Using Composite Shoes in my Barefoot Practice [When I use them, how they help and why they may be the right option for your horse]
Our world is ever changing and the technology and research in the farrier industry is evolving fast. Composite shoes and pads are flooding the market, being manufactured by many different companies around the world.
While I am a huge barefoot advocate, I am also an advocate for keeping horses comfortable and sometimes that means they require hoof protection. I am not in favor of traditional metal shoes because in my opinion they are too rigid and limit hoof flexion as well as increase the impact energy of movement (by negating digital cushion function). This impact must then be absorbed by the horse's joints and musculoskeletal system. Metal shoes also peripherally load the hoof (meaning they only weight the outer hoof wall), causing frog and digital cushion atrophy and lack of sole stimulation.
Composite shoes are a good alternative as they can provide protection and comfort while still allowing the hoof to function naturally to absorb impact. This is because of their anatomically minded design that incorporates weighting the frog and therefore the digital cushions as well as the sole, bars and hoof wall collectively. [Weighting the whole bottom of the hoof as nature intended]
Like traditional shoes, composites can be used in concert with hoof packing, wedges, anti fungal pastes, and be customized to the individual horses' needs and hoof shape.
In order to fully understand the benefits that composite shoes can provide we have to understand when they may be a good option for a horse. I see all shoes, boots, pads, casts and hoof protection sources as a band aid approach. This is not a negative thing, but should be seen as a means to an end. In other words we should use these devices to keep the horse comfortable while we are addressing the root cause of the problem (i.e. weak or damaged hooves) so that we can ultimately return proper hoof form and function so that protection is not needed.
Horses that have thin soles, disconnected hoof walls, weak frogs and digital cushions, who are foundered or have navicular disease can all benefit from the use of composite shoes.
Below are several examples where I have applied composite shoes for various reasons:
The most important part of applying a composite shoe is the trim you apply underneath the shoe. This goes for traditional metal shoeing as well. Setting the shoe back to the optimal breakover point is crucial. Leaving excess hoof wall at the toe will allow the toe to migrate forward, leading to under run or crushed heels and a distorted hoof shape.
When does a horse need composite shoes?
Horses are not naturally flat footed. Flat soles with a lack of concavity come from disconnected hoof walls. Horses that don't have this connection can benefit from composites because they add immediate "false concavity". This concavity provides relief to the inflamed and over stimulated solar corium on the underside of the coffin bone that is commonly seen in flat footed horses. These are typically the horses that are sold as "needing shoes", and are the ones instantly lame when the shoes are pulled. There is a severe breakdown of the hoof capsule and in my opinion it needs to be corrected, by facilitating a proper hoof function via the trim underneath the composite shoe. The horse can then grow in a well connected hoof wall that will in time re-elevate the coffin bone and create the concavity that is needed for soundness barefoot.
Horses that have thin soles also benefit from composites. They protect the sole and cause it to thicken by decreasing the wear on it. It is common practice for traditional farriers to "clean up" the sole during a trim, or "carve in concavity", thereby thinning the sole and removing the often ugly but helpful protective outer layer. Routine trimming like this leads to thins and weak soles that are unable to bear weight. Giving the sole a reprieve by using composite shoes call allow it to thicken and then we can transition back to barefoot in a way that allows proper hoof function to actually stimulate more sole growth and an overall thicker, healthier sole.
Horses with navicular disease or a weak caudal hoof can also benefit from using composite shoes. The design of the composite shoes I use (Easyshoe Versa product line) incorporate frog support and a thick outer rim that also weights the sole of the hoof. Typically the back of the hoof becomes weak from a lack of proper stimulation. Traditional metal shoes only weight the heels and hoof wall, lifting the frog off of the ground. This lift reduces stimulation on the frog and therefore the underlying tissues of the digital cushion. This lack of stimulation over time can lead to atrophy and degeneration. When the soft tissue starts to fail, the horse usually overloads the toe and avoids weighting the heels, further compounding the problem and this can lead to irreversible damage to the navicular region. Using a composite shoe with sole packing and/or heel padding can often create enough of a cushion that these horses can start to comfortably weight the rear of the hoof again and start to regenerate the soft tissues. Over time you can reduce the padding and sole packing and eventually move from composite shoes back to barefoot. Prioritizing heel first landings is key to this rehabilitation process.
