Barefoot basics: If the shoe fits, should your horse wear it?

The idea of riding horses without shoes has come to prominence in recent years, yet many people are uncertain what it entails and whether it would suit their horses. Barefoot expert Abigail Hogg looks at the history and science surrounding barefoot trimming and what is needed to be successful without shoes.

Although barefoot hoofcare is generally seen as a modern idea, discussion of the subject goes back millennia. Around 350BC, Xenophon advised on unshod hoofcare and many horses around the world have always worked without shoes.

Though by no means the earliest publication on the subject, in 1880 a book called Horses and Roads appeared, which in turn resulted in a letter to The Times from a GP called Shelley who, having read the book, had driven horses without shoes for over 25 years. Lt Col McTaggart, a renowned horse expert, advised working horses without shoes in Stable and Saddle, published in 1929.

Barefoot trimmer Abigail Hogg at work.
Barefoot trimmer Abigail Hogg at work.
Over the past several years, enabled by the internet, “natural” hoofcare has become increasingly popular and leading names include Pete Ramey, Cindy ‘Hawk’ Sullivan, Jamie Jackson and KC La Pierre. These practitioners have years of experience, with many having been farriers for decades, and advocate non-invasive trimming that causes no harm. At the same time acceptance of barefoot trimming has been set back by high-profile invasive trimming that advocates cutting into the live hoof, a cruel and unnecessary practice. Such techniques should always be avoided.

The starting point for all hoofcare is an understanding that healthy hoof function depends on expansion and contraction of the hoof using well-developed structures that absorb and disperse the force of movement.

The ultimate aim of barefoot trimming is to produce a self-maintaining functioning hoof.

Interest in barefoot hoofcare has always involved observations of wild horses and it has long been noticed that horses in the wild travel long distances over rough terrain and their feet are strong and healthy.

Although wild horses do not carry riders, wild mares carry their unborn foals for 11 months and even in a domestic setting, a horse’s weight can fluctuate by 100kg over a few weeks – considerably more than the weight of the average rider.

All horses can go barefoot, but not all owners can.” _ Cindy Sullivan

Recent studies have revealed a greater understanding of the equine hoof and its function.

These two pictures, taken six months apart, show the hoof growing in more tightly from the top and losing its bell-bottom appearance, which has led to the crack closing up. With time, the crack will disappear from the top down.
These two pictures, taken six months apart, show the hoof growing in more tightly from the top and losing its bell-bottom appearance, which has led to the crack closing up. With time, the crack will disappear from the top down.
One of the foremost hoof scientists is Dr Robert Bowker of Michigan State University, whose doppler ultrasound images of bloodflow to the hoof have shown that circulation decreases as more weight is placed onto the edge of the hoof, rather than being borne by the whole of the bottom of the foot.

Skilled barefoot trimming, at times combined with the use of hoofboots and pads, maximises the hoof’s contact with the ground and allows full functioning of the hoof mechanism. The growth of the hoof adapts in response to the amount of work.

The barefoot trim is different to most pasture trims in that it is designed for the horse to be ridden. It also differs from a pre-shoeing trim in that the hoof wall at ground level does not have to be left flat to provide a surface for a shoe; a barefoot trimmer will often bevel the outer edge of the hoof wall.

It is impossible to describe an ‘average’ barefoot trim – it depends on the hoof – and when I assess a hoof I make two essential observations.

Firstly, I look at the uppermost part of the hoof below the coronary band, which will often show a steeper angle than the lower part of the foot. This indicates where the hoof ‘wants’ to be; so by projecting a line running down from the angle of new growth to ground level, I can see where the hoof is striving to be.

Secondly, I will look, and feel, the bottom of the foot to examine the development of the hoof structure and detect obvious problems. In complicated cases it is helpful to see X-rays. The trim then aims to allow the new growth at the top of the hoof to reach ground level without becoming distorted, thereby growing out cracks and flare and producing a concave hoof, with a thicker sole and well-developed structures.

Barefoot trimming allows hoof length and angle to stabilise because the horse can wear away what it does not need. Hooves and bodies are connected and inter-dependent and I often work with physical therapists to address body problems that may be affecting the feet. I have seen horses with conditions, including laminitis, navicular syndrome, white-line disease and arthritis, improve with barefoot hoofcare.

So, which horses can go barefoot? Like many people, I thought my horse could never go barefoot because he had brittle hooves that would not hold a shoe, yet his feet are now healthy and crack-free.

Transitioning barefoot 10-year-old mare, who came out of front shoes about 3 months before these pictures.
Transitioning barefoot 10-year-old mare, who came out of front shoes about 3 months before these pictures. © Renee Montgomery
There are barefoot horses of all shapes, sizes and breeds competing in all disciplines and at all levels, including endurance and racing. The more work that a horse does, the better developed the feet become – just as with the rest of the horse’s body.

When considering whether to try barefoot it is worth bearing in mind Cindy Sullivan’s words: “All horses can go barefoot, but not all owners can.”

The point is that it takes effort to make the transition to barefoot – some horses may go happily straight away, others may need the protection of boots and take a year or more, depending on the condition of the hoof.

If you are determined to ride your horse in a competition two weeks after taking the shoes off, you can not necessarily expect the horse to be ready. Owners need to be as involved in the care of hooves as they are in the other parts of their horses’ lives. The factors that build good feet are sound movement (using boots and pads if needed), diet, hoof hygiene and regular hoofcare.

When choosing a trimmer it is worth bearing a few points in mind. Anyone can legally say they are a barefoot trimmer as there are no recognised qualifications, although there are several organisations running training courses. At present it is up to the owner to check out a prospective trimmer’s expertise and training.

In choosing a qualified trimmer, you at least know that they have committed time (and money) to gain the qualification and will have dissected cadaver hooves, had their trimming supervised, undergone a period of practical study and ultimately been assessed to pass the course.

With an unqualified person, there is no guarantee of any basic level of knowledge or skill. Ask lots of questions of any prospective trimmer to find out about their training and philosophy, and remember that humane horse-handling and customer relations are also important.

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