There are so many health benefits to having a horse barefoot rather than shod that it’s becoming quite common these days for people to remove the shoes and transition their horse to barefoot.
While the reduced concussion, reduce slippage, lack of nail holes and increase in hoof function have great benefits for the health of the whole horse, the transition period isn’t without its challenges and frustrations.
If you’re not properly prepared transitioning your horse can be a very stressful time for you and unnecessarily painful for your horse. However, if you know what to expect, have a plan of action to overcome the challenges and a good support team behind you, it can be exciting to see the positive changes.
I hear more and more cries for help lately from people who have heard the benefits of barefoot and decided to give it a go. With great enthusiasm (and maybe a little trepidation) they whip their horses shoes off. A day or 2 later as they see their horse hobbling around, panic sets in and they find themselves in a facebook group asking for help.
The help they need is probably there for them. But mixed in with it is a whole lot of help they don’t need too. Filtering out the good advice is hard enough on a good day, but when you’re stressed, upset and feeling guilty, it's a lot more difficult to know what to do.
All that advice is overwhelming and adds to your stress, rather than relieves it.
The thing is, the vast majority of what is suggested will be good advice… It just might not be applicable to your specific situation right now.
Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
Get a good idea of what to expect before you take the shoes off, and have an idea of how you might approach the most likely challenges you may face. Your hoof care professional should be able to help you with this. That’s their job. If they can’t, find someone who can.
These are some of the questions you need the answers to before you take the shoes off.
Does your horse have:
Chances are, if you’ve decided to remove your horses shoes, it was one of the above problems that caused you to look into barefoot methods.
Shoes are a tool that provides artificial external support. By providing additional external structure they essentially make a hoof able to perform at a higher level than it would be able to in its current barefoot state. They don’t directly cause any of the above problems (even though they frequently get the blame). What they do is allow a horse who has a problem to continue performing.
Shoes don’t directly cause the problem, they help cover it up.
By helping cover up a problem, that problem is able to develop and advance unnoticed. The transition period our horses go through after shoe removal is the time needed to heal, address and manage these unnoticed problems.
This is why you’ll frequently hear trimmers saying ‘it’s not about the trim’. A good balanced, functional trim is important, but you can’t trim out a bad diet. Without a shoe you can’t cover up the results of an imbalanced diet or a health problem the horse may have.
Without a shoe you have to find and address the root cause of a problem if you want your horse to be sound.
You may have heard the term ‘barefoot friendly diet’. Personally that term makes me die a little on the inside. What it really means is a horse appropriate diet. All horses, shod or otherwise would benefit from such a diet.
So… What do you need to consider before shoe removal:
The gut needs to be working well for a horse to be healthy. In my experience one of the biggest causes of weak hooves is gut function issues. The most common gut function issue in horses is ulcers, but there are other problems they may have too, like leaky gut, acidosis, or gut bacteria issues.
Speak to a vet and/or a nutritionist if you need help in this area. Good professional advice can save you years of scratching your head and tearing your hair out. I use Trinity Consultants for advice if you were wondering.
Species appropriate diet
Seems obvious enough to suggest to feed a horse like it’s a horse, but sadly, seeing how many horse feeds on the market aren’t species appropriate I can only conclude that it’s a somewhat radical idea! Way too many horses are fed like they’re chickens (or waste disposal units) imho.
Please don’t underestimate just how much a change in diet can improve your horse’s soundness and comfort. The right kind of remedial nutrition supplements can make a dramatic difference in the space of a few days in some cases.
Or speak to a nutritionist if you prefer.
How does your horse move. How do the limbs move, and the hoof land? Some of these things may be conformational, some may be a pathology that is treatable, but you need to know what you’re starting with.
Some types of movement will make hoof boots very difficult to use. Other types of movement may greatly benefit from hoof boots during the transitioning period. This is something your hoof care practitioner should be able to advise you on.
It’s rare for a horse to come out of shoes and not benefit from some good bodywork. There are huge changes going on in the body during the transitioning period, whether that’s from the feet being sore or the nervous system strengthening or something else (there’s too much to list)
Many hoof pathologies are caused by gait abnormalities so getting your horse moving in a more balanced way is essential to grow a balanced hoof.