I love to be able to utilize composite shoes when needed in my practice. They truly have become a game changer for me. For clients who are not interested in using hoof boots, or horses that require 24/7 support in the beginning of their rehab these shoes can be the difference between soundness and pain.
My number one goal of using composite shoes is to return the hoof to it's proper form so that doesn't require protection in the long run.
In all actuality everything we can do with composite shoes can be done with some variation of hoof casts, boots and pads, but often the use of the composite shoes is far more convenient for the owner. While my primary goal is to help the horses, I can't facilitate that if I don't keep the owners happy :)
As a professional trimmer I have seen it all. I have trimmed rescue horses, show horses, race horses, competitive horses and backyard pasture ornament horses. From mini sized to draft sized, there are very few constants in trimming. Hoof shapes and sizes vary, conformation plays a huge part, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the horse who behaves well always gets the best trim.
I got into this line of work because I love horses. And it is legitimately my life's mission to help as many horses as possible. However, I have to keep my own personal safety at the top of my priority list when working, or else I may not be able to help any horses if I get hurt.
Horse's that kick or strike or bite are a no brainier. These horse's need training before I can work on them, period. I am not a trainer in the capacity of my job as a trimmer, and if you wouldn't pick up it's hooves to clean them, don't call me to come and trim them. You would be amazed at how many clients I have encountered that I have asked "and how is she when you clean out her back hooves?, does she kick?" and to this their reply is "I wouldn't know, I was too nervous to try", or "well she tried to kick me, but I figured with your experience you would be fine". ---> Insert eyeroll here.
So when I am dealing with a horse that is dancing around, pulling their hoof away, or any other annoying but not necessarily as dangerous as it could be behavior, I still have to be on guard. This means that sometimes I don't get to stand in the most comfortable position to trim, I don't get to get a thorough look at the hoof to assess balance etc, I have to trim on the fly so to speak and get done what I can in the moment.
Accommodating horses because of behavior issues is challenging and it definitely compromises the trim quality. In my experience there is a huge difference between horses that have physical limitations or injuries that make it hard for them to stand for trimming and difficult horses due to behavior. Horses with physical issues aren't trying to get out of trimming, they are just trying to survive and reduce their pain or discomfort. I don't mind contorting myself in order to get them trimmed and keep them comfortable, but ultimately it does mean that they don't always get a complete trim. For instance sometimes horses can't lift the leg high enough for me to hold or use my stand, these horses get a functional trim but I can't be as detailed as I'd like. Functional is key here. I have trimmed horses where I have had to kneel down behind a back leg in order to trim because they had arthritis. I would not put myself in a compromising position like that with an ill behaved horse.
Ill behaved horses aren't trying to be difficult, but they don't know better if we don't teach them. As I mentioned above, it is not in my capacity as a trimmer to train client's horses. I am also not the type of trimmer that will "smack a horse" with my rasp or "discipline" a horse (not that I believe this type of discipline is particularly helpful anyway). I believe that correcting these behaviors is the owner's job, and often times when a horse is misbehaving I will step back and look to the owner to correct the problem.
When I am training my own horses to stand for trimming their are a few techniques that I use. First let me start off by saying that picking up and holding the hooves has nothing to do with the hooves. This can be a hard concept for people to grasp, but it is a respect issue and not a hoof issue. Moving your horse on the ground is the key to teaching them to stand. Can you circle them, send them out, bring them back, ask them to move their feet faster, slower, stop? You will gain their respect and they will let you be the leader if you can take control of their movement and show them that you are in charge of the space, but that you are fair.
When I have a horse that is dancing around and doesn't want to stand I give them a choice. They can choose to stand nicely, or I will ask them to move their feet or do something that requires more energy or thought until such a point that they will choose to stand still. This isn't a punishment, it is a choice. Forcing an anxious bouncing horse to stand still is dangerous, they are bound to explode at some point and it's better to channel that anxiety into movement and getting them back to the thinking side of their brain as opposed to the reaction side.
Horses that are stubborn or dominant (read left brained) usually respond well to backing up. Again I offer a choice: they can stand still and let me trim, or we can back up with effort clear across the arena. After one or two back up sessions they usually choose to stand still.
