Barefoot or shod: what’s right for YOUR horse?

Horse-shoeing

Hello Dr. Gray. I am writing today in regards to shoeing. There seems to be a trend towards riding barefoot. A huge article just came out in Dressage Today magazine about Shannon Peters taking a few of her top performers barefoot. I am intrigued by this concept because I have been taught that horses always need shoes for added stability. The thought of riding without shoes is equal to the sin of jumping without a helmet. Should my training level dressage gelding go barefoot? What are the medical ramifications of this? How long will his hooves take to adjust to the transition? What can I do to ease the transition? If barefoot, is he more at risk for tendon injuries, laminitis and other crippling injuries? Thank you as always Dr. Gray. Your support along with the SmartPak family has aided me tremendously!
– MP from California

A great question like this deserves an equally great answer, so I’ve “turfed” this to Danvers Child, the expert farrier who is our go-to-guy for all things related to hooves! BTW, my 3rd level gelding is barefoot for half the year and shod in front the other half. – Dr. Gray

Dear MP,

I was pleased with the balanced view presented in the article you reference. Too often, we see discussions of this type take on a polarizing nature, where hoof care professionals belittle each others’ methods, and somewhere along the way, the discussions simply derail, assume an argumentative tone, and adopt a focus of “my way is the right way” rather than focusing on what’s best for the horse.

Subsequently, it was refreshing to see my colleague Pete Ramey’s thoughtful comments summarized as “ignore extremists on both sides and consider what’s needed for the individual horse.” It’s a viewpoint I share in my farrier practice and in my own horse-keeping, with both of them averaging about 50% shod and 50% barefoot. The decisions aren’t generic, and they have to center upon each horse and doing what’s best for that horse.

Admittedly, what an individual practitioner determines as being “best” generally comes down to an opinion, and our opinions tend to stem from our backgrounds, our experiences, and our comfort zones. Ultimately, our nature is to promote and practice what we know. If your knee is injured, a surgeon is going to think about surgery, a chiropractor is going to think about adjustment, and a homeopath will likely suggest organic remedies. Ideally, however, each of those practitioners will be open to and knowledgeable about alternative treatments and approaches and will judge your situation according to your unique and individual needs rather than by providing generic answers and treatments.

And that’s what good hoof care providers do; they assess the entire situation and attempt to meet the individual and specific needs that are uncovered through their full assessment. Subsequently, I admit now that I do not have enough specific information to tell you whether your horse can go barefoot or not. I can tell you that, assuming there are no serious issues omitted in your general description, you should have no concerns about a transition to barefoot resulting in the major problems you mention: “tendon injuries, laminitis, and other crippling injuries.” Likewise, I can give you some general areas of consideration that should help guide your decision making and your discussions with your hoof care provider as you make choices about what’s best for your horse. With your gelding, and with all horses, the decision-making keys related to trimming vs. shoeing are twofold and revolve around:

1.) Understanding the base reasons for applications of shoes, which are limited, and
2.) Examining the variables that confound the issue, which are virtually unlimited.

There are three basic reasons for shoeing: to protect the foot, to address traction concerns, and to alter or enhance gait. While the reasons are limited, the discussions associated with those reasons are more involved than I can elaborate upon in this response. And to examine the variables that compound and confound the issue, one would have to write a weighty textbook. In brief, however, the variables fall into the basic considerations we deal with in all horse-keeping situations: over-riding concerns such as environment, climate, and genetic makeup, and situation-specific concerns such as age, terrain, and activity level, as well as considerations of disease, weakness, or injury.

Your concern about “transition” is vitally important. Unfortunately, it’s a common belief that transition involves a period of lameness or dis-ease. And I firmly believe that these elements should not be accepted. For me, transition means that you make wise decisions about when you’re going to remove shoes and what you’re going to expose your horse to (usage level, terrain choices, etc.) while he is adjusting. Basically, the transition should be about how you as a care provider prepare for and deal with altering your horse-keeping practices; it should never be about how much lameness and discomfort you’re willing to accept or how long you’re willing to accept it.