I’ve already mentioned a few professionals. Having a good team around you is essential. Make sure your hoof care practitioner isn’t just barefoot friendly, but they’re barefoot knowledgeable. While there are some practitioners who specialise in both barefoot and shoeing, the 2 approaches are very different.
You’ll be better off with a shoeing specialist for your shoeing needs and a barefoot specialist for your barefoot needs. If you happen to have both in 1 person, then that’s awesome! Make sure you get them a really good christmas (or holiday of their choice) pressie 🙂
There are loads of different boots and pads available that can make a world of difference to how comfortable your horse is during the transition phase. Your horse doesn’t need to be hobbling around for days, weeks or months. There is no benefit to that at all. It’s not hardening up the hoof, it’s probably just causing bruising. Hooves will get stronger in boots and pads (if you use the right ones).
What to expect when the shoes come off...
There are a few things that most commonly cause stress when a horse first comes out of shoes.
The horse may be lame.
I would include any discomfort as lameness at this point. Discomfort is a nicer way of saying pain. I’ve also seen this described as footsore, footy, footsy, careful or ‘tippy toes’. Call it what you like but know that it means your horse is in pain.
You may or may not see defined limping. We’re all happy to call a limp a lameness, but when a horse is equally sore in all 4 feet you don’t get a limp. You need a sound foot to limp.
Tippy toes has to be the peak of lovely fluffy denial in my opinion, but maybe that’s just because I saw the description used along with a lot of laughing emojis and that made me kinda
Expect to give a period of rest
It’s very rare that a horse won’t need a period of rest after shoe removal. While boots and pads are great at keeping a horse comfortable they don’t offer the same structural support that a shoe does.
It’s that artificial structural support that causes the hoof to weaken. Boots will protect from point pressures that cause discomfort to a sensitive or weak hoof, and therapeutic pads will help to strengthen the structures, but they don’t offer additional structural support.
Think of a shoe like a plaster cast. It’s an external structure that protects a weakened internal structure. You don’t remove a cast and go straight back to 100% work. You have a period of rehab where you work on strengthening the limb.
Boots should be used to allow the hoof to strengthen while they provide protection. Not just used to replace the shoe so the problems can be ignored and the horse can carry on working regardless.
This is an impatient world, but I’ve found that when you give your horse a rest period you get them back to health far more quickly than if you don’t.
I think rest and corrective exercise is so important I’m doing a whole article on it as part of this transitioning series, which brings me on to…
The hooves grow in response to the forces placed on them, both through movement and posture. It’s often necessary to get a horse moving and standing in a more balanced way to improve the balance of the hooves and correctly simulate the internal soft structures.
The hooves are going to crack
On rare occasions this doesn’t happen but just assume that it will and if it doesn’t you totally have my permission to feel delightly smug 🙂 Nail holes cause cracks in the hoof wall. They just do and this causes weakness.
The walls are going to chip off and look awful until the nail holes grow out. Turns out that nail holes are so common we think of them as normal, rather than holes in the hoof wall. Nail holes with a shoe on the bottom don’t seem to trouble us nearly so much as nail holes without the shoe on the bottom.
It usually takes about 3 months for nail holes to grow out, but obviously this will vary depending on how high the nails were placed and how fast the hoof is growing.
I have yet to see a horse go lame during transition as a direct result of the wall chipping off. There’s so much going on in the foot at this time. The chipping might be the most obvious thing to you, but please don’t assume that’s what’s caused the lameness.
I mention this because with chipping, you just have to wait for it to grow out. For many other things that could cause a lameness there may well be a solution, which means your horse doesn’t need to be so uncomfortable. Speak to your hoof care practitioner, they should have some suggestions for you.
Nail holes dramatically increase the likelihood of white line disease in the hoof wall. Most often the infection grows out with the nail holes and you don’t need to worry too much. Other times you do need to take action. Your hoof care practitioner will be able to advise and you can find various good options here
Thrush is also a common issue that can cause frustration. You’ll find good remedies for that at Equine Podiatry Supplies too.
I’ve mentioned how important diet is a few times and hoof infection is no exception. Dietary changes can make a big difference to the health and quality of hoof horn, just as much as it’s makes a difference to the health of the whole horse.