I used to trim an Appaloosa and it could take up to an hour to get him trimmed. He would dance around and pull the rope from the owner's hands and run off etc. He generally had poor manners to begin with, and she was a very passive owner who allowed him to take control of the relationship. One day she couldn't be present for the trim and asked me to do it alone. It took me approx. 20 mins start to finish to get him trimmed. This is how I set him up to succeed: First, I attached a long line to his halter instead of a lead rope, and I didn't tie him, I just left the rope on the ground in front of him where I could quickly and easily grab it if he decided to run off etc. Second, every singe time he pulled his foot away or even thought about trying to leave I dropped everything, literally dropped my tools, and backed him up with serious effort about 50 feet. When I say back him with effort I mean quickly and with purpose. No dawdling or lazily drifting backward. And I did not get rough with him, but I made sure he knew that he needed to get out of my space in backward fashion ASAP. After about 3 of these little back ups, he stood like a champ for the trim and every trim after that. He just needed to understand his choices (and boundaries).
Trimming is an art form. Understanding the anatomy and function is key, but also being able to physically apply the desired to trim appropriate to the anatomy is the bigger picture. I am constantly trimming, then assessing, tweaking the trim, checking again, etc. And when the horse starts getting impatient and pulling away I may miss a small detail or little assessment that might result in imbalance or unevenness. While I always try to do the best trim possible, there are a lot of factors that can impact the quality of the trim.
Having a clean and dry place to work also makes a big difference. Trying to trim wet and muddy/snowy hooves is a nightmare. They are slippery, I can't hold them, and my tools get clogged and jammed. If the horse is short on patience to begin with and every time he takes his foot away he puts it down in mud, I have to then clean it again before I can continue to work. This is frustrating and it also tests the horse's patience as the trim takes longer. I don't need to have a barn or stall to work in, but a simple rubber mat on the ground or a concrete driveway makes a big difference. Toweling off your horse's legs so they aren't caked with mud is also helpful. (Pro Tip: make sure your horse is comfortable standing on the rubber mat before the farrier arrives lol).
So the next time that your farrier or trimmer is around, pay attention to how well your horse stands for them and how easily they seem to be able to do their job. If you see any errant behaviors that you could address before their next visit, I'm sure they would appreciate it. And if you see something but aren't sure how to correct it, as your trimmer. They may have an idea for you, or a technique that they have found worked in the past, and I guarantee they will very much appreciate your concern for their safety and ability to perform their job.
I hope after reading this article that you understand it is in your horse's best interest to behave well for trimming as they will get a far more detailed and thorough trim if they stand quietly, plus your farrier may come back a second time (wink).
When I first started trimming almost 10 years ago there were no fancy job titles like hoof care specialist or hoof care practitioner. There were farriers and barefoot trimmers. The former implied you were a blacksmith that could forge handcrafted shoes and the latter meant you were a horse obsessed hippie that thought all horses should should be barefoot in spite of their soundness. What I wanted to do didn't fit into either category so I decided to call myself a natural trimmer. Wild horses don't get their hooves trimmed every 6 weeks, they wear them off constantly because of their nomadic lifestyle. This is natures way of maintaining balance or what I would call "natural".
Barefoot trimmers back then (and lets be honest even some today) tend to come across as a little bit fanatical. There have been well known trimmers who believed in regular aggressive trimming that made hooves bleed, drastic immediate angle changes to the hoof that left horses sore or caused injury and/or permanent damage and so on. These trimmers also tend to be somewhat overzealous trying to impress their views upon every unsuspecting horse owner they come across. This cult like mentality led to a general resistance in the horse world to the barefoot movement and created a stigma of sorts that all barefoot trimmers must trim aggressively regardless of how it affects the horse.
I wanted to separate myself from that stigma and at the same time not confuse potential customers by calling myself a farrier. While it's true that farriers don't just forge metal shoes, but also trim hooves, I didn't want to have to explain over and over again that I was only a "barefoot" farrier.
