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Barefoot

Barefoot


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Barefoot had always been something that niggled at me; for me it instinctively felt 'right' for my horses to satisfy my 'natural' direction, but to be honest I was clueless about it. 

Back in the day, and we're talking 2005-onwards, there was very little available knowledge about it, and to be honest I thought it was just a case of taking shoes off and getting on with it, although I worried about rocky surfaces - at the time we were based on Salisbury Plain which was very flinty.

One thing for sure - farriers were dead against it. Understandably. Although a decade or so on, many farriers have now embraced barefoot hoof health, while many of those that haven't seem to accept that barefoot is here to stay and are happy to trim. For some though, there's still a fair way to go though. At the time, I spoke to my farrier who said without hesitation that there was no way my horses could go barefoot as their hooves were too weak. With hindsight, he was actually giving me the very reason why I needed to take them barefoot. 

(Long after my horses went barefoot, another farrier told me I was a prat, while splitting his sides laughing at his own bravado while the other (shod) liveries joined in. Charming man.)

So, back to my barefoot dilemma and I sat on my itch, until Kelso and his crumbling hooves came into my life and I knew I had to do something urgently for him (see
About us, our horses and the EquiNatural story).  I started browsing online and purely by chance I stumbled across the UKNHCP Forum run by Nic Barker at Rockley Farm (www.rockleyfarm.co.uk).  From this moment, everything changed. So began my horses' unshod world, and my vertical learning.  It was utterly life-changing.

"My horse can't go barefoot"
I'll just chip in a word here for the sake of hooves.  Just like me at the time, you'll hear all sorts of reasonings as to why horses allegedly can't go barefoot.

  • "We do too much road work so the feet will wear away too much, we can't possibly go barefoot."  Au contraire. Tarmac conditions the hooves, toughening them up.  A bit like us walking on a pebble beach. At first it's ouchy, then the more we do it, the tougher the soles of our feet become.
  • "My horse is a thoroughbred so we can't possibly go barefoot." You might also hear, "Typical thoroughbred feet." Myth. I've taken two TB's barefoot, one of which is our current Carmen.  Somewhat surprisingly, considering the rumours, they've been my two best transitions - both of them, and I promise both of them, walked off without a care in the world the very instant the shoes came off, and never looked back
  • "My horse's soles are too thin so we can't possibly go barefoot."  Farriers like this one. A significant reason why a horse should go barefoot. Thin soles are a classic sign of lack of nutrients in the diet as well as lack of any appropriate hoof stimulation and/or function.
  • "My horse goes lame when he loses a shoe so we can't possibly go barefoot."  Ditto above.
  • "Our area is too stony so we can't possibly go barefoot."  This was a big one for me, living in sharp, flinty country.  Three points here - first, while your horse is transitioning, there are hoof boots which in these modern times are super-effective; to this day I still use them for Murphy.  Second, as your horse transitions properly, with the right diet, environment and exercise, and provided you allow plenty of tarmac conditioning, those hooves will become strong enough to cope with any sharp/rocky surface.  And third, I've seen it with my own eyes. Not long after Murf's shoes came off, my very lovely trimmer at the time, Sarah, trailered her horse, Boy, over to me for us to both go out for a fabulous Salisbury Plain trail ride together.  As we approached one of the sharpest, flintiest tracks ever (Murf had his boots on), Sarah said "Watch this," as Boy loped into the smoothest canter ever.  I was speechless, seriously impressed, and maybe a tad super-envious.  Witnessing Boy comfy as anything only encouraged me all the more to push on with this barefoot mullarky.  Also, if you hop onto the Rockley Farm website, you'll see countless vimeo's of Nic's horses going hunting across the rocky, mountainous moor that is Exmoor. It makes for amazing viewing.

I understand every one of these objections, but here's a thing. The actual fact is that any horse can go barefoot; it's us humans who can't. I promise you, any horse can be sound on any surface without shoes after proper transitioning - it's us that stop it happening.  To sustain rock-solid barefoot hooves which can perform on any surface, means achieving healthy, strong, robust and conditioned hooves. Obvious I know, but it takes real commitment and hard work on our part, and a ton of learning, to get there.

