There is nothing to fear only soot!


“There is nothing to fear only soot!” As Jaime Jackson aptly put it, however, in the UK I believe it’s not quite that straightforward.


In most parts of the states, it’s far easier to give a horse more movement, drier conditions, and sparse grasses. Where in the UK we have mostly a yard environment, far less and more expensive land, therefore less turnout, richer grasses, and a wetter environment although the owners near Seattle may argue the latter. I think that these things make the transition much more difficult for the British horse owner.


In 1980 Jaime Jackson was asked to examine a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management and he was flabbergasted by the beautiful hooves. He was so inspired that he went on to study wild horses in the mountains of Reno Nevada. This is where his observations inspired the phrase “high-performance barefootedness" Jaime's definition was: It is the horse moving naturally on unshod feet with optimal efficiency. Jaime was a blacksmith who became a barefoot trimmer after studying these wild horses. He believes that there is no conspiracy in the horse world over the ability of barefooted horses, but only a lack of knowledge. Backed up by a misconception that is reinforced by the shoeing and unshoeing process. When a horse’s shoes are taken off, their feet are soft and very sensitive. Furthermore, if you tried to walk or ride a horse in this condition, they would be a picture of tender footedness.  However, few farriers would turn around and say that it was the horseshoeing process that was at fault and caused this sensitivity or go on to say that nature could reconstruct a hoof given time and the right conditions.  


Many owners talk about rock crushing hooves I believe in the UK to fully transition these type of horses you need to have most things in your favour. This is because of problems stated above facing a horse owner in our area of the world. To fully transition to a rock crushing horse, in my opinion, you will need:

  1. A healthy horse.

  2. A fully developed back of the foot.

  3. To employing a hoof care provider that knows how to nurture a conditioned barefooted horse.

I believe most owners are not looking for a high-performance horse and are taking their horses barefoot because they are looking for a healthier, happier, and sounder horse. These owners take this route for health reasons and if their horse becomes a rock cruncher in the process then that is a bonus. Many owners do not own their own land and can not implement a near perfect environment. So an owner may have to compromise in a horse’s ability to cope with rocky pathways or long rides. For example, if your horse spends most of its time on pasture you can not realistically expect them to go on a 25-mile fun ride without boots. Some do, but most will need daily conditioning, more about that later. A horse will get so many benefits from being barefoot and in a more natural environment that it will out weigh any transition period, lay off, or minor inconvenience of hoof boots a thousand times over. Even if your horse has to wear boots when you go out on a hack what is the problem, it’s a small price to pay for your horse's health. Every horse is different and as different issues, so the transition will be easier for some than others. A horse may not be able to be ridden straight away they will need to rehabilitate and heal. The transition is basically the period of time it takes from being unshod to becoming a conditioned barefooted horse. We may have rehabilitated a horse but that does not mean they have been fully transitioned and we measure this in the form of miles over different terrain and not time. Horses will heal In time but without the miles, on the clock, they will not have transitioned.


I’m going to consider transition from not only from an owner’s and holistic view but also from what your hoof care provider should be doing for you and your horse. Your hoof care provider’s role in this process is very important. I believe that most owners fail to take their horse barefoot not from a lack of effort on their part but from a lack of support and knowledge of their hoof care provider. However, there are owners out there who do not put their horse first and they will fail because barefoot is too inconvenient. A farrier once said to me “We provide a service for stabled horses.” and he is right! If a horse is in a stable for most of the time it can be problematic to take that horse barefoot and shoeing a horse will allow an owner to keep their horse in a stable and get on and go. However, this comes at a cost and mainly to a horse’s quality of life, health and life expectancy. Yes, I’ll say it out loud stabling and shoeing affect a horse’s health and will shorten their life expectancy considerably.


