No Shoes, No Horse? Not Necessarily.

I had a lovely dream that I tore the shoes off my horse and we galloped across a field of sunflowers, effortlessly moving as one. He felt like the wind and we barely touched the ground ... and then I woke up.

Be Your Own Farrier?

Doing your horse's footcare yourself can be a great learning experience. It becomes kind of fun to see the hoof change as it gets a more natural shape and the feet are so much prettier without the nail holes and rusty edges that shoes leave. You get to be good at seeing what the foot needs, and can plan the maintenance at whatever interval seems to work for you – usually two to four weeks.

But it’s hard on your body, especially in the beginning. I cannot say how quickly you will develop new respect for farriers, truly realizing that spending all day stooped under the bellies of horses is not an easy profession.

Learning to trim really requires a good, solid horse you trust to be in a rather dangerous position if something goes wrong. In time, both my horses learned what I was up to. Now I can lay Sailor’s fetlock on my leg and rasp or put on boots and he just stands quietly.

My barefoot-horse reality has been more of a long and winding road. It has taken a year of learning and hard work, of sore backs (mine) and sore feet (theirs) to produce a mostly happy ending.

I am a perfectly ordinary middle-aged woman who took up riding as an adult after dreaming of horses since I was a child. I now have two horses: Sancho is an arthritic retired ranch gelding and Sailor a younger appendix-type Quarter Horse who is my riding partner. My story starts with Sailor, a rambunctious palomino who regularly threw shoes, often right before something important like a lesson or clinic. He finally tore a front shoe off and somehow bent the shoe and cracked his hoof vertically. It wasn’t a terrible crack, but I was concerned about it growing out correctly. I had also noticed that the line of hoof growth at the quarters was compressed, pushing the hairline upward, and I didn’t think that looked right.

Someone mentioned having great results with removing her horse’s shoes and allowing a crack to heal barefoot. I was growing weary of all the lost shoes anyway. So, what else did I have to lose? Removing the shoes seemed to make sense.

I wasn’t a complete barefoot newbie; I had experimented with the Strasser Method years ago, but found it too invasive in the heels and the constant soaking of hooves produced dismal results. Determined to find a better way, I started by devouring the internet sites on barefoot horses. I found quite a bit of controversy in the natural-hoof-care camp and information on many different methods, some that seemed destined only to end up with sore horses. Some barefoot advocates seemed so intense about the evils of shoes, looking down on those of us who had shod horses with a kind of religious piety. That’s not for me.

I found what I was looking for in a recommended book, "Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You" by Pete Ramey. He believes much of what people say a horse "just needs his shoes" for actually is damage caused by constant shoeing, and that a break from shoes will always produce healthier feet. I liked Ramey’s philosophy and felt his method seemed minimally invasive and was something the layperson could master over time.

So, I set out to achieve that mastery. I studied every photo I could find to try and get a grip on what was being said and found myself thinking about feet all day long. I had always been diligent about cleaning my horses’ feet before riding, but I didn’t really study them and left their condition up to my farrier. I had agreed with the theory that shoes were really invented to fit the way we keep our horses and how we use them.

But after looking at images of wild horse feet, I started to feel they looked much healthier than a lot of the feet I was seeing on horses I knew. I liked what both Jaime Jackson and Ramey were teaching about natural hoof care – they advocated an approach that made more sense to me than the barefoot trim methods where it seemed the goal was to make all hooves conform to an ideal.

Transition hooves, with the hoof wall trimmed just above the sole . . .
a concave sole, hollow quarters . . .
and a gradual roll on the edges.

In the basic natural trim, the hooves are short, and the hoof wall barely extends past the sole, which is the main guideline for trimming. The sole is concave, with a large band of well-calloused sole around the wall. The quarters are allowed to hollow out, so they just barely are off the ground with the foot flat. A "mustang roll" rounds the edges from front to sole which prevents chipping and makes this area grow stronger. The hoof wall is tightly attached to the hoof capsule as it grows in a straight line to the ground and lifts the coffin bone higher. Any flaring indicated the separation of the hoof wall, and is abraded or trimmed away until it can grow connected from the hairline to the ground.

The ideal is the wild horse hoof, a truly gorgeous model of strength and efficiency, even though it looks so different from what we are used to seeing. There are no formulas for trimming because each hoof is different. This is what makes it difficult to learn. It has to be a subjective process, a journey to make the hoof closer to the wild model with each trim. The results are better circulation in the hoof, the short hoof has an easier break-over, and there is less shock to the hoof, leg, and back without shoes. This is all good stuff, so I decided to jump on board.

I called my farrier and told him my plan. I could tell from his voice that he thought I was making a big mistake, but he graciously to help me in any way he could. I’m sure he thought this would be a short-lived experiment, that he just crossed out my next appointment in his planner while expecting I wouldn’t skip more than that one.

Footsore Horses, Backsore Human
After I removed the shoes, both horses were quite comfortable and I thought maybe this would be easy. The truth was that the hoof wall standing above the sole was acting like a shoe, so the sole wasn’t even touching the ground. It was pretty scary the first time I tried to make hooves look like the pictures in my research materials. I was clumsy with the rasp and I couldn't see what I was looking for or at. My back was falling off and sweat made my glasses fall forward. My usually well-mannered horses could tell I didn’t know what I was doing, so they were moving and jerking away from me. And the best part: afterward, both horses were ouchy and limping. Sailor was walking gingerly on his toes, short-strided and stabbing the ground with his hinds. Great! Now I have ruined my horses. Sigh.