Ultimately, choosing to go without shoes requires as much, if not more, of a commitment than going with shoes. Again, I think the Dressage Today article did a good job of making it clear that Shannon Peters wasn’t simply pulling shoes and giving her horses a trim. Instead, her decision involved altered turnout, increased frequency of maintenance, fitting and re-fitting of boots, and numerous other horse-keeping choices, many of which require daily maintenance.

Danvers Child CJF

A lifelong horseman and practicing farrier since 1972, Danvers specializes in shoeing sport and performance horses. He served as a supervisor for the Official Farriers at the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games, and he also serves as an Official Farrier for the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event.

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Posted in Ask the Farrier, Skin, Coat & Hooves

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9 comments on “Barefoot or shod: what’s right for YOUR horse?
  1. Ann Davis says:

    I agree — do what is best for your horse. I have ridden my horses barefoot for more than 30 years and for the first time I am considering shoes for my tender footed hubby horse. Our trails are hard packed and rocky and after 2 years of impeccable hoof care and trail boots, if the hubby horse still has issues this season we may try shoes.
    My horse has feet like iron and handles our trails with out any problems. But I do believe that if your horse is barefoot the hoof does need more care. We file as needed and have monthly professional care even though the monthly care does not always involve trimming in a traditional sense.

  2. Heidi Meyer says:

    Cannot say enough about diet and management…….if you have correct mineral balance (which most horses don’t because it’s not free choice nor is their hay ever analysed) and enough movement over the terrain you want to ride on (make home the toughest they will ever encounter and their hooves will respond).
    As a past eventer, I understand agenda…but as I’ve matured and realized this is a living creature under me, with issues I may/may not have caused…..I need to put him first. In this day/age, technology has allowed us to basically erradicate nails from the horse’s hoof. Composite shoes and glue on situations can take the place of putting a hole into a living structure. If the horse has an underlying issue that only a shoe seems to alleviate (will not cure by the way) then mb the question is that there is something deeper going on that should be addressed not covered up. Nothin is more honest than a barefoot horse. I have thoroughbreds, warmbloods, drafts, minis, competition horses and pasture pals all bare……it’s usually the human agenda that keeps them in metal.

  3. Heidi Baumgarten says:

    My horse never had shoes and his hoof trimmers are the same ones that work with Shannon Peters (Sossity and Mario). They come every 6 weeks and that’s all he needs. He gets trace minerals to compensate for missing nutrition in the grass hay. My other horse had been shod for years, he had a club foot and it was a constant struggle to get the shoeing right. When the same trimmers took his shoes off, he thrived. They helped him to get balanced, by trimming every 3,4 weeks in the beginning. He also got trace minerals to help with a healthy hoof growth. I think, it’s well worth a try. Search for a good hoof trimmer, because some farriers take the shoes off and trim the hoof flat as if they put shoes on. There are tons of websites where you can get informed about natural hoof care.

  4. Robynne Catheron says:

    A barefoot horse has far more traction than a shod horse. Consider the wild horses- they have never had steel nailed to their feet, live outside 24/7, and are constantly moving. These things are vital for a horse to remain sound for his entire life!

  5. sarah block says:

    I understand the need to “see all sides,” and consider what is best for the horse, but there has been some solid science showing that shoes are just plain not good: they cause decreased circulation, decreased shock absorption, and decreased development of such structures as digital cushion, lateral cartilages, and even coffin bone density. yes, this can happen with too long a trim with a barefoot horse, but largely it happens with shoes, and shoes ensure that this damage happens. So I think that while shoes may be seen in some cases as a necessary evil, it is important to dig up the science if you need to, and realize that shoes are just not good for the foot. Even in the world of shoes, we could do better realizing this. . . for instance shoes could come off whenever possible, as often as possible, and definitely for any lay ups or down time. We used to routinely take shoes off in the winter, and it seems most people have even moved away from that. Saying not all horses should be without shoes is a bit like saying not all people should stop smoking.