A healthy horse:

To go barefoot we need healthy horses which is easier said than done in a modern toxic environment. Holistic Natural Hoof Care is an ideology and a way of returning a horse's health. It’s not about removing the shoes and it’s not just about a natural trim. It’s about a holistic approach to horse keeping that returns the horse back as close to its natural environment as possible. Owners need to consider what they want to achieve from their journey because if they want a true barefoot performance horse they can not trade-off. It will be a new way of life for an owner and their horse and will require fundamental changes. If you compromise on some of these changes you may not get a barefooted performance horse. This is not a failure it just means that your horse needs boots on occasion which is a million times better than having them shod 24/7. For many owners rock crushing feet may not be possible in their environment and for their horse, again this is not a failure, your horse will be happier, healthier and sounder than ever before.


Let’s talk about health for a few seconds so we are on the same page. My definition is freedom from disease. Simple eh? This is different from our medical profession where their definition is free from life-threatening illness. So in this definition, a person who has a chronic disorder like asthma can be classed as healthy. In my definition to be healthy, our horses should be free from disease and key to this is to have a good immune system to fight off illness and sickness. The first thing to receive nutrients are the vital organs. The skin and hooves receive what remains, therefore the hooves and skin are the windows to a horse's health and a reflection of a horse’s diet and its environment. Flares, thrush, wall cracks, seedy toe and white line disease will all be stubborn if the diet isn’t right and can be a sign of an unhealthy horse. Reducing stress is one of the keys to a good immune system. Where a depleted or damaged immune system makes a horse more susceptible to all sorts of problems from skin issues such as reaction to insect bites to infections to metabolic disorders. This leaves the body more open to toxins and foreign invaders. I can not tell you how many horses I see with fly rugs on, owners see a horse reacting to insect bites and buy a fly rug! They do not say mmm their immune system must be depleted for some reason, I wonder why that is? Maybe I need to give it a boost and haven’t got their diet right. To cope with stresses on our horse's bodies it is essential to implement a holistic approach to horse keeping. Overall hindgut health is imperative for the wellbeing of a horse and a healthy hindgut with balanced hindgut bacteria in conjunction with a good immune system is a horse’s defence against most diseases facing the modern domesticated horse. A natural environment as possible is needed with herd life and lots of movement, this along with natural hoof care and a balanced hay based diet with nutritional supplements is needed to help our horse's bodies cope with life for a modern day horse. I should also point out that healthy cells can stop harmful substances entering them so if a horse’s immune system is depleted and its suffering from stress of an unnatural environment we need to change that environment.


Holistic hoof care provider:


Ideally, get yourself someone that will advise you and support you through your journey. Diet, environment, hoof care are the main ingredients for rehab and to get right. However, there may be other complex issues that can affect your horse's journey and you need someone with a holistic approach to identify these issues. Bear in mind a farrier has been trained to fix hoof problems with shoes so if you have a farrier you want one with additional barefoot knowledge because the last thing you want is your hoof care provider saying your horse needs to go back into shoes every time they hit a little snag. Your horse could still struggle if you do not control your horse’s diet, your horse does not get enough movement over varied surfaces, or your hoof care provider is not controlling heel height, breakover, wall length and flares correctly or if they continually over trim the frog or abuse the sole they will cause sensitivity. All in all, it is not an easy process unless everything goes well, everyone is on board and your hoof care provider knows what they are doing. This is why it is important that your hoof care provider is trained in taking a horse barefoot. This requires extra training if your hoof care provider is a farrier because they are mainly trained to trim a hoof for a shoe and not in nutrition, holistic hoof care and the nuances of barefoot performance. This is not a farrier bashing process because there are some very good barefoot-minded farriers out there and there are some poor barefoot trimmers but your farriers at the very least needs to have taken the time to look at barefoot techniques, understand its philosophy and understand it is a whole different ball game trying to maintain a barefooted horse.


A fully developed back of the foot:
















Look at the difference between the digital cushions of these two horses, this shows one of the key elements we are trying to achieve when we talk about the back of the foot development. This picture is also a perfect illustration of how developing the back of the foot gives a good hoof to pastern angle. Look at the total lack of support the navicular bone has on the horse on the left, is it any surprise that this horse will have sensitivity in the back of the foot? Young horses are born with a digital cushion of fat which is enough to support their weight. In the wild, a young horse will develop this fat into fibrocartilage by movement, flexing, distortion and frog pressure on different terrain over many miles. Also, this movement and flexing develops the lateral cartilages which form the foundation of the back of the foot. In domestication, young horses are left on soft pastures which don’t give enough flexing or frog pressure to develop the back of the foot. Commonly these horses are then shod and many go on to die without ever developing fibrocartilage or their lateral cartilage hardly at all. The lighter the horse the more common this lack of development is. The reason being is that the hoof wall will support the weight of lighter horses and keep the back of the foot off the ground, however, with heavier horses such as draughts the hooves will flare, split, crack and break away allowing the back of the foot to develop better.

