Some years ago along with the avalanche of natural horsemanship gurus and horse whisperers a new fad arrived in the horsey world: barefoot trimming. Suddenly, every horse on the yard from dressage stallion to kiddie's Shetland pony was stepping out minus shoes. Barefoot practitioners popped up from out of nowhere extolling the virtues of the new trend. Farriers were unimpressed as they watched their client bases shrink as more and more owners jumped on the barefoot bandwagon.
"It won't last." one old-school farrier told me confidently. "You just wait till their horses all go lame and they can't ride 'em. They'll soon change their minds about this bloody New Age rubbish."
Over a decade later however, barefoot is still going strong and the majority of its practitioners are now certified and registered with one of the many barefoot organisations. So what, if any, are the benefits of leaving your horse unshod?
The obvious advantage for the owner is a large financial saving. You don't have to pay for expensive new shoes every four to six weeks and you can learn to maintain your horse's trim yourself if you want to. Supporters of barefoot also suggest that the shoeless horse moves more naturally and will be healthier which in turn means fewer vet bills. You will also be less dependent on the availability and reliability of the farrier so no more problems with lost shoes the day before a show and a week's wait until the farrier can fit you in to knock a shoe back on.
The hoof is designed to act as a shock absorber and to flex in all directions. Robbed of this flexibility by a rigid shoe, the circulation inside the foot is reduced causing weakness and increasing the likelihood of injury, damage and disease.
Anatomically, the frog should be the weight bearing apparatus of the hoof. Shoes raise the frog clear of the ground and the strain is then placed on the hoof wall instead. Shoeing the horse therefore drastically reduces the foot's natural shock absorption function with the result that much of the concussion sustained as he moves is borne directly by the joints. Add to this the weight of his rider, work on hard surfaces and jumping to the mix and you can see how soundness issues arise.
The weight of shoes affects stride length and alters the flight of the limbs. A shod foot also lands differently which can affect the horse's natural action.
As horses cannot actually see where they are placing their feet, they rely heavily on feel when moving across different types of terrain. This 'proprioception' is pretty much deadened by shoes making the horse more likely to stumble and trip.
Even with the addition of road studs shod horses can be prone to slipping on tarmac. Barefoot hooves have far better grip which makes roadwork much safer.
Shod hooves can cause horrendous injury to both other horses and to their handlers. Barefoot is clearly a much safer option for horses which are turned out in company.
Farriers however challenge some of this reasoning. They argue that horses are shod for two main reasons:
to protect the hoof against damage due to every day wear and tear; and to protect and preserve trimming carried out to balance the foot and limb correctly especially in cases where remedial treatment is required following injury or disease. Some horses have naturally poor foot confirmation and without the balancing and strengthening effect of shoes, they would have continual problems remaining sound.
Farriers agree that the hoof is designed to absorb concussion and the pump action as it strikes the ground helps blood to circulate. Shoeing does to some extent compromise this but they insist that the shoes are applied to the front of the foot where there's little or no movement or flex. The majority of the shock absorption through the hoof wall takes place in the rear two quarters where the shoes are not nailed on.
The shoe also relieves the weight from the sole of the foot which is not designed to take the load like the wall. Bruised soles can lead to various problems from sore feet to pedal arthritis and even laminitis. Shoes can be specially designed to rectify problems like navicular, poor foot balance etc. Trimming alone cannot do this.
It is accepted that shoeing is not natural for the horse but then neither is being ridden, jumped, stabled etc. Horses are shod specifically for the job of work they are expected to do; for example, racehorses are shod with very light aluminium racing plates. Human beings are not born wearing shoes – we choose appropriate footwear for whatever activity it is we are doing and horses are the same. Some horses can go barefoot quite happily if they are not in work and some will manage quite happily just with front shoes on but a horse is far more likely to become unsound and sustain damage to his feet if he is expected to carry out a job of work barefoot.
Farriers argue further that they are regulated by law. The Farriers Registration Act is a welfare act designed to protect horses and farriers can be disciplined or even struck off if they cause harm to a horse through their negligent shoeing of it. There is currently no such legislation governing barefoot trimming practitioners so if a horse is lamed as a result of their work, the owner has no redress. There are in fact around 18 different barefoot organisations currently in the UK, each with slightly different codes of practice.
In order to qualify and begin working, farriers have to train for four years. They also study shoe making and equine anatomy at college before taking a diploma qualification to become a Registered Farrier. Registered Farriers also have insurance. If they choose to, barefoot practitioners need only take a correspondence course which does not include any practical work whatsoever.
So the argument rages on. What do you think? To shoe or not to shoe; that is the question.
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