Yes, I knew going into this project that there was a transition period of up to a year. I thought I was prepared for that. But even after all my research, I didn’t anticipate how much my horse life would change. Most of the footing on my property is chat, reject sand that's nice and giving on bare feet. So the arena, corral and paths were all the kindest of surfaces. Still, when I rode I constantly wondered if Sailor was uncomfortable, and it made me tentative. I’m a pretty dedicated rider, but initially I could only do groundwork or ride at a walk for short sessions.

If you decide to learn to trim your horse’s feet, will you need to spend a lot on equipment? Not necessarily. I got great advice from my local farrier supply store, One Stop Farrier Shop.

The important tools are hoof nippers and a rasp. Nordic brand nippers ($85) were recommended as good value for the money. (The top-of-the line GE nippers cost more than $200.) I use a Bellota Top Sharp Rasp ($22), another value recommendation from One Stop. They recommended 14-inch or 15-inch and I got the 14; you want good leverage.

I trimmed for a year without a hoof stand before purchasing a Hoofjack®, which is the only way to go if you are going to get a hoof stand. One Stop said they sell three times as many of those as the other ones combined.

Outside the arena was worse; my horse could barely navigate the rocky terrain to get to a neighbor's to borrow a hoof stand. Some days Sancho and Sailor looked pretty happy, but other days they were stiff and reluctant to move. As their feet started to grow out, both horses would quickly get more comfortable, which was really nice to see. But, just when it was getting good again, it was also time to re-trim and repeat the process. Trimming needs to be done every four weeks, and I found it easiest on my body to trim one horse every other week, or a pair of feet each week.

I purchased Renegade hoof boots for Sailor’s front feet, which helped a lot out on the trail. They are easy to fit and to use, a truly great product. I have never had any problems with the boots rubbing or coming off or needing adjustment, and my horse’s stride seems very natural. Before, I always thought boots were a real pain; but these are easy and I highly recommend them for anyone transitioning a horse from shoes.

Not Quite Mastery, But Progress

An important factor in my successful transition has been having hands-on help as I learned, both to really see what’s going on with my horse’s feet and to improve my trimming technique. I found an AANHCP certified natural hoof care trimmer listed in an online barefoot publication and he kindly drove from Phoenix every four months to check my work, pretty up the feet and let me know where I needed improvement. His first visits were filled with me asking a million questions as fast as I could while he made what took me forever look effortless. I asked him what seemed to determine whether his clients would stick with keeping their horses barefoot. He said for the horses it came down to good footing, lots of exercise, and as much turnout as possible. For the humans it was taking the time necessary to maintain the trim and having patience with the process. 

Very slowly, it has become easier for me to see the hoof, to use the tools, to feel like I can do this. I am still clumsy and make sure nobody is around to watch when I trim. Sometimes I just do two feet and quit. Or I do a light trim every couple weeks to make it easier. Because the Ramey method is really about letting the hoof find its own best shape and not trying to make it conform to a model, there isn’t a lot of removing of sole and frog.

I have had moments of discouragement – feeling incompetent, making mistakes that have caused my horses pain and wondering if they will ever develop those rock-crushing hooves I have read about. Shoes are so much easier because someone else takes care of them and I just write the check every six to eight weeks. I feel more pressure when trimming Sancho because it is hard for him to balance on his arthritic knees and I need to finish quickly. I also got really discouraged when I was re-reading the Ramey book for this article and realized I still wasn't trimming enough hoof wall to allow the sole to completely callous. I have not been able to get the concavity of the sole at the frog/sole junction, and this may explain some of my less-than-stellar results so far. So, I felt like I had not totally committed to the method even after a year.

  Photos of feet newly transitioning from shod to barefoot  
Use the arrow keys to advance the slides.
Select the icon at bottom right to view full screen.

But, all things considered, I have made progress. Both my horses’ hooves have taken on a more natural shape and look so much healthier now. Honestly, I couldn't even think about nailing shoes to these new feet unless I had no hope.

Recently a friend said to me about Sailor, “He sure has pretty feet.”

I thought, “Hey, I made that foot.” Well, sort of.

So, after a few days of worrying that I wasn’t doing well enough, I am back with renewed enthusiasm. I recently purchased a Hoofjack® stand and the good-quality nippers I needed and got out there and started over. One horse is sound and one is sore again, but he’s getting better faster this time. Hey, it just gives me another opportunity to fine-tune our groundwork while his hooves get tougher.

As for Sailor’s hoof crack, it grew out with just a little bulge in the hoof wall the first time, and now, as the hoof continues to grow, it is straighter and more connected to the hoof capsule. The hairline is nice and straight and the lines of the hoof growth are even to the ground. I will continue to use the hoof boots outside the arena for as long as is necessary. For me, the effort is well worth keeping my horses' feet as healthy as possible. And, as for all the extra money I have saved by trimming my horses myself ... well, there goes that dreaming again. Instead of fields of sunflowers, I’ll settle for a barn full of hay and reasonably sound and happy horses.

I was born with the horse gene, inherited from my grandma. I spent summers on my grandparents' cattle ranch in the high desert of Oregon and rode every chance I got. But it was not until I was 35 that I finally got my first horse and, 16 years later, I am as much a horseaholic as ever, maybe worse. I thank my very understanding husband for all the time and effort that goes into keeping our horses at home and for allowing me my dreams. Horses are the best teachers and I have learned so much about them, about life and about myself.






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