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To bare or not to bare?

It’s possibly the most burning farriery issue of the moment, ANDREW POYNTON, FWCF, addresses the question and offers some realistic guidance to help owners make an informed decision.

13 year old dressage horse which

has never been shod.

IS THIS a new idea? Obviously not; the equine is not born with shoes, and neither are they found in the wild shod with anything other than hooves.

So why not keep them as nature intended? Yes, we do and can leave them unshod and even untrimmed in the wild. Native breeds in their natural environment cope very well without human intervention, even the mustang, a horse originally introduced from Spain into a new environment, has adapted well to its surroundings.

This success is likely to be due to both environments being arid. Horse’s feet

reflect the ground conditions they walk on; if the ground is dry, the hooves will be dry and hard, and tend to be tighter and more upright. The soles retain the horn because they are more vaulted and dry. These hooves are tough and resilient and can withstand much wear. The donkey’s hooves are much like this; it is no surprise that they were crossed with horses to produce the mule, the epitome of a beast of burden.

Historically, writing in the 13th century Marco Polo, famously travelling on the Silk Road to China, said of Badakashan: “The country is extremely cold, but it breeds very good horses, which run with great speed over these wild tracts without being shod with iron.” The Romans apparently did not shoe their horses until the Empire spread into northern Europe, where they learned the skill of shoeing with iron from the Celts and Germanic peoples. Why? Presumably it was not to humour the locals, but out of necessity to keep the horse ‘on the road’.

So what had changed? Certainly the climate, and possibly breed of horse had altered. In northern Europe we are blessed with a cooler and predominately damp climate.

Being subject to their environment, when wet, the hooves absorb more moisture, which softens the horn rendering it more pliable, and, due to the weight borne by them, prone to spreading.

The hoof will conform to some degree irrespective of type, but the low angle thinner walled, larger horses’ hooves will be most affected. The hooves will be more open, the soles flatter, and therefore more prone to injury than the tight hard and dry hoof. The wet flat hoof is not able to retain a thick strong sole. It is no surprise that these hooves are prone to sole bruising and puncture wounds when on wet stoney ground. So does this mean that all the problems occur in the winter? Not necessarily, when the ground is hard and dry, it is unyielding and likely to be more abrasive.

The flat foot will also become dry if it is living out on dry ground, but will still have a vulnerable structure. The wall is subject to becoming brittle and chipping, leaving the sole overloaded and liable to bruising. In addition, the hoof does not benefit from frequent extremes of wet and dry, the rapid expansion and contraction of the wall can result in cracking.

Flat foot, not suitable

to go bare foot.

In the UK the vast majority of horses that are not ridden go bare foot, maintain good healthy hooves, and remain sound most of the time. It is when we move further from the natural environment and enclose them in confined spaces, paddocks and even in buildings where their feet may be wet or dry for prolonged periods, that ‘natural’ starts to become ‘unnatural’.

Added to this we may want to ride them, increasing the load on their limbs and feet. Riding on hard dry surfaces with loose sharp grit and stone for prolonged periods, then returning them to a confined space where the hooves may become impregnated with moist organic matter.

Bacteria thrive in these conditions and are the main culprits in white line disease, which can undermine large areas of the hoof wall. This is not necessarily the case, but is not uncommon.

It is a mistake to assume that all horses can do unlimited work without extra protection, and sad to see cases where an inappropriate decision to keep a horse barefoot has been made, resulting in a foot sore shuffle along the road in the vain hope the horse will acclimatise. A more reasoned approach would be to try and see, whilst keeping an open mind.

There are riders competing across a number of equestrian disciplines, including dressage, endurance, racing and cross country, who attest to their horses performing well and even better than when shod. This is clearly working for them.

The reason why these horses go better without shoes may be that the hoof is able to flex to a greater degree than when shod, un-constricted and elastic, better able to absorb and dissipate the forces placed on it.

This area I have particular interest in, and am attempting to maintain and assimilate this

freedom even in the shod foot. With the modern materials available today, it is possible

to more closely replicate these hoof structures’ properties, in a plastic horse shoe.

This article first appeared in Horse Health Magazine, December/ January 2007


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