KC Lapierre refers to the well developed back of the foot in his arch theory where wild and self-maintaining horses have a foot arch. This arch forms from the coffin bone at the front and a really well-developed back of the foot with low heels. Where the heel bulbs, heels, and frog take the initial impact and the arch flattens out when loaded. Pete Ramey also points out this feature and how it’s really important for energy dissipation and how the back of the foot is supported by the lateral cartilages which are flexible and create this arch with the coffin bone which is rigid to allow a horse’s foot to push off. Vets have found that horses with a 3-5% coffin bone angle are sounder horses, were barefoot advocates say the coffin bone should be ground parallel and  professionals often argue about the angle of the coffin bones being the key to a high-performance horse, in my opinion, this will take care of itself and these really sound horses are horses with a so-called arch but for the sake of argument ideally when a horse is standing still its coffin bone should be between 3-5% angle and when fully loaded it should be ground parallel. 


Transition from a hoof care providers point of view:

There are a number of keys to going barefoot but number one for me is good back of the foot development. So what is fundamental to achieving this? Well, movement, a connected hoof wall and heel first landing. We need to understand when the shoes come off a horse is unshod and not truly barefoot. A condition good footed barefoot horse is what we want to achieve and an unshod horse will be at varying stages of achieving this. Diet is about whole horse health and obviously important. When we change our horse’s diet to a low carb high fibre, quality fat diet we will have healthier horses and therefore healthier feet. To me, diet is not only about achieving overall health it is how we can grow in a well-connected hoof wall. Movement with a heel first landing is how we develop the back of the foot. However, if we do not achieve heel first landing it will be next to impossible to get the connected hoof wall. Let me point something out before talking about heel first landing. A horse should be able to land on all parts of its foot and not just the heels, sometimes digging its toe in to help it up a hill. Very often a horse will land by placing its foot and not rolling from heel to toe it will depend on many things including breed. Draught horses find it more difficult to land heel first because of their conformation. We could argue about heel first landing until the cows come home but, I think what everyone is trying to avoid hopefully is a horse consistently landing toe first. Usually, toe first landing happens because of sensitivity in the back of the foot for whatever reason and when I'm talking about heel first landing I’m just talking about a horse landing comfortably and naturally showing no sensitivity.


Simple biomechanics, trimming to the internal structures to facilitate that heel first landing and removing any interference to encourage natural movement is the way we progress back of the foot development. Facilitating heel first landing is about do’s and don’t. Do eradicate thrush, do decontracted heels if possible, and make sure the shoulder is rotating correctly under saddle. Do not over trim the frog, do not lower the heels too quickly, do not go over rough ground without transitioning your horse first, and do not have too higher heels.  An underdeveloped digital cushion and lateral cartilages may also prevent heel first impact because there maybe heel pain. So we should prioritise impact mechanics making a horse comfortable to land on the back of the foot. There is no use setting up a horse with perfect biomechanics if it's going to run off landing on its toes. Therefore, heel height is key for impact mechanics and if we are leaving extra heel height we should not carry this through the quarters as it will cause wall flares. We need to swoop down so it’s a 1/16 of an inch by the time it hits the widest part of the foot.


Frog are often abused and if trimmed at every visit this will make the foot sensitive and maintain the use of boots. Soles often fill out to give extra protection and removing it, is just thinning their protection and making them more sensitive.


In conclusion, if we remove all obstacles to facilitate heel first landing, grow in a well-connected wall, maximise the use of boots and pads, develop the internal structures, and condition our horse we will achieve our goals in producing a good foot that can perform in all conditions at the highest levels of an equine sport.


© Copyright 2015 Chris Simpson