Barefoot vs Shoes

Put very simply a barefoot trim simulates natural wear and stimulates the foot to grow healthy. This is accomplished by respecting the internal structures and function of the foot. I use the word foot deliberately – trimming the hoof affects the whole foot, of which the hoof capsule is only a part. It’s that simple.

The hoof is trimmed to mimic what would happen if the horse received as much exercise as would occur if he had to forage for food and water over a large area. In nature, the ground trims the hoof through abrasion. Movement encourages and regulates hoof growth. The trim uses the internal structures as a guide, allowing the hoof to find its natural balance and ideal form. There has been, and continues to be, a lot of controversy over the so-called ‘barefoot movement’. In part this is a result of human nature – people cling to what they have already learned and believe in – but it’s also due to aggressive trim methods which have lamed many horses and alienated many potential barefoot enthusiasts.

However, despite the controversy, the truth is that shoes have a negative effect on the health of the horse. This was a well known and widely accepted fact in the past and it was common practice for horses to be both de-shod and turned out when they were not in work. Many farriers today will admit that shoes are bad for the horse.

So why do we shoe? It’s my opinion, as a horsewoman for over 40 years, that we shoe for several reasons – none of which really consider the health or well-being of the horse. We shoe, in short, for our own convenience. So we can ride when and where we want. Without regard for the internal health of our best friend’s feet. The truth is, when we shoe a horse who is not ‘sound’ without shoes, we are applying a device to allow us to ride what is truly an unsound horse. This is tantamount to a football player going out to play with an injured knee or shoulder and using drugs to mask his pain. Yes, he can play football – today – but what about the damage that will be done to his joints? He may make a conscious decision to play now and pay later in the form of surgery and even joint replacement. Horses are not given that choice.

Let’s examine some of the common arguments against barefoot.

1. All horses cannot go barefoot – some need shoes. I have yet to see a horse who cannot go barefoot. Some are not sound immediately upon going barefoot, but that does not mean the horse cannot successfully go barefoot – only that time is needed to rehabilitate an unsound foot, and boots can be used for the horse's comfort. The foot of the horse becomes unhealthy due to several factors and/or combinations of factors such as diet, lack of exercise, shoes, neglected feet, incorrect trimming, poor lifestyle, poor health. Not all horses will necessarily be sound barefoot – horses who are missing part of the coffin bone, for example, will never be sound. But they will never be sound in shoes either. For reasons I will elaborate on below, shoes often give the ‘illusion’ of soundness but it is just that – an illusion.

2. My horse has thin soles and can’t go barefoot. This is a common statement. Propagated by vets and farriers. But are we sure the soles are thin? Vets usually make this statement when owners say their horses are ouchy when the shoes are taken off. But are x-rays taken to confirm the ‘thin soles’? Not usually – it is just a huge assumption that first, it’s the sole of the horse that is the limiting factor in going barefoot, and two, that the sole is thin. In fact most horses that are ouchy when their shoes are removed are tender in the back of the foot due to weakness in the frog and digital cushion. Watch a horse who is ouchy – he will walk on his toes – avoiding placing too much weight on the heels.

3. Shoes are necessary for traction. This one is just too funny. Steel does not offer traction. Picture climbing a rocky slope – would you prefer to wear hiking boots or would you like to have steel soles? Steel is slippery. In fact, only because horses wear steel shoes can they perform the dramatic sliding stops in the reining arena. Barefoot horses actually stop after a few feet. It’s the steel that provides the slide! I have personally ridden a barefoot horse on a trail over large rocks/boulders while following 2 shod horses. The shod horses slid repeatedly on the rocks, while my horse made his way much more securely over them. Studs applied to shoes however, do offer traction. They also cause abrupt stops and put stress on joints and tendons. Perhaps we should consider not asking our horses to do things like jumping 5’ jumps on slippery grass or in mud. Perhaps we should have safe footing to avoid injuring our equine partners.

4. Shoes protect the horse’s feet from rocks. Another specious argument. In fact, the shoe forms a rim around the hoof, leaving the sole exposed to rocks. Yes, it may raise the foot up so that gravel the size of a pea doesn’t touch the sole, but any rock over 1” can and does easily touch the sole.

5. I ride a lot and the hoof will wear down. Have you tried it? In fact, exercise stimulates hoof growth. Nature has a wonderful system whereby the body responds immediately to what is occurring. For example, if you have never done work and rake for several hours, your hands will blister. In a few days the blisters will be gone and you will have calluses. The hoof is very similar and will respond to wear by speeding up growth to compensate.

And what does common sense tell us about shoes? First, we can see clear evidence that shoes reduce circulation in the hoof - and therefore in the entire body. And I note this purposely. In human medicine poor circulation in the lower extremities is poor circulation, period. It’s recognized that the whole body is affected in a negative way. There seems to be a tendency in veterinary medicine to treat the hoof almost as though it’s separate from the body. Nothing could be further from the truth. The hoof is integral to a horse’s health, and his very survival.

How do we know that shoes reduce circulation in the horse’s feet and legs? There’s a very simple way to tell. Feel the legs of a shod horse. They will be cold – in many cases icy cold. And we are taught that this is a good thing! Now take the shoes off that very horse and feel his legs a while later. They will be warm. As they should be! Aside from common sense however, thermography has clearly shown that shod feet result in cooler legs. Coolness caused by lack of circulation!

