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Taking their shoes off

Horse Health: Transitioning the shod horse to barefoot

While the vast majority of shod horses can make the change to barefoot, the transition is much more likely to be successful, comfortable and enjoyable for both the horse and owner if the horse is properly assessed before transition is undertaken. Although the quality of the hoof wall in this back foot is in poor condition the structures at the back of the hoof (frog and heels) are in good health and thus the transition period for this horse from shod to barefoot will be reasonably quick and uneventful without complications.

Horse owners come to the decision to transition their horses from shod to barefoot for a number of reasons — curiosity, cost, research, friends, frustrating lamenesses, and unfortunately at times a death sentence due to a diagnosis of intractable navicular disease or laminitis.

Regardless of what drives the decision to transition a shod horse to barefoot the journey towards barefooting is often not without its challenges — yet this is where it gets interesting. The challenge is both the best and the worst part of this decision since the bare hoof is incredibly ‘honest.’ The hoof is a window to the horse’s entire state of health, inclusive of environment. Therefore all successful transition programs are holistic in nature and must address multiple facets of horse health, husbandry, well-being and welfare. Although husbandry influences may seem collateral in nature they serve hoof health and horse welfare in equal measure.

There is plenty to consider even before the shoes are removed and it is important to recognize the process is often more involved than simply pulling the shoes, although it can be as simple as that at times. While it is certainly possible for the vast majority of shod horses to make the change to barefoot, the transition is much more likely to be successful, comfortable and enjoyable for both the horse and owner if the horse is properly assessed before transition is undertaken.

Horses that have compromised or seriously distorted hoofs will likely take longer to transition than horses whose feet are relatively healthy. Owners can be caught unaware when transition processes morph into complicated rehabilitation projects. Be prepared. Certain horses are better suited and/or candidates to being barefoot than others.

A historical account of shoe wear needs to be taken into consideration whenever shod horses are previewed for barefoot transition i.e. age first shod, length and intervals of shoeing, and quality of shoeing.

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This is not to say that if a shod horse has hoof problems it shouldn’t or couldn’t go barefoot and may indeed be the very reason to transition, however, it is important to be aware that a foot with pre-existing challenges may require more attention and patience to successfully transition. Unfortunately shoes can mask a problem and allow the problem to develop and advance unnoticed. The transition period horses go through after shoe removal is the time needed to heal, address and manage these unnoticed problems.

Despite the fact that the bone mass of a horse’s foot increases until the horse is four or five years of age, many horses are shod as young as one or two years of age. The practice of shoeing horses under five years of age interrupts and arrests the proper development and full expression of both the external and internal structures of the hoof. Such horses often suffer various degrees of permanent consequences related to juvenile shoeing as this time period for foot development in the horse is unforgiving to the physiological influences of being shod. Horses rarely inherit small, poor and/or weak feet, however, the development of a horse’s foot is susceptible to the consequences of early shoeing and poor husbandry.

If the hoof capsule has become distorted and misshapen showing signs of contraction, a shrunken frog, a shallow sole, poor hoof quality and a stretched white line, it points to a poorly connected hoof capsule that is in ill health. As the hoof reshapes itself into health, the frog will expand and become vibrant, the heels robust and uncontract, and a dome-shaped and/or convex sole with a shorter toe and tighter hoof capsule will develop. Sometimes this transition can take weeks, months or even longer if a horse has foot issues. The full transition process can take up to two years.

A horse that is used to having shoes will often (not always) have more sensitive feet at the beginning of the transition period. During this time frame, the horse’s feet can be comforted by choosing a forgiving terrain for turnout until the feet recover their natural strength.

Some transitioning horses will need the support of hoof boots and pads for a while after the shoes come off. Padded hoof boots can make a huge difference in expediting the transition period because they allow the foot to remain comfortable and in motion while it develops and steadily increases in health. How long the boots will be needed is completely individual. Some horses will need them only for a brief period, while others may always need boots to be ridden on rugged terrain.

Comfortable movement is powerful medicine for a transitioning horse. It is a critical dynamic for driving the hoof capsule to reshape and regain health. Ideally convalescing horses are best suited to live with companions in large areas of varied terrain, 24-7 as they develop strong bare hoofs.

In addition to movement, strategies such as proper nutrition, beneficial for any horse, are essential for transitioning a shod horse.

Continuous availability of long-stem plant fibre and balanced mineral profiles are pre-eminent to the growth of strong, resilient hoof capsules. The mechanics of a trim are important, yet robust structure cannot be carved into or onto the hoof. A vibrant hoof capsule grows out of a nourishing diet, thriving digestive health and a proper lifestyle.

Sugar-laden diets and processed feeds lead to poor hoof quality and is detrimental to a tight laminar attachment. These dietary improprieties create weak hoofs that are readily exposed by the the bare hoof. Diet has come to be recognized as such a critical element in successfully transitioning a horse to a shoeless lifestyle that highly sought-after farriers or barefoot trimmers may not accept clientele who do not comply to dietary requirements. It is just that important.

The successful transition of a shod horse to a barefoot lifestyle benefits greatly from a strong alliance between horse owner, veterinarian and hoof care provider.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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