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‘Dare to go Bare!’

Equine Natural Hoof Care & Barefoot Trimming

by Kaya Femerling
Natural Hoof Care Practitioner

I am overlooking the beautiful, rolling, rugged hills of Sundown National Park…
Underneath me strong steady breathing. In front of me a thick hairy mane, sweat is running over my hands, which are loosely holding the reins, and all I hear is the rhythmical sound of ‘Thump… Thump… Thump…’ - rock crunching hooves, mastering the steep rock covered trail ahead with an unbelievable ease.
I am riding a most magnificent Highland pony, called ‘Buck’ and he is a walking powerhouse!
Despite his very hairy appearance he looks noble, almost royal to me. You can definitely see the Spanish horse breed influence in this pony.

As we climb the seemingly endless rocky trails (I am a guest at Sue McGregor’s Rosemarkie Stud), I look down and marvel at how Buck’s feet seem to almost dance over the rocks and boulders, effortlessly and without hesitation, his hooves seem to ‘attack’ the toughest of the tough rocks, as we climb higher and higher up into the hills.

I pause for a moment and thoughts are passing by… I know that none of my ‘horsey’ friends at home would believe this. Buck’s unshod hooves, hard like concrete, walking over these big sharp rocks as if it was a soft grassy golf course.
No ‘Ouch’, no tenderness, no ‘tippi-toey’. I feel so lucky that I can experience this ride.
It is an ‘eye opener’ for me!As I come home from my 4 hours of ‘rock-crunching’ adventure ride, which led me through the most beautiful parts of the ‘Granite Belt’ (Tenterfield/Stanthorpe’ area in Northern NSW/South Eastern QLD), I check Buck’s hooves and I'm amazed and in awe… his hooves look absolutely ‘picture perfect’ and as impeccable as when we left home for the ride.
Not a single crack, split or dent in the hoof wall or sole, no stone bruises, no chipping whatsoever.This is a healthy horse, with healthy hooves. This is how nature intended horses hooves to be. I feel inspired!

Next day, as I am driving home, to the coast of subtropical Byron Bay, where I live, I see fat horses standing up to their bellies in lush green grassy paddocks.

The landscape looks like from a kid’s fairy tale book, very ‘pretty and peaceful’.
And yet I know by now that this kind of environment is the most dangerous and unsuitable environment horses can live in, as perfect as it might look for us humans…As I drive by these ‘picture paradise’ paddocks I feel very sad for all these horses, because I know from experience how their hooves look like and how hard their bodies are struggling to cope with all the high sugar content in these rich grasses, from which they feed all day long.

Many years ago I thought my horses and ponies were happy to live in their soft, green, pasture rich paddocks.
I think of ‘Buck’, and the rugged, tough, dry, rocky country he lives in, with his mates, a herd of healthy, strong hoofed Highland ponies, at Rosemarkie Stud. They are so lucky!

My passion for horses started when I was very young. As a girl I grew up in Northern Germany. At that time horse stables were the ‘Holy Grail’ of horse keeping and horses were confined to their ‘cage’ (stable) 24/7 and were fed a diet of massive amounts of oats and hay. Most of the horses were constantly lame and foot sore and often sick with colic. As it happened so frequently it seemed to be ‘normal’ and nobody questioned the way horses were kept at that time.As the years passed by, some horse owners awareness and conscience started to change. More people started to think about the well being and health of their horses.
A huge wave of change happened in the mid 90s. The horses ‘natural needs’ finally started to be considered.

The stable doors opened, horses were suddenly living outdoors all year round, the horses feed changed from oats to ‘High-energy-fibre-feeds’, treeless saddles were invented, bitless bridles came into fashion and ‘Natural Horsemanship’ entered even the most old fashioned, traditional German dressage stables.
And finally even the tradition of nailing metal shoes on to horse’s hooves was questioned. What a ‘break through’ that was.

