Natural Hoof Care

The Transition From Shod To Barefoot
by Barbara Manfrediz

Congratulations on your decision to keep your horse barefoot!

You should know that each horse will transition differently due to many factors and there is no real time limit that can be set. The horse’s age, health, how long they have had shoes, the proficiency of their hoof care provider, and most importantly….the dedication of their care-person, will all play a role in their successful transition. During the transition process the hooves are not only conditioning, but healing.

Follow these simple guidelines to insure the success of your decision to keep a high performance barefoot horse. (Please note that rehabilitating horses with pathological hooves will be more complex and may require veterinary and additional care.)

Allow your horse freedom of movement 24 hours per day. Encourage your horse to move freely by placing and scattering his hay in an area or areas well away from his water source.

Provide your horse with an environment and terrain that is varied. We have learned to love a sterile and manicured environment and tend to keep our horses as such. In the wild they would encounter rocks, mud, sand, tree stumps and other natural elements that they would have to walk over, through, or around. If your horse is confined in a “cleaned out” enclosure, he misses out, and so do his hooves.

Horses naturally live in herds. Not only does living in a herd offer many social and psychological benefits to a horse but herds create movement. As a prey animal, in the wild, movement is key to the horse’s existence. In your care, movement is key to the health of your horse’s hooves. A wild horse travels with his herd 15-20 or more miles per day. Your horse needs exercise and movement – keep him in such a way that he gets plenty of movement and does not just stand around all day. Another great way to exercise your horse……get out there and ride!

In the beginning, when transitioning a horse from shoes to barefoot, it is recommended that you hand walk your horse daily (one, two, or three times per day) for 20 minutes each time – with NO stopping…that is 20 continuous minutes of hand walking. It is not only great exercise for the person walking but the added circulation in the hooves that this activity creates, will greatly aid in the healing process. If your horse is sore put hoof boots on! Putting boots on a sore horse will aid in the conditioning process because he will move better. Your goal is blood circulation – toughening of the sole will follow.

Feed your horse “free choice” grass hay. If your horse is not accustomed to always having hay available, you may find that at first, he will eat non-stop. This is because he is conditioned to think it will disappear and there won’t be anything until his next “meal” appears. When he has access to never ending hay, his non-stop eating will gradually diminish and he will choose when to eat, naturally. There are many articles on natural feeding and experts that advocate keeping horses naturally seem to agree that most people feed their horses too much of too rich a diet. Horses are meant to graze on grasses and weeds (herbs) all day and night (Nighttime does not mean “bed-time” for a horse!) and their digestive system is built to function all the time. When they only get “meals” their health deteriorates. You may not notice it now, but like many health issues, whether they be in human or horse, the way we spend our “lifetime” becomes evident as we age. Many health problems are caused by unnatural feeding practices of horses in confinement. If you want your horse’s hooves to be healthy, you need your whole horse to be healthy.

Horses in the wild flock to water – they drink from streams, ponds, and puddles. They drink the water, they roll in the water, and they stand in the water. All of these natural activities are wetting their hooves and thereby moisturizing their hooves. We tend to keep our horses out of water. We give them water in self-filling waterers or we fill troughs. Their confined environment rarely has a muddy area for them to “wallow” in. If you want the health of your horse’s hooves to improve, allow them access to water. Don’t cover them with hoof preparations that contain lotions and oils, it is water that they need. Let the water trough overflow with a trickle of water that creates a wet area in front of it. If you have the space, build them a “pond” (stock it with mosquito fish). If you cannot stand the thought of the mess or if your horse requires extra moisture in the beginning, daily hoof soaking is an excellent way to get moisture to your horse’s hooves. You can buy hoof soaking boots or make your own. You can also create a “soaking tub” or “soaking area”. Arrange it so that hay is accessible to him so he can eat while standing in the water.

It is crucial that you work with a good hoof care provider (and you may be or may become your horse’s hoof care provider!). Locate a hoof care provider proficient in a physiologically correct barefoot trim. Most farriers, whose expertise is putting shoes on, will learn a “pasture trim” for when the shoes are off and a horse is not in work. A pasture trim does not allow proper hoof function and is not suitable for what you are working to achieve.

Your horse’s transition will be more difficult and he may never reach a state of high performance barefoot (when your horse is sound being ridden barefoot on his usual terrain) without proper trimming. Taking the shoes off is always best but there is more to high performance barefoot than taking the shoes off.

I firmly believe a good hoof boot is essential. Quality hoof boots are an investment that will save you from frustration and your horse from pain. Talk to people, research the various boots on the market and invest in a quality boot. A quality boot is easy to take on and off, will stand up for many miles, and will stay on in any terrain at gaits other than a walk! You will most likely use your hoof boots all the time in the beginning and then their use will taper off. Later, when your horse is high performance barefoot, you will find that you still carry your boots with you, especially when traveling to unknown terrain. At this point, they have become an integral part of your tack. There are several quality hoof boots built for serious riding on the market today. Do yourself and your horse a favor, invest in a quality pair right from the beginning.

If pain relievers are necessary, natural should be your first choice. Herbs and natural products are readily available for pain relief. The most popular choices are “No Bute” which is a blend of herbs and the single herb, Devil’s Claw. Be aware that pain relievers such as “Bute”, are anti-inflammatory which means they contain ingredients that diminish circulation. You want circulation – that is what you are trying to achieve in hand walking, exercise and natural hoof trimming!

The time it takes for any particular horse to transition will vary. You have the power and now the knowledge to help your horse transition more quickly and comfortably. If you follow these guidelines, you will be successful…in time.

Continue to learn and be actively involved in your horse’s hoof care. As you are now well aware, it is not enough to just take the shoes off. All of the elements above must be present in order for your horse to achieve high performance barefoot hooves. Reward for your efforts and dedication will be great. You will have a healthier and happier horse and your horse’s hooves will be a source of great pride!