To attain the degree of health in hooves to achieve this level of soundness relies totally on 3 factors - the right Diet (and I'm talking nutrients here, not feedbags, well yes, feedbags as well as there are good feeds, questionable feeds, and downright bad feeds, but mainly I'm talking about the importance of nutrients); the right Environment, as in grass turnout/crop spraying, no stressors; and the right Exercise, as in plenty of tarmac conditioning, often. Oh, and time, and a ton of patience, even when you're losing the will to live, because trust me, you will.

This is where maintaining optimum hoof-health goes pear-shaped because in order to keep our horses barefoot-sound, we must change virtually everything we ever thought we knew about how we manage our horses.

To say going barefoot is life-changing and time-consuming is an understatement.  It's incredibly challenging and not for the faint-hearted. As one of our Case Studies (Foxx) reads, who had very challenging hoof issues, her trimmer told his owner, Erica, that if she wasn't prepared to put in the hard work, to not even bother starting. Thankfully, Erica was determined and went all the way to success, but not without its trials.

Not only is going barefoot a massive learning curve, now also factor in a busy lifestyle, family demands, work, and not to mention variable livery yard restrictions or lack of facilities because we can only work within the environment we've got.  It's no wonder that for some of us it's incredibly challenging, and for others, virtually impossible.

There is nothing wrong with this!  Far better a comfortable shod horse than an uncomfortable barefoot horse.  I'm one of the lucky ones - I work from home so I can juggle my time to commit, but we don't own our own land so I've always been at the mercy of livery yards.

I personally found the transition enormously challenging, but Kelso's hooves relied on it so I pushed on.  As well as the minefield of re-education, there were the physical management changes and demands.  I became (and still am) a barefoot nerd overnight, and to this day I'm still learning - barefoot with the wet UK climate and grass flushing pasture does that to you!

Every day, every ride out, even field-checking/poo-picking, I'm focusing on the hooves - do they they okay, are they comfortable, are they gimping, are they sore, oh flip should I have put boots on, crikey is that a crack, and so on, and so on, and so on.  It n-e-v-e-r ends ...!  Going barefoot is a really big deal, but once you've got it sussed, it becomes second-nature and trust me, once you're there it's amazing.

As it turned out, Kelso, who started it all with desperately needing new hooves, thrived with his new metal-free hooves, and contrary to all the expectations regarding TB's failing miserably at barefoot, and as I mentioned earlier, Blas, our first very beautiful TB, didn't even notice his shoes had come off. Cookie, our gorgeous native pony, also rock-stomped from the onset. 

However ... there's always one. My connie, Murphy, has been a work in progress from Day-1 as he is metabolically 'interesting' - given the IR label at age 7 (2001).  In fact, early in 2013 I swallowed hard and against every fibre in my body, got Murf re-shod as I was simply unable to provide him with the right environment and excercise regime to keep him sound as a barefooter. Thank all the Gods that I found an amazingly sympathetic and understanding farrier who looked after my boy as if he was his own.  I also have to put my hand in the air and admit that it was sooooooo nice riding out without being permanently concerned about what surface we were about to embark on and whether Murf was comfy, which I'm sure many of you can empathise with.

Then as life would have it, I ruptured my achilles tendon within 2 sets of shoes, so all riding was off the agenda for what turned out to be 5-months.  So Murf's shoes came off again, and since then he's back to being a barefoot boy ;o)

These days? We're all now pretty much semi-retired from the riding lark, so for me and Murf it's hoofboots without even thinking, so pressure off. Cookie remains rock-solid regardless - every farrier/trimmer I've met over the years say's she has amazing hooves, and Carms is great too, although if we were going off road I'd boot her. 

There's no doubt in my mind I did the right thing for me and my horses, but there's also no question that looking back, taking my horses barefoot was the beginning of probably the most overwhelming, and relearning, time for me in several decades of horse-caring.  It wasn't easy, but it got a whole lot easier, and for years now it's become second-nature for us - we don't even think about it :o) 


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