Not only do shoes reduce circulation they also prevent the hoof from distorting during motion. Something the hoof is meant to do. What do I mean by distorting? As the unshod hoof lands the weight of the horse descends on the bony column and into the hoof. The back of the hoof expands as this occurs accommodating the descent of the coffin bone onto the digital cushion. The digital cushion grows thick and tough, as does the frog. Shoes, however, are rigid and prevent the hoof from expanding. Since the coffin bone cannot descend normally the digital cushion doesn’t get the pressure/release necessary for health and it shrinks, as will the frog in many cases. In addition the joints articulate differently. Over time horses will begin to land toe first, and after enough time the horse will develop symptoms of navicular.

Shoes also increase concussion. Millions of dollars are spent on research for better and more effective athletic footwear for humans. Jogging shoes for example are designed to lessen concussion. Human doctors consider this significant. Imagine jogging in steel shoes! But that is what we ask our horses to do daily!

So why do shoes make an ouchy horse go sound? This is the key question. Shoes will make an ouchy horse go sound – immediately after they are put on. This is probably the most convincing argument in favor of shoes. Clearly they appear to make the horse feel better! Why and how?

Consider this. A horse has been shod for several years. During that time the digital cushion has shrunk due to lack of proper stimulation (pressure/release). When the shoes are removed, for the first time in years the foot can expand when loaded. But as the coffin bone descends it isn’t supported by a tough, thick digital cushion and the shock is not absorbed as it should be. So the horse feels some discomfort – he’s ouchy on gravel and other hard surfaces. At this point the horse is frequently put right back in shoes and not given the chance to rehabilitate the digital cushion. And it will rehabilitate (see photo below).





To the left TB gelding age 19 - shod 17+ years.




Left - the same horse after 2 years being barefoot (age 21)

When the shoes are put back on, the ouchiness disappears. Not because the shoe “fixes” anything, but because the shoe again prevents the hoof from expanding normally. The coffin bone cannot press on the weakened digital cushion. It’s that simple. However, the digital cushion will continue to atrophy and down the road this horse will be diagnosed with navicular. Just because the horse does not feel discomfort does not mean his foot is healthy. This is critical to understand.

Compare wearing a horseshoe to wearing a cast on a broken leg. The cast prevents the leg from experiencing pressure which will cause pain. And that’s good – for a short while. But the cast must come off for the leg to be healthy, because all the while the leg is in the cast it’s atrophying. If the cast was left on for years the damage would be extensive. This is the insidious effect of shoes. They cause the very problems that appear to make them necessary. Worse – once a horse becomes lame (from the effects of shoes), more shoes – therapeutic shoes – are used to help make him sound! This is about as effective as pouring oil on a fire. True healing can be achieved by removing the shoes and allowing the foot to grow healthy. Masking pain by elevating the heels does not cure navicular. In fact vets will tell you navicular cannot be cured – only ‘managed’. Barefoot proponents will tell you that navicular is curable.

Laminitis is in the forefront of the horse industry today – due to the tragic death of Barbaro. There is no more dramatic proof that the veterinary profession does not have the answer to laminitis than the failure of some of the country’s foremost veterinarians to save Barbaro. Shoes are often used in laminitis cases but the percentage of horses saved by using shoes is small. If using shoes were effective – surely Barbaro would be alive today.

Laminitis is curable. Founder is curable. Even horses with coffin bone penetration can be cured. Can be and have been. Thousands of them. And they continue to be cured – barefoot! Of course the veterinary establishment will deny much of what I have to say, but let me remind everyone that science is foremost among those that resist anything new. Veterinarians (and doctors) tend to rely on what they learned in school, despite the fact that the information may have been erroneous or could well be out of date. For example, as late as the 1980’s, surgery, including open-heart surgery, was performed on infants without benefit of anesthesia! I quote from "Babies Don't Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine" by David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.: “Hospitalized newborns, from premies of 26 weeks upward, have routinely faced surgery without benefit of pain-killing anesthetics. Although surgery without anesthetic was standard practice for a century, it was unknown to the general public until 1985 when a few parents discovered their seriously ill premature babies had suffered through major surgery with no anesthetic. Instead of anesthetic, the babies had typically been given a form of curare to paralyze their muscles for surgery, making it impossible for them to lift a finger or make a sound in protest!”  (Click here for the complete article.)

1985 – hardly the dark ages, yet there were numerous scientific ‘studies’ proving that infants do not feel pain. Sadly, it’s a fact that ‘objective’ scientific studies are not unbiased and are often conflicting. One need only wait several years for new studies disproving the old ones. What seems more important, not only to me, but to thousands of other barefoot proponents, is anecdotal evidence that barefoot works. That, plus common sense and the evidence of our own senses.

It may sound as though I am critical of veterinary science – but really I am just critical of closed-mindedness. I am critical of those who deny what they see and repeat things they have only read.

There are thousands of people who have turned their back on shoes as detrimental to their horses. And more thousands of horses who are happy to be barefoot. Someday, when people care more about their horse’s well-being than about their own convenience, all horses will be barefoot. To shoe or go barefoot is a personal choice. The decision is up to you.

To view and read some interesting information - as well as see photos of racehorses who were returned to winning form by going barefoot visit Simon Earl Racing




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