My top 2 dietary observations over the years is that I see significantly more hoof infection problems in horses who have haylage or alfalfa (lucerne) in their diet. Those problems reduce or disappear when those things are removed.
There really is so much to consider when transitioning a horse to barefoot. You don’t have to do it alone, and many of these things can be considered before the shoes come off.
What to do before the shoes come off...
Change the diet.
The advantages of changing the diet before the shoes come off is that your horse will be less uncomfortable initially and will start growing through healthier hoof horn. You can also make sure he’s happy to eat his new feed.
The major disadvantage is that you won’t get to see just how much effect the diet had. It would be easy to underestimate how important the diet change was and think it didn’t make a difference. A better diet always makes a difference
On the flip side if you change the diet and your horse is still quite sore when the shoes come off it’s easy to think the diet change didn’t work, when it did, there was just more going on besides.
Address gut issues
This can be done before the shoes come off and will have many of the same advantages and disadvantages you’d see with diet change.
The big difference here is horses with gut issues tend to be fussy eaters and poor doers or they’re always ravenous for food and either overweight or underweight, regardless of how much you feed them or restrict their diet.
You’ll see great improvements in your horse’s health from sorting gut issues no matter what so it’s always worth doing.
Get a bodyworker
If you don’t already have one, you can get a bodyworker to have a look at how your horse moves and work on any muscle issues they may have and get them moving better.
Addressing any issues with thrush or white line disease before the shoes come off will help you start from a stronger position. Dealing with wld in a shod horse is a bit of a never ending task as discussed above, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
Any of these things can be done before the shoes come off, or even if they’re not going to be removed at all. Being shod doesn’t prevent diet changes or bodywork therapy being done.
This is a picture of a horse who wasn’t suitable for going barefoot, but changing his diet had a great affect on his feet.
Sadly the photo isn’t the greatest as I didn’t realise I was going to be making this point in a blog post, it was just a snap shot, but you can see how much better the horn quality is. The angle of the hoof growing through was also much better, but I didn’t take a photo from the right angle to show that.
(5 years I’ve been doing this blog and I still forget I should take photos of everything!)
Even if you’re taking a few months to make your decision about going barefoot, or you’re waiting for the right time to do it, or you decide not to do it at all. You can still implement these kinds of changes to improve hoof health.
How to transition a horse with the least stress possible
- 1Address gut issues and ensure a balanced species appropriate diet
- 2Address hoof infection
- 3Balance the hoof
- 4Implement corrective exercises and/or rest where needed
- 5Use boots and pads for comfort and strengthening where necessary
- 6Review and repeat
- 7Give it time
"The key is in not spending time, but in investing it"
I’m fairly sure that Stephen Covey was talking about being effective in business when he wrote that, but its a sound principle in any area of life and definitely applies to healing in general, and specifically transitioning hooves.
I hear the advice to ‘give it time’ frequently. I agree but we must invest the time rather than waste it. Simply removing the shoes and waiting isn’t going to get you far. You will probably see a little improvement, but you may find yourself waiting in a stressful, frustrating situation you’d rather not be in.
I have huge respect for the commitment and dedication of people who have transitioned their horses this way. There’s no doubt it would have taken huge grit and determination. But my heart breaks a little too, as often there is an easier and quicker way of doing things.
I’m hoping that doesn’t sound disrespectful or arrogant, if it does please put it down to in inelegance in communication, because genuinely, I’m just trying to help people find a quicker easier way to help their horses.
I realise that all these details may not seem like they’re making it simpler, but they really are. If you can define where you’re starting from, where you want to go to, and have a map showing the terrain, obstacles and paths between those two points, you do have many more details to consider, but it’s much simpler to get to your destination unscathed and on time.
Give it time… In an environment that has been set up to promote the healing your horse needs, don’t just wait in the environment that contributed to creating the problems you’re trying to solve.
This is part 2
What challenges did you face when transitioning your horse, or what aspect worries you most if you haven't taken the plunge yet? Let me know in the comments below?
Is the term 'species appropriate' horribly pretentious? I can't quite decide? It's so damn accurate I don't think I'll stop using it. It is what we're aiming for after all.
Any other musings, comments or mutterings... share what you're pondering in the comments section.
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