It's not normal for barefoot horses to be sore

It’s not normal for a barefoot horse to be sore.

Half of me can’t quite believe I have to say that, and the other half of me feels like I should say it again.

It’s not normal for a barefoot horse to be sore.

Well - now we know which half won that battle 😀

Pain is a sign that there’s something wrong. It’s a sign of disease or dysfunction. It can be a sign of overworking a structure or system, like your belly hurts if you eat too much. There’s nothing wrong with your belly, the problem was the amount of food you put in it.

If your horse’s feet are showing signs of pain. That means there is something wrong.

It’s not normal for a barefoot horse to be sore. It is normal for a hoof suffering with pathology to be sore. It is normal for a horse with laminitis to be sore. It is normal for a hoof that has been worked beyond its capability to be sore.

The soreness isn’t due to the lack of an inert piece of metal. It’s due to the pathology, or being overworked.

If a horse is sore, we should look for the cause of the soreness, and then address that.

When a horse who has been shod long term comes out of shoes, we all expect it to be sore. We tell ourselves that the soreness is due to the lack of shoes. For some reason, this belief often holds firm even if the horse was lame in the shoes.

We need to get more accurate about what we say. When we say a horse is lame because it doesn’t have a shoe on, the logical solution is to put a shoe on. When we say a horse is lame due to a pathology, then the logical solution is to address the pathology.

It breaks my heart when a horse is sore after shoe removal, and because everyone assumes that’s normal, they don’t question it. No-one seems to look for why the horse is sore.

Of course, it can simply be because the hoof is weak and needs some time to grow stronger structures. Often, however, it’s because there’s a problem. Rarely is the problem directly caused by the shoe, and that means that removal of the shoe isn’t the direct solution.

If we assume the shoe caused the problem, it makes sense that removing the shoe and giving it some time will solve the problem. But by doing that often we leave horses sore, and owners stressed out for far longer than is necessary.

What if we didn’t blame the shoe (and it’s removal) for the lameness? What if we looked for the actual cause of the lameness? 

Shoes are rarely the cause of the problem. They allow the symptoms of the problem to be managed, or covered up, which allows us to continue to work the horse. This also allows the problem to develop rather than be addressed. But that doesn’t mean the shoe is the cause of the problem.

For instance, let’s say the problem is that growth is too slow. A shoe can help here as it protects the hoof from wear. It does nothing to address the cause of slow growth, but it does prevent the hoof from getting too short.

If you decide to go barefoot (or have it thrust upon you through lack of hoof to nail to) then you’re going to take the shoes off and wait… and wait… and wait some more. Because you still have the problem that the growth is too slow.

You’d expect the horse to be sore, because the hoof is too short - because the growth is too slow. Boots can help you at this point, by keeping the hooves protected from wear, but you know what…. The growth is still too slow. You’ll hear people tell you to wait, and probably to do more work with your horse, because that will stimulate growth.

While it may be true that an unshod hoof grows faster than a shod one, if your hoof was growing too slow shod, it will still be growing too slow barefoot. The shoe didn’t stop growth.

A problem in the diet, or with the gut function could easily cause a growth rate problem though.

Taking the shoe off and waiting for the problem to correct itself sounds like a fabulous idea. There’s so many ways in which it makes sense when you hear people talking about hoof function, and letting nature heal things. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how removing the shoe will change the diet or heal the gut.

What happens when you try it this way is: someone removes the shoe, then waits…. Then runs out of patience. At that point they reshoe for good, or maybe spend a few more years learning and then have another go. 

Sometimes they might ask for further help and get told to change diet, look at gut health etc. I wish I saw this more.

I just wish we could cut the first waiting stage out. That stage where the horse is sore, the owner is stressed and worried, and nothing is being done because everyone thinks it’s normal for a barefoot horse to be sore and an expected part of the process.

If your horse is sore, look for the why. 

If the sole is too thin, or the heels are collapsed, or the walls are flared and stretching, ask why. What has made this happen? I promise the answer is more than mechanical. 

I’m not saying that a horse will never be sore. I’m saying we should look for the reason they are sore.

A horse may be sore after shoe removal, but not because of shoe removal. They sore because there is something wrong, and I want to find and address whatever is causing that. I also want to use whatever I have at my disposal to ensure the horse is as comfortable as possible while the problem is addressed.

While I’m often calling for patience when healing hooves, we must do something more proactive than just ‘give it time’. Let’s give the horse time in an environment that is set up to promote healing, not give them more time in the environment that caused the problem in the first place.

A horse’s health and comfort is about far more than just it’s shoes.

It’s just not normal for a barefoot horse to be sore. Sadly though, it may be common. 

So what do you do if your horse is footsore?

  1. 1
    Find out what’s causing it. Your hoof care professional should be helping you with that. The likely suspects are:
  1. 1
    Mild inflammation
  2. 2
    Infection
  3. 3
    Allergies, food sensitivities or sickness including gut problems like ulcers
  4. 4
    Mud fever/skin conditions, arthritis
  5. 5
    Weak structures
  6. 6
    Hoof pathology

N.B. Inflammation is often caused by points 2-4. Weak structures are often a result of points 1-4. Hoof pathology is caused by all of the above, and/or biomechanical issues.

  1. 2
    Address what’s causing it. This most often includes changing the diet. This is why people say a diet change is necessary when they take the shoes off.
  2. 3
    Protect your horse while healing happens with boots and pads as necessary.

I do find most people start with step 3. That’s ok, it’s a great idea to make sure your horse is as pain free as possible. You’ll find you get much faster improvement if you do step 1 and 2 as well.

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  • Lynell Abbott says:

    Thank you, Debs. I really appreciate your insights on this topic. I always try to find the source of my horse’s pain so I can effectively treat it. Band-Aids just aren’t my thing!

  • Sue Whicker says:

    I have a rescue Lusitano mare from Portugal, never shod but probably never trimmed before I got her. We have a constant battle with grass and she becomes footsore at the drop of a hat.
    I feel that we are actively addressing her hoof trimming, growing heel and addressing balance and quality using an appropriate diet. The one thing missing is the varied terrain which means that although she has naturally hard hooves, that she spends most of her life on grass.
    My trimmer has always believed that this soreness is due to her underlying metabolic issue. Now I know this to be the case- she has been on very poor pasture for a while, normally I hack using front boots, 2 days ago after cold feet and absence of pulses for several days, we went for a short hack without boots. Viola- she walked the most confidently over stones that I’ve ever known. Yesterday she had access to a field with a teensy bit more grass, and li and behold was footy doing the same hack last night.
    In some regards this is reassuring because I get very despondent about her difficulties, on the other hand, if I could ever find a grass free livery, then I know she would be better

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      You’re not alone with that. I’ve found the Iberian horses who have been imported really don’t do well on grass. I strongly suspect it’s because it hasn’t been in their diet for generations in Portugal and Spain, so their gut biome just isn’t able to deal with it.

      It’s great you have such a good handle on it, even though it is so frustrating! It’s a little easier when you understand why, at least.

  • Becky Callaghan says:

    As always, brilliant advice. Wish I’d discovered you years ago!

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