In this article I want to focus on our horses and pony’s hooves and share my knowledge and experience with you, the reader, so you might feel inspired and encouraged to re-think the way you keep and feed your ponies and how you can care better for your ponies and horses hooves.

Let’s start at the ‘beginning’…! Horses are born without shoes. From day one they are equipped with the most magnificent ‘Life’-structure at the end of their legs, the Equine Hoof. With their natural hardy hooves horses are able to cover 30– 70 Km per day, as they travel in their herd, foraging for sparse native grasses.
The horse is an animal of the wide open steppes. The horse is a prey animal, and healthy tough hooves are needed for it to survive.
Remember the saying?! - ‘No Hoof– No Horse!’

Between the wild horse in its natural habitat, and our domesticated horses, having to live under artificial conditions, in confinement and horse stables or small paddocks, yes, there is big difference.
But, the horse HAS NOT changed genetically since man domesticated the horse!
Horses have evolved for millions of years on this planet, do you really think they can change genetically, just over the few thousands of years, since man domesticated them? The answer is NO.
Our pony in the back yard is genetically exactly the same horse as its cousin in the wild, and has exactly the same needs, physically and emotionally, as its cousin in the wild.Most arguments against Natural Horse Keeping and Natural Hoof Care (barefootedness) are based on the idea of our domesticated horse and ponies having different needs to the needs of the wild horse.

But the ‘facts’ and statistics show a different reality. Most of the horse’s health problems encountered today are caused by not respecting and catering for the horse’s physical and emotional needs.
Horses and ponies suffer from colic, lameness issues, hoof problems, sore backs, laminitis, founder, injuries etc.
Where do these diseases come from?

However horse/pony owners can make a big difference for our equine friends.
We can study and learn and inform ourselves, to provide our horses and ponies with as near as natural conditions as possible.
How about we model our ideal horse keeping after the healthy habitat of the wild horse, as nature intended horses to live.
You can also call it: ‘Create a little bit of Arizona in the middle of Belgium’…

  • What do horses and ponies need to stay healthy and happy, physically as well as mentally?
    Our horse / pony needs:
  • lots of space to move and run freely
  • horse company / a herd of horses for emotional safety and the incentive to move
  • shelter, in case of bad weather
  • fresh clean water to drink
  • water to hydrate its hooves (foot bath, dam, muddy area…)
  • a diet rich in hardy fibre, low in sugar and starch, minerals and vitamins
  • dry hard rocky ground to regularly walk on.

    When you look at the health of your horse’s/pony’s feet and hooves, you have to look at its environmental living conditions and its diet for they are linked. If you want your pony/horse to have healthy tough hooves, you need to look at ‘the whole horse’ and provide for its needs!

The Unshod Horse – The Bare Facts
The history of the horse shoe:

Horses have lived on this planet for millions of years and have been domesticated since about 8000 years.
Horses originated from areas that were rugged mountains, semi-arid regions, steppes and deserts.
Once the wild horses were domesticated and made their way into the hands of Northern European tribes of people, they found themselves in a much wetter, colder climate than they originally came from. They partially adapted to this climate.

By 700AD, when castles were built for security from their rival kingdoms, horses started to be kept in small paddocks and stables, standing in their own excrement. The hooves, lacking proper circulation to form good healthy horn, and additionally weakened by ammonia, were no longer able to bear up to use on rocky terrain (in contrast to the hooves of those horses still kept in large open spaces).
It was the horses of the princesses and kings, who lived in the castles, that were shod to protect the hooves from excessive wear.
The horses of the vassals and the common folk, still living more naturally, did not have (or need) shoes. But, as in human nature, those things used by the ‘rich and famous’ quickly become more desirable to the ‘common man’…Kingdoms became cities, horses became more useful and started to have ‘working lives’.

Horses started to be shod with metal shoes about 1000 years ago and since then it became a common practice.
This means that the huge migrations of tribes and the endless cavalry warfare of early history (Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hannibal etc.) took place with riders on unshod horses, their horses/ponies crossed whole continents barefooted!

