I turned to barefoot trimming after coming very close to having to euthanize my horse, Santo, that I had been shoeing for a little over a year. I was always fascinated by shoeing. It’s unlike any other trade. It requires much of the craftsmanship skills that are developed in other trades, but the application is more critical because the horse’s soundness (and sometimes their life) depends on it. When I started shoeing it was mostly just to be able to take care of my own horses. Santo was diagnosed with late stages of navicular at 7 years of age. He had been shod for a few years before I bought him and started shoeing him myself, and I was just following the previous farrier’s work, but I still felt responsible. The vet blamed it on his conformation, but I felt like that was a cop-out. When pressed about what our long term solutions were, the vet said I could “probably get two more years of usability out of him”. I was unable to accept that, and so I desperately searched for ways to change the predicted outcome. The internet wasn’t as convenient back then and I wasn’t computer savvy anyway so I looked into every book, video, and attended every clinic that I could. I quickly learned that there was a difference between just leaving the shoes off of a horse and promoting a good bare foot. In most cases, I’ve had to fix horses who have had to deal with years of misguided negligence ( that I formerly practiced ) before I could increase their performance. This has been my focus for the last 15 years: rebuilding hooves.
There’s too much to say on the topic of horses hooves to fit into one article, but I’ll focus on a couple of key facets here.
In permaculture it is taught that borders have the most biodiversity, i.e. the edge of a pond, meadow, or any biome. The success of each environment depends on the other. This concept can easily be applied to horse’s feet. When you consider the delicate balance of proper weight distribution on the solar structures and their rapid rate of growth, it’s easy to realize how hard we would have to work to maintain perfect balance. Given that the inner wall is more pliable due to the higher ratio of intratubular horn to horn tubules, it makes sense that the shock absorption and grip is better there as well. I’ve set every horse up for this optimal load bearing on the inner wall for 14 years because of this realization. My observations, again and again, hoof after hoof, regardless of conformation or other factors, have been that horses are more comfortable, more sure-footed, and the rest of the structures in the feet and body are improved over time when the feet are consistently balanced in this way. The reason horses “can’t go barefoot” has nothing to do with them and everything to do with what we are capable of doing for them. I feel that when we decide to put horses in our backyards, we also should assume the duties of Mother Nature. By encouraging movement, and simulating miles of wear through trimming, we can make continual hoof development possible.
Some people suggest domesticated horses are inferior and would never survive in the wild. That’s like letting your kids grow up only playing video games and never teaching them anything or taking them outside, and then blaming them for not being self-sufficient and hardy. In my opinion any domestic horse’s inability to flourish in a wild environment is due to our nurture, not their nature. We have the ability to affect our domestic horse’s environment as well as the shape and condition of their feet. This results in improvements in their body score and even their conformation. We have the ability to build horses from the ground up but much time is wasted protecting antiquated belief systems.
Oftentimes I have seen trimmers placing too much emphasis on the toe/wall trimming, while neglecting to address the back of the foot at all. If you only trim your horse’s toes, leaving the frog and heels to grow and retain dead material the horse will avoid a heel-first landing and steadily place more and more weight into their toes, which over time will atrophy their soft tissue, crush their growth corrium and put stress on their coffin bones. In my experience, keeping horses comfortably loaded over the back of their feet by frequently removing excess retained dead tissue in alignment with the internal caudal structures is the key to continual growth and healthy development. When a horse is capable of comfortably committing their weight into the back of their feet their soft tissue (Digital Cushion/heel bulbs) develops, and deep wall cracks from old injuries can easily grow out. I see a lot of farriers and trimmers top-dress feet to mask cracks and rings and wall imperfections, but that’s all top-dressing does for a foot: masks an issue. As soon as the horse isn’t leaning out on their toes and putting stress on that toe wall, the foot can heal and the horse can maintain continual un-deviated wall growth under proper weight distribution in the back of the foot (which lends itself to proper blood circulation). By addressing the root of the issue (comfort in the back of the foot) and relieving wall contact at regular intervals (so that the horse is not peripherally loading their feet on a long wall) you can heal the cracks and rings rather than covering them up.
It takes me about 7 months of frequent properly balanced trims to help a horse completely grow off an old distorted hoof capsule while simultaneously growing in a new rebalanced hoof capsule. My goal is to keep them striding out and taking their heels for granted at every landing. Their movement may be slower at first but it’s more correct. The speed comes in time. Like physical therapy. Being fast and wrong isn’t better in the long run than being slow and right. It’s not just about how fast a horse is capable of moving over gravel but how balanced, relaxed, and buoyant they feel in their body while doing it that gives them longevity. This requires well developed soft tissue, thick calloused live soles (not dead retained sole, which, like a shoe, temporarily protects a weak foot while arresting its long-term development), and well-connected lamina/walls. Horses can appear to be doing alright on hooves with retained dead tissue but typically require some wall length for comfort. This type of foot lacks optimum blood flow and the live sole thickness that is needed to protect P3 and keep pressure off of the solar corium. For me, it basically comes down to whether the horse is building their feet with every step or breaking them down. Immediate functionality vs. sustainability.
Shoeing to mask lameness is an unsustainable approach to structural soundness (continual regenerative development) but can be used to prolong functional soundness (usability). This can be used to keep a horse going in the short term, despite the inevitability of degeneration. Rigid, inflexible feet create rigid, inflexible horses. A steel shoe is a cast that prevents flexion; building a horse’s natural arch back into their foot gives it an ability to contort that is equal to its structural resistance to contortion. There is strength and comfort in shapes that bend without breaking. On the other hand, simulating physiologically correct wear is a sustainable approach to rehabilitate hooves and can be used as a path towards continual regenerative development.
A good trim can improve trust and set the horse up for more progress, emotionally, mentally, and physically. A good trim respects the horse’s unique physiology and takes in natural conformation constraints as well as developmental limitations. The horse should feel and move better as a result. The horse is the ultimate judge of the trim.
When I first started working on horse’s feet I was preoccupied by quick-fix solutions that had little regard for long term consequences. Santo, our horse that I almost ruined 15 years ago, is 23 years old now. He’s still sound and rideable. A couple of years ago we had an old race track vet out at our barn. He glanced at Santo, without knowing his history and said, “That horse has good feet. Nice legs.”
It’s taken me a long time to learn to have the patience and focus that it takes to see a horse into old age with good feet and nice legs.
For anyone interested in learning more about David’s trimming methods/ how to address specific pathologies etc. David has a Patreon page where he posts in-depth educational videos every month covering an array of hoof and horse related topics. His intention is to create a virtual ride-along clinic so that anyone can learn how to help their horses from their home.