  6. kelly hubbard says:

    in my opinion shoes was made for hard rocky terrain and roads if on grass or soft ground shoes would not be nessasery

  7. How refreshing it is to read all the support for barefeet, wisely transitioned. At 61, I no longer have a competitive agenda. I am curious to see how healthy and well developed my OTTB can become. That of course starts from the ground up.

    When I was a kid, the farrier INSISTED, on pulling shoes in the winter for show horses, or pulling them in the summer for fox hunters! NO ONE shod behind! Over time owners and farriers created this back to back shoeing all around protocol. I ask them, where are your active horses in their late teens and 20’s? Most are used up or dead. Where are the 20 something Grand Prix Dressage horses? Only in Austria?

    As for the Hubby Horse, I second the concern about diet. It may interest you to know that for about $150, Dr. Eleanor Kellon will analyze your feed and forage test results and give you an individualized supplement plan. A new hoof capsule will grow out in about 8 months on the new supplements. Diet and sound movement are critical.

    Right now my OTTB can hack out happily at a walk on rocky trails. We are having a dry stretch for the first time in, could it be years? My belief is that if I could grow big, hulking frogs for my boy to land on, they would stay healthy. I really try my best. If I owned the farm, I would have tons of pea gravel!

    My Radical Thought on Trim: In the meantime I allow him the heel support and structure for the back of the foot HE needs. I haven’t touched his heels since last August. They have remained 1/4″ or less over the sole. They still run forward but are slowly moving back On Their Own. (I plan to publish a post for Easy Care on the progression of his feet when I left the heels alone.)

    I am putting this out there. Consider leaving the heels alone for ouchy horses…within parameters, to find better soundness. I do stay on top of the toes bringing them back to within 1/2 -1/4″ of solar concavity. In that way the toe isn’t pulling the heels forward.

    I will put the heel parameters on my site. But again, the heels have maintained the same height over the sole, and have maintained the same height outside and inside, all around. One swipe of the rasp to bring the heels Back under the horse, as I was taught, and he would be sore. I am choosing to listen to the horse.

    Dawn

  8. sarah block says:

    horses need protection at times, they just need modern protection, not the nailed on kind. you can’t ask a farrier to respond to a question about barefoot. . . ask someone who has been trimming 300 barefoot horses for years about barefoot. . . often people don’t realize the choices they have other than metal nailed on shoes.

  9. T.Canter says:

    My horse had never had shoes when I bought him. We were showing in the hunter/jumper circuit and it was recommended to me that we put shoes on him for support. Shortly thereafter he was having lameness issues. We thought it was an abscess, but finally had him x-rayed in 2012 and the vet said he saw “navicular changes” in one of his front feet (but we never did an ultrasound to confirm). He was put in corrective shoes and that seemed to help, but we’d still have off days. We moved across the country and the moment his hooves touched east coast soil I couldn’t keep him sound. He was already on joint supplements. We tried pour in pads, joint medication, joint injections, the works. One vet told me I should save my money and just retire him. Not a single person suggested I remove my horses shoes (except for my non-horsey husband). Finally, I took him to a big fancy vet school vet, who told me that I should consider nerving my horses foot. I told him I didn’t want to do that, and then I told him that I was so confused, because I never had this problem till we put shoes on my horse. He response was, “I don’t think it’ll help, but I’d be remiss if I told you not to pull his shoes.” My horse has been without shoes for 4 weeks now. About 3-4 days after he had his shoes off I saw him trot and canter around for fun for the first time in almost 2 months. I’m giving him lots of time to transition and hopefully we can start doing very light work in the arena soon.

    I guess the point of my reply is that the “to shoe or not to shoe” argument is confusing. I also think what works for one horse may not work for another. I know horses who have been barefoot all their lives with no problem and horses who have shoes with no problem. There are a ton of factors to consider. The hardest part about being an owner is listening to everyone’s advice (cause almost every person I talked to told me I was doing something wrong) and making the right decision for your horse. In the long run, you have to trust your gut and do what you think is right for you and your horse.

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Apparently I've been obsessed with horses since I was born, and I used to beg for pony rides on a regular basis. I started showing in 4-H, progressed to equitation and jumpers in high school and rode on the IHSA team in college where I also discovered the joys...

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