Stabling practices and metal shoeing was the beginning of the deterioration of the hooves of domesticated horses.
Once the automobiles and tractors replaced the ‘working horse’ in the last century, and horses became ‘pleasure animals’, they remained in close confinement and still were and even nowadays are still shod with metal shoes.

Why do we still shoe our horses?

In my practice as a professional Natural Hoof Care Practitioner I hear the following answers and arguments on a daily base:

  • 'I want to protect my horse/pony from wearing its hooves’
  • ‘My horse is a TB/ WB/ Arab/QH /heavy/ light… horse/pony and has flat/ brittle/ terrible/ club foot/ splayfoot / cracked/ split/ chipped etc hooves…’
  • ‘My horse/pony is a PERFORMANCE (!) horse … ’
  • ‘To get better traction’
  • ‘My horse/pony is sore/tender footed and tippi-toey on gravel when barefoot’
  • ‘My horse/pony needs shoes because my farrier/vet/instructor/dressage judge said so’
  • ‘Because I always shod my horses and they seemed fine’
  • ‘Because horses have always been shod and they will always be shod and that is the end of the story…’
  • ‘Because I am too lazy/ don’t have the time to put on hoof boots every time I want to ride’
  • ‘I don’t want to upset / loose my farrier, I want to be loyal to him’
  • ‘My farrier is old-fashioned and says ‘all horse need to be shod’ ’
  • ‘I can’t find a qualified well educated barefoot trimmer in my area and my farrier is close minded and doesn’t want to learn proper barefoot trimming, he says ‘a pasture trim will do’ ’
  • ‘My horse/pony doesn’t show the elevation while riding dressage’
  • ‘The difference between a domesticated horse and a wild horse is that the domesticated horse has carry more weight (a rider), that is why it needs shoes’

    (… ever thought of a pregnant mare ‘having to wear shoes’ because she is carrying extra heavy weight (her foal), or of shoeing a well rounded pony at the end of the summer season with its extra heavy ‘tummy-bulk’ to survive the coming winter…?)

    What if these answers are only old paradigms and excuses we have – because we have forgotten or overlooked the fact that the horse was born with all the footwear it ever needs and that horses were commonly shod only since the Middle Ages.
    Horses however survived the last 55 million years without metal nailed to their feet and under much more difficult circumstances than in any domestic situation they have had to face in the past 5000 years since.
    So, ‘domestication’ or the fact that horses are ridden is NOT a valid argument for shoeing.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could care for your horse’s hooves in a much easier, healthier way? Never to worry about a thrown shoe again?
‘Shoeing – the necessary Evil’ ?!
Ever since horse shoes have existed it has been noticed that, within a few years of being shod, the horse began to display sickness and diseases previously unknown in unshod horses.
This is why, even in the very first books mentioning shoeing (from the 17th century and earlier), the horse shoe has always been referred to as a “necessary evil”.

The harmful and damaging effects of shoeing

  • Prevents hoof wall from wear, the wall grows longer than it ever would in nature,
    causing unnatural forces and tension within the hoof capsule, leading to cracks, chips, seedy toe, white line separation and abscesses.
  • Stumbling horse, with a shoe the horse can no longer clearly feel the ground it walks on.
  • Vibration and impact on weight bearing destroys hoof wall and damages living tissue.
  • Impairs shock absorption and movement of the sole.
  • Impairs the hoof mechanism and the circulatory pump (blood circulation from the
    hooves/legs back to the heart, heart has to work 4 X harder).
  • Pinching of corium and living tissues in the hoof.
  • Unnatural strain on ligaments and joints.
  • Bruising of navicular area (= heel pain) and hoof / heel contraction.
  • Thrush, with the lack of blood circulation to the frog and sweat glands may be
    disrupted severely enough to cause thrush.
  • Unnatural weight and centrifugal forces on the hoof.
  • Nails destroy the hoof wall.
  • Nails conduct cold and heat into the interior of the hoof.
  • Shoes have a negative effect on meridians, reflex zones, electrical and magnetic fields of the hoof and corium.
  • Increased risk of greater injury and damage, the horse, which is shod, can cause to itself, other horses and humans.
  • Shoeing contracts and deforms the hoof over time, even the bones inside the hoof.
  • Prevents proper development of a young horses foot.

