefoot??

Well of course they can, wild and feral horse populations cope just fine without.  Its what we do, and want we want from our domesticated horses that can make them foot sore.  Things such as:

  • Keeping them on soft surfaces, but work them on firm ones.
  • Restricting movement (compared to that in wild/feral populations) so that their hoof structures aren’t as robust.
  • Breeding them for looks/performance/temperament, rather than hoof health.
  • Feeding them all year round, and often on richer fodder than would be available.

If you’re worried that your horse won’t cope barefoot, then you’re probably worrying about the wrong thing.. if you’re horse is sore on its own feet, then that tells you that they aren’t strong enough to comfortably support its own movement.  Think about that for a second, thats not a good situation.

So to me, the whole purpose of managing hooves barefoot is to think slightly differently – its ‘What’s the best way we can support these hooves back to health?’

If we’re in the recovering health way of thinking then we’re really getting somewhere because we’re focussing on the correct part of the problem; a lack of health. Hooves are very perfectly designed biomechanical structures that have the capacity to get weaker or stronger depending on the stimuli that they are exposed to. I studied physics in medicine as an undergraduate; one of the issues we looked at was bone will become more or less dense according to the work asked of it. A good example was with early hip replacement joints; when the materials used for the artificial joint shared a similar load bearing capacity to the bone that they were embedded into then the joint would knit well and last. But if the artificial joint was too strong compared to the surrounding bone, then the latter would waste away until the joint loosened and became unusable.  The same principles apply to all the ligaments, tendons, bursa and fascia that make up your horses hoof.  They need to be able to function correctly to strengthen.

So perhaps a more useful question is more – can we, the owners. cope with managing our domestic horses barefoot.?  Heres a few thoughts of my own about the for & against of it all…

Reasons for:

Its healthier:

Better shock absorption.  The back part of the hoof (frog & digital cushion) are really well designed to absorb shock, but shoes prevent the back part of the hoof working as well as they should, and the foot becomes less resilient 

Less strain on the joints.  Because the shock absorbers are working better, there is less strain transmitted up the leg into the pastern joints.  This reduces the risk of arthritic changes in the joints, and has got to be good!  This you tube clip makes the point very clearly.

Better posture.  Because the hoof is healthier, and not a cause of soreness for the horse, the horse is able to stand up more squarely.  This means that the horse is more comfortable and better able to carry the rider, see the difference in my horse Lucy between shod and unshod.

Its Safer

Better grip.  A bare hoof gives you better grip because the hoof is able to abrade a little on contact with the ground, and in doing so you get better grip.

Fewer injuries.  Because barefoot feet are generally a little shorter and rounded off, there are less overreach injuries, and any kicks between paddock mates will be less damaging

Reasons against.

You can’t ride your horse.  If your horses hooves are very weak, you may have to suspend riding to rehabilitate the hoof.  However for the reasons stated above, barefoot is a better long term proposition for your horses joint and muscular health.

Your horse will always be footy.  Your horse is more liable to be footy – but this is because he can feel his feet and the surfaces, so if there is anything wrong with his feet, you will know about it & can take action – slight footyness can always be mitigated by the use of boots.

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