Taking good care of a horse’s feet might mean leaving the shoes off. Barefoot won’t work for a horse in an environment where his feet stay soft, or one confined without regular exercise. But for some horses, barefoot is better.
“Most horses do best if kept in the type of environment that they will be ridden,” Dr. Tia Nelson Helena, MT farrier and veterinarian said. “If you’ll be riding in a soft, swampy area, they can be barefoot in a soft, swampy area. But if they live on soft, wet ground and you ride on a gravel road, they’ll have problems.” Soft feet will become tender or lame from bruising.
If a horse lives in a big, rocky pasture where the soil is decomposed granite, he will likely have feet like steel.
The weather plays a role in the hardness of a horse’s feet. “In 1988 when Yellowstone Park burned, and in 2000 when we had drought and fires, I had client horses whose feet were so dry and hard I could not drive nails into them.”
She recommends planning ahead before pulling shoes. “The transition takes time. Horses that have their shoes pulled in late fall and their feet trimmed when they go to winter pasture are not difficult to transition into staying barefoot in the spring, since they’ve had all winter to toughen up. They may just need a little trimming,” Nelson said. But you don’t want to trim off all extra growth like you would for shoeing. Leave a little hoof wall for protection and just smooth the edges so they won’t chip and split when the horse is ridden on rocky ground.
“If a horse has been shod a long time and you want to transition to barefoot, do it gradually. If he was shod with pads, do one shoeing without pads, to let the sole start toughening. Then do one more shoeing in which just the fronts are shod and the hinds left off. The third step would be barefoot in front,” Nelson said.
Careful and accurate trimming is key. The hoof must be in balance. It can’t handle abnormal stresses on certain parts. “Shoes offer protection so even out-of-balance feet are not as likely to split and crack under pressure. If you want a horse to go barefoot, it’s crucial that whoever is doing the hoof care has good knowledge about the toe callus, where the breakover should be in the natural barefoot horse, where the heels need to be on that foot for a good base of support, and how to remove any flare,” she explained.
“If a horse has a lot of flare, you may have to shoe him a couple of times to protect the foot while the flare grows out and the foot is brought into balance.” You need a good, balanced foot to start with before you can expect the horse to go barefoot and keep a healthy, sound foot.
Horses should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. “I have one client – a large gelding – that could never do well barefoot. His feet are big enough but the hoof walls are thin. They tend to crumble so he’s not easy to keep comfortable even with shoes. He has too much weight for the quality of hoof,” Nelson said.
“I have other client horses with good feet that I would like to convince the owners to leave barefoot. They don’t ride enough to justify shoes,” she said.
There are products to help toughen feet during the transition. “I call my concoction sole paint. It’s one part tincture of iodine (7 percent), one part turpentine and one part formalin or formaldehyde. It should only be used on the bottom of the foot. If it runs up the foot and gets on the hairline it will scald the skin,” Nelson said.
She uses a bristle paint brush to apply as it will eat a sponge. “Some people put it in a squirt bottle, shake it and carefully squirt it onto the bottom of the foot – just the frog and sole. A small syringe can also work,” Nelson said.
“I’ve used it on shod horses with thin soles, and horses getting ready to make the transition to barefoot,” she continued. “I use it once daily for about five days.” The “sole paint” also kills thrush.
Sometimes after taking off shoes and trimming feet, Nelson very briefly applies a hot shoe. This sears and dries the surface and drives the quick back so the horse won’t be so tender the first few days going barefoot.
The easiest horse to transition is one that’s been barefoot already. “I just don’t put shoes on him, and trim cautiously. Often all I do is remove flares. If the foot is short and tidy but there’s a flare I just use a rasp to clean that up,” she said. “But if the foot is long I do some trimming.”
Shod feet call for a transition over several shoeings. “Some people want me to just pull the shoes. But this is like a human trying to go barefoot in the spring after wearing shoes all winter. Wear socks first! The feet adjust slowly. The sole thickens, hardens, and toughens up. The quick (above the horse’s sole) pulls back and the feet are not tender.
When making the change from shoes to barefoot, you can help the horse by gradually working into use. Don’t start with a long ride on a gravel road. Do short rides first and gradually adjust the horse to terrain and distance.
Going barefoot is probably not smart if the horse doesn’t live in the same environment as he’s ridden in. “A horse in a stall is on soft footing. Generally they don’t get much exercise so circulation to the feet isn’t great, making it harder for feet to stay healthy without shoes.
“It’s important to have a farrier who is willing to work with clients based on individual needs,” Nelson said.
n Taking good care of a horse’s feet might mean leaving the shoes off. Barefoot won’t work for a horse in an environment where his feet stay soft, or one confined without regular exercise. But for some horses, barefoot is better.