    ‘Orthopedic’ or ‘corrective’ shoeing is not possible.

    Shoes cause so much damage inside the hoof that it can’t be used for healing, shoes reduce the blood flow inside the hoof, but any healing needs to be supported by strong blood circulation But then why, if shoeing truly has these adverse side effects and causes all this damage inside the hoof, are there still any shod horses out there that are labelled ‘sound’?

    On its own, any harmful effects of shoeing may go un-noticed for years. The damage, of course, is still being done inside the shod hooves. But the horse is sound, despite this, because it is actually unable to detect the damage, since the nerves in the affected areas are unable to function properly, they are literally ‘numb’. The horse can’t feel its pain…
  • What are the functions of the Hoof?
    Rather than simply a lump of dead horn at the end of the horse’s leg, the hoof is a very complex organ which performs a variety of functions vital to the horse’s overall health and survival.

*Protection from external mechanical forces.
*Traction, secure footing on all terrains
*Shock absorption
* Heart-supporting circulatory blood pump (healthy hoof mechanism)

All of the above mentioned functions of the hoof are clearly impaired if metal shoes = metal cages are nailed onto the living hoof.

What is the alternative? Natural Horse Care and Barefoot Trimming!

Nowadays more and more people are starting to realize that a change of keeping and shoeing their horses is needed – and possible!
‘Natural Hoof Care/ Barehoof Care’ is a new term, being used to describe the care and use of barefooted horses in all disciplines including high performance horses. Nowadays some endurance performance horses successfully complete the Australian 160km Tom Quilty Cup barefooted!

Natural Hoofcare is not just a trimming method, it is also a complete care system that allows a horse to remain barefoot through its entire life.
The same system can be used to rehabilitate horses from many degenerative lameness problems, incl. laminitis/founder and navicular disease.

A proper ‘Barefoot Trim’ is a ‘physiologically correct’ trim, which respects the internal structures of the hoof and provides proper hoof mechanism and function, to not only maximise circulation to the inner structures of the hoof, but also – like muscular movement – to assist the heart in pumping blood.
A ‘Barefoot Trim’, based on the wild horse’s hoof, is different to the ‘normal’ farrier’s ‘Pasture Trim’.
A ‘Pasture Trim’ is a hoof trim which is the PREPARATION of the hoof for a shoe to be nailed on, but, in the end, the shoe is not nailed on and the horse is left barefoot.
Can you expect a hoof to stay sound which is just trimmed in one flat plane?
A proper ‘Barefoot Trim’, modelled on the wild horse’s hoof, has distinctive characteristics:

  • short toe.
  • low heels (level with base of frog and base of heel bulbs)
  • arch in the quarters
  • frog is left thick, wide and weight bearing
  • strong curved bars (non-weight bearing when horse is stationary)
  • bevel (roll) at the base of the hoof wall (the famous ‘Mustang Roll’) that allows perfect break over at toe and prevents any impacting rocks from creating cracks
  • good sole concavity, healthy solar vault
  • no flares/ no toe pillars/ no cracks
  • dense well connected white line
  • thick tough sole callus at toe, protective soleEvery domesticated horse/pony should have its hooves regularly barefoot trimmed at approximately 4-5 weekly intervals.
    Transition period:
    Now, if you decide to take off your horse’s shoes, your horse will go through what is called a ‘Transition Period’.
  • This is the time between shoe removal and your horse comfortably walking on hard rocky ground.
    You can’t expect your horse to walk comfortably instantly after shoe removal.
    Most hooves are so degenerated, the soles are so thin, that they need some time to heal and adjust and again grow a strong protective sole callous.
    This period can take between a few weeks and several months, depending on the individual horse.
    Meanwhile, to make your horse comfortable and encourage it to walk a lot, your horse/ pony can be fitted with hoof boots. It is that easy.

