Published in Saddle Up Magazine November 2014
There are a lot of interpretations of natural trimming, and every clinician seems to have their own method. What each of these methods have in common is their connection to the wild horse model. The wild horse model is simply a style of trimming based on the wear patterns on the hooves of the wild mustangs in the US Great Basin.
Even though they don’t live the same untamed lifestyle, our horses’ genetics are the same as their wild relatives. Hundreds of years of selective breeding has not changed the genetic makeup of our horses. Science has proven that it takes between 5000 and 10000 years for evolution to change the base genetics of any species. While we do select specific traits to carry forward through our breeding practices, the genetic makeup of our horses is the same.
Is it fair to compare our domestic horses’ hooves to their wild counterparts? This is a question I get asked often, and my answer is yes. “Domestic horses are really nothing more than wild horses in captivity” -Joe Camp
In May of 2014 I traveled to the Steen Mountains of Oregon to study and observe the wild mustangs that live there. What I saw was amazing. Horses with strong, hard hooves, traversing extremely rocky and uneven terrain. They galloped over it as if they were floating. The mustangs were in peak health, muscled and toned and moving with impulsion and vigour. In the approximately 500 horses we encountered, fewer than 5 showed signs of lameness. These horses could traverse terrain that our domestic horses would stumble and trip over even with strongest of hooves and hoof protection. It gave me a great appreciation for how much more our horses could be capable of if only they were not held back by our ideals.
The benefits of natural trimming with the wild horse as a model are many. The most important being that the hoof can expand and contract upon impact with each step. This the primary way the hoof dissipates the energy of impact, it also increases the circulation of blood through the limbs, reducing the stress on the heart. The horse will also have much fewer chiropractic, muscle and joint problems. It reduces the risk of tendon and ligament strain and damage significantly. Many horses started barefoot from a young age will never have to deal with arthritis, navicular syndrome or many of the other hoof pathologies that develop from improper hoof mechanics and function. Rarely are any of these pathologies seen in the wild.
Domestic horses should move functionally the same as a wild horse. They should strike the ground heel first and allow the shock absorbing functions in the hoof to dissipate the energy. Wild horses wear their hooves constantly because of the abrasive terrain that they live on and because they move 20-40 miles every day. Our domestic horses generally don’t get worked enough on varied terrain to wear their own hooves effectively. It is up to us to keep them trimmed and balanced to allow the hoof to function mechanically how it is intended. Because they are anatomically the same, I believe the wild horse makes a great model for trimming our domestic horses.
We must have realistic expectations however in comparing our domestic horses to the wild horse in terms of their capabilities. In the right circumstance they are one and the same, but to take a domestic horse that lives in a soft dirt paddock and ask him to traverse the rocky terrain of the wild horse would be unfair. We must condition our horses to the environment we want them to perform in. That means that if we want our horse to be comfortable on rocky ground we need to allow him to live on rocky ground. With proper trimming and care his hooves will callous and strengthen and he will be able. In cases where it is not possible to condition the horse hoof protection is needed.
Many horses develop hoof pathologies as a result of improper hoof care, living conditions or ill health and these hooves need extensive time for rehabilitation. In most cases the horses’ comfort level can be improved, it is only in severe cases that pain management becomes the primary focus. You would never see these horses in the wild as they would not survive on their own, it is only with our help that they can be rehabilitated or managed. Ironically if they had been born wild instead of into domestication, it is unlikely they would have been afflicted with these pathologies in the first place.
Published in Saddle Up Magazine October 2014
“Natural is always barefoot, but barefoot is not always natural.”
When I started my journey as a hoof care professional, I strived to learn all that I could, and to always keep the horses' best interest at heart. I called myself a barefoot trimmer, because I was adamantly opposed to the use of shoes on horses. The benefits of barefoot are many, but the most important are: increased circulation and flexion of the hoof and increased dissipation of impact forces during movement. As I started to trim professionally and see a variety of horses, I was very concerned with the unhealthy hooves I was finding. It wasn't that the shoes were ruining the hooves, but rather it was the distorted hooves under the shoes that was the problem. If the hooves were healthy to begin with, perhaps they wouldn't need a shoe for comfort. The shoe was simply a tool used to keep the horse comfortable while his hoof was perpetually distorted. I began to specialize in horses with distorted feet that relied on shoes for soundness. I pulled their shoes and rehabilitated their hooves so that they could be barefoot. This worked well for many of the horses I saw, but still a few went back to shoes as they could not cope barefoot. I was doing what I could to rehabilitate their hooves, but it left them with no hoof protection, weak hooves, and unsound for riding. Horses that were able to be used before were now sitting in their paddocks. Surely there was a better way to transition them to healthier hooves without the discomfort? I began to look at alternative hoof protection in the form of hoof boots. There are some very good boots on the market built for all kinds of riding and comfort. And while boots work great for many horses that need added protection, they don't work for them all, and not all owners have the time or desire to use them. This is where shoes become a useful tool. However, there are drawbacks to the metal horseshoe. It is too rigid, taking away the flexibility of the hoof, and without the expansion and contraction during movement circulation is reduced. The shock absorbing properties of the hoof are minimised and added stress is put on the joints and muscles. It does not seem natural to me given these drawbacks to put a metal shoe onto a hoof. But there is a product on the market that is the best of both worlds. It is a flexible plastic shoe that provides the needed protection for some horses, while still allowing the natural movement of the hoof. These shoes are a great tool to use while transitioning horses bare, or for horses that cannot adapt to being barefoot in their environment or circumstance. I can no longer say that I am a barefoot trimmer as I routinely put these shoes and boots on horses that need added protection. They are not barefoot, but they do have a natural hoof working for them with all the advantages. It truly is working for the horse when you can go outside of your comfort zone to seek what is in their best interest. Hoof care professionals need to work together to educate and learn from each other. Regardless of what we call ourselves: natural trimmers, farriers or barefoot advocates, we all have the same goal; comfort and soundness for the horse.
Kristi Luehr is a barefoot trimmer, author, and founder of the Okanagan School of Natural Hoof Care. She is certified by the Canadian Farrier School as well as the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care, and also has certification and equine massage and dentistry. Her focus is to educate owners about hoof anatomy, function and proper barefoot trimming that supports and grows healthy and functional hooves specific to each horse's individual needs. She is the author of two online courses specific to hoof care and is always striving to create more educational content for students to learn from.