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Going from shoes to Barefoot?
Here’s what you need to know
As published in the Jan/Feb, 2007 issue of
Equine Wellness Magazine

by Kirt Lander

“A horse must have shoes to be ridden or put into work, and attempting to do so barefoot may cause him to go lame and be ruined.”

You’ve probably heard this more than once, but it’s a mistaken belief that arises not only from our inherent impatience, but also from a lack of understanding about the natural Lifeway requirements of the horse. It often leads to barefoot transitional failure and the perception that “going barefoot” is not possible.

Having pulled shoes from hundreds of horses and guided them into performance barefoot status, I would like to share some of my views about the reality of the transitional phase and the associated requirements for a successful transition to barefoot soundness.

What exactly is transition?

Transition is the phase after pulling shoes when the horse rebuilds and restores his hooves, achieving a level of comfort, soundness and usability generally expected from a domestic horse. Not included in normal transition is the horse recovering from laminitis/founder or other serious hoof aliments; this should be viewed as a state of rehabilitation and is not specifically addressed in this article.

Will your horse get sore or go lame if you pull shoes?

Yes, no and maybe. The act of pulling shoes to go barefoot does not cause soreness or lameness in and of itself. It does, however, greatly improve the circulatory system and the firing of nerves, and this will bring to light the true state of health in a newly de-shod hoof. It may manifest in the form of soreness and lameness during the transitional phase.

Genetics and bad trimming aside, it is the health of a horse’s feet at the time of shoe removal that influences immediate soundness more than any other initial factor. Hoof health therefore plays a big role in both the extent and intensity of the transitional phase.

It’s about time

You might be asking, “How long is this going to take?” Depending on the terrain, horses with reasonably healthy hooves devoid of major wall flares and with relatively healthy soles and frogs can go back to work immediately or in several days, weeks or a month.

Horses with less than healthy hooves may need many months or a year or more to transition. In any event, one must not be overly critical of the horse’s way of going until at least one new hoof capsule has grown out.

For some horses, it may never be possible to achieve a satisfactory level of comfort and soundness without the use of hoof boots; for example, in the case of a horse with extensive prior damage, debilitation or untreated metabolic disorders that can cause perpetual low grade laminitis. It is my personal opinion that not all metabolic disorders can be treated to eliminate all traces of laminitis induction.

Nevertheless, these horses still benefit greatly from going shoeless and should be provided hoof boots to be comfortable when ridden. The use of hoof boots is a tremendous tool for the transitioning horse and should be carried for use if needed when out on the trail.

Abscesses are sometimes a necessary occurrence

Abscessing will sometimes occur during the transitional phase, resulting in much discomfort and lameness. A common misconception is that abscessing is caused by the recently de-shod hoof when in reality the now bare hoof is merely facilitating the process of cleansing and healing.

Why does this happen? Iron shoes can restrict circulation, causing an accumulation of cellular debris within the hoof capsule. Removing the shoe restores circulation and the body goes to work removing the accumulated material. Unfortunately, some of this accumulation will not readily absorb into the bloodstream so the body uses the mechanism of abscessing to get the job done. (Think of a festering sliver in a human hand.)

I don’t view abscessing in an overly negative light but instead accept it as a possible part of the transitional process. This is not to say it should be ignored or that I am happy when I see it, but I don’t panic if it occurs.

Proper environment goes a long way

Footing and movement have an incredible influence on both the time for transition and the eventual level of soundness and durability in the barefoot horse. If your horse lives in a box stall on wood shavings and rarely gets out for exercise, then transition will take a long time. Don’t expect him to crush rocks on the weekends without the use of hoof boots.

A horse that lives in a large paddock on clean rugged footing where he can move many miles each day on his own will promote a quicker transition to barefoot soundness and rock crushing capability.

A horse that is sensitive coming out of shoes may need more forgiving footing in the initial stages of transition, but he should never be swimming in overly deep footing as this will reduce hoof mechanism.

A combination of footing types, where some areas are more aggressive than others, is also helpful. This allows the horse to pick and choose what is comfortable to him, and is beneficial both physically and emotionally. It is also very important that the footing be kept clean and is changed out when it becomes overly contaminated with manure and urine.

Diet concerns

A natural diet and feeding schedule is another key to easier transition. The wild horse roams many miles each day, constantly grazing and foraging for his meals. This keeps a near constant flow of material moving through his digestive system. In profound contrast is the far too common method of feeding rich intermittent meals a couple of times a day. This leaves parts of the digestive system devoid of roughage for hours on end.

The cecum or hind gut of the horse is full of microbes that are necessary for digestion. Research suggests that when these microbes die off, their exoskeletons release toxins into the digestive system. These toxins can be absorbed into the bloodstream, triggering laminitis to varying degrees. If a horse’s digestive system is perpetually unstable, it can induce perpetual low grade laminitis, affecting the soundness of the entire hoof capsule.

Hint: some horses can be sensitive to alfalfa hay. A horse prone to laminitis should avoid alfalfa or “cool season” grasses that can be high in sugar.

Vaccinations can be detrimental to healing

Vaccines are another area of great concern. I am not a veterinarian, but the anecdotal evidence I have seen, I believe that vaccine reactions may be responsible for a high percentage of laminitis cases which plague our domestic horse population today.

Most all veterinarians would agree that if a horse gets sick he may develop laminitis. It is therefore not a stretch to imagine that if a horse has a mild reaction to a vaccine, it could trigger mild laminitis. If vaccinated semi-annually, he may never fully grow out the affected hoof capsule. Time and time again, I’ve come to trim a client’s healthy footed horse only to be faced with the results of a recent laminitic episode. When I ask the owner about the recent history of the horse, vaccinations are often part of the picture.

Whether or not you choose to vaccinate your horse is a personal choice. We must balance protection with vitality. Personally, I choose vitality.

The truth about trimming

So far, I haven’t covered anything about trimming a transitioning barefoot horse. That’s because success with a barefoot horse is more about how we keep them than how we trim them. Of course, aggressive or invasive trimming strategies are detrimental, but ignoring the natural Lifeway needs of the horse has a far greater impact on overall soundness and level of performance than exacting trimming strategies.

Education is power

The uncertainty of the transitional phase needlessly scares people from pulling shoes. I encourage anyone who is contemplating going barefoot to educate themselves on the subject. Most transitional failures arise from a lack of understanding rather than a horse’s inability to go without shoes.

You must also be aware of your horse’s natural Lifeway needs and integrate them as much as possible. This is how you’ll find a successful transition to high performance barefootedness.

Kirt Lander is a natural hoof care practitioner and educator based in Arizona. A trimmer since 1999, he has helped hundreds of foundered horses. Kirt and his wife, Gina, enjoy endurance competition with their herd of a dozen barefoot horses, including their Arabian stallion Halim El Mokhtar, who received the nationally acclaimed American Endurance Ride Conference “Jim Jones Stallion Award” in 2005. Kirt is developing a new performance riding boot specifically designed for the natural hoof. www.thebarefootblackstallion.com

Editor’s Sidebar Although abscessing is a natural process, there are some things we can do to help speed healing. Try:

* homeopathic silicea 6x, given three times per day for three days to help the body expel the material. * soaking the hoof for 20-30 minutes in ½ cup of Epsom salts, dissolved in 1 gallon of warm water. Used once or twice, this can help draw out the damaged tissue. * applying a natural clay poultice and covering with a hoof boot. Let dry for one hour and rinse.

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