    What else can I do to help my horse?
    Natural Hoof Care is ‘preventative care’…
    It is important that your horse, in its daily life, living in its paddock/yard, is exposed to the ground it is expected to be ridden on.
    Put rocks/gravel around your water and feeding troughs, cover areas where you horse normally walks through with rocks (in gateway areas), to give the hooves a chance to harden and toughen up.
    Walk and work your horse as much as possible, movement brings blood into the horse’s hooves and allows for strong healthy tough callus growth.
    Feed your pony/ horse only low sugar feed, lots and lots of fibre, limit fresh grass intake (unless it is native grass) and cut out any sweet feed, grains, molasses and fruit.
    Hoof Trimming:
    Take care that your horse/pony is regularly trimmed by a Natural Hoof Care Practitioner who is trained in proper barefoot trimming, or ask your farrier to familiarize him/herself with, and learn proper barefoot trimming techniques.
    Say goodbye to farriers who don’t want to update their trimming skills and who put barefoot trimming down as a ‘fashion-frill’.
    Your horse has the right to have its hooves trimmed by a trained professional.Barefooting takes care and commitment. It WILL make your horse/pony healthier, sounder, perform better, have less pain and it will help it to live a longer and happier life.
    Once your pony’s/horse’s hoof starts to look like a wild horse’s hoof, it will start to act like one!
    Your horse will thank you.
    Still unsure?
  • Check out these web pages for more information:
    www.hoofrehab.com - Pete Ramey’s web page, USA

    www.wildabouthooves.com.au - Jeremy Ford’s web page, Australia

    www.hoofworksaustralia.com - Peter Laidley’s web page, Australia

    www.easycaredownunder.com.au - Hoof Boots, Australia

    www.tribeequus.com - High performance barefootedness

    www.aebm.org.au - Australian Equine Barefoot Movement

    barefoothorse.com - One of the best barefoot trimming sites with lots of 'how to' information from Marjorie Smith.

    I recommend the following books for reading:

    ~‘Horse Owner’s Guide to Natural Hoof Care’ by Jamie Jackson
    ~ ‘Making Natural Hoof Care work for you’ by Pete Ramey.

    Both available from amazon.com.

    Owning two Highland ponies myself, I have to say that I have never come across a horse breed with tougher stronger hooves than the Highland’s.
    If given the proper environment, care, diet and regular barefoot trimming, there is absolutely no need to shoe these ponies, they have the best feet!
    I feel truly lucky that I came across the Highland Pony breed.
    My next adventure will be a long trekking trip with my ponies along the BNT-Bicentennial National Trail, and as you can imagine, of course my ponies will go barefooted!I would be happy to help you with any questions about Natural Hoof Care / Barefoot Trimming that you might have.
    I also might be able to connect you with a trained Natural Hoof Care Practitioner / Barefoot Trimmer in your area.
    Please contact me on: Ph. 02 – 66 844 097Happy Hoofing!
    Kaya Femerling - Certified ACEHP Hoof Care Practitioner.

    Highland Pony Photos by Sue Jarman of Rosemarkie Stud.

    For More Info on Hoofcare go to these pages:
  • Articles
  • Paddock Paradise
Diet is one of the most important aspects of horse health, but barefoot horses hooves reflect dietary issues more so. This is because they don't have shoes to mask seasonal hoof-related symptoms that can be attributed to dietary imbalance.
Some of these symptoms include ‘stress rings’, abscesses, tenderness on hard or rocky surfaces, white line separation, cracks in the hoof wall or bars and poor solar concavity.
If you’d like to learn more about how feed affects your horse’s hooves, read this new article on 'Feeding the Hoof' by Pete Ramey.

To learn how to become an Equine Hoofcare Practitioner click here

To find a Certified Hoofcare Professional Click Here



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Natural Horse World

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