There it is again, that "barefoot" word. Another reason I have an issue calling myself a barefoot trimmer is that I don't think all horses should be barefoot all of the time. Let me explain. While I do believe the hoof is meant to be bare to be healthy, there are situations where a horse's comfort level needs to be prioritized over these beliefs. And really sometimes a weak or distorted hoof requires some intervention/protection to become healthy again so that it can function as nature intended ---> bare. So in saying this there are cases in my business where I use composite shoes, hoof boots or hoof casts to help rehabilitate hoof issues and therefore I cannot say those horses are "barefoot".
What I believe is the difference between natural/barefoot trimmers and farriers is that farriers believe the hoof can function optimally with support when fixed with a metal shoe, and natural/barefoot trimmers believe the metal restricts the hoof function and circulation and compromises hoof health. Farriers that use metal shoes routinely restore usability to unsound horses via shoeing and horse owners appreciate this. My concern with is this: if a horse is unsound barefoot due to a weak or compromised hoof and you apply a shoe and the horse walks off sound, did you fix the weakness or just cover it up?
There will always be horse owners that prefer the ease of having their horse shod to maintain or "restore" soundness, and I have no issue with that. In this free world that we live in people are lucky enough to be able to choose what works for them and their horse. My approach to the same weak or compromised hoof might be to use a form of hoof protection when the horse needs it, but ultimately I want to restore hoof health and remove the weakness so that the horse doesn't require the shoe/boot/cast etc in order to be sound.
So ultimately I chose my own path, and called myself a natural trimmer in order to place myself in between what I saw back then as two camps divided. I like to think of myself as Pat Parelli would say as an "extreme middle of the roadist" in all aspects related to horses. And what that means to me is that I try to never become so overzealous in my views that I cannot appreciate another person's point of view, that I will not press my views upon others fanatically, but will share my knowledge openly when asked. I am also not afraid to continue learning and trying new methods and techniques. As Pete Ramey says, I try to "never say never or always" when it comes to trimming because as soon as you do you will encounter a situation where you end up doing something you never thought you would or straying from your usual tactics in the best interest of the horse.
Perpetual Student Of The Horse
10 years ago when I decided I wanted to learn to trim my horse there weren't many references or places to go to learn. There were of course traditional farrier programs, but I was looking for more a natural approach. I started with reading books by Pete Ramey, Dr. Stausser and other barefoot pioneers but there wasn't a lot available online. This was back before the evolution of Facebook how-to groups and online courses. I struggled my way through balancing what I was reading with my experiments in trimming my own horses and I found that it was an extreme learning curve. Eventually I sought out help and attended one of those traditional farrier courses. I learned a lot about what I wasn't really interested in at that course, but I also learned to use the tools and how to interact with the horses so it was definitely a valuable resource for me.
What I craved all those years ago was a course that would not only teach the theory and science behind barefoot trimming but would also have a hands on component that could help me to build my skill. After trimming for several years and with the encouragement of Cheryl Henderson of the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care I was able to put together a program exactly as I had wished for back when I learned to trim in order to help others progress with a less steep learning curve then I had experienced. My ultimate goal has always been to help as many horses as I can in my lifetime and I quickly realized that teaching others how to help horses was the most advantageous way to do that.
The 6 day barefoot trimming course that I have developed as gone through much evolution since its initial inception. My first course in 2014 was a bit of trial and error. As I did more courses I was able to refine the process and figure out what parts needed more study time and hands on training by watching the rate at which the students progressed through the program. Now fast forward 5 years and that course is dramatically different then that first one. We have now developed an online course that covers that theory and knowledge base before students even arrive. This gives us more time hands on with the horses and more practice time for students while they can be directly supervised.
The hardest part about training people to trim is that I have no control over their practices or techniques once they leave my course. I believe that working with horses in any capacity but especially hoof care requires a constant desire to learn. You must become a perpetual student of the horse in order to continue to evolve your learning and not become overconfident or complacent. My all time favorite quote is "he who thinks he knows the most, has the most to learn" (author unknown). I can't stress enough to students when they leave here that my short introductory course to barefoot trimming is simply a starting point. They must continue to evolve their education and build their knowledge base in order to stay relevant and do their best work for horses. I also offer them access to a Facebook group where they can converse with their peers and reach out to me for support and guidance along the way. The 6 day course is not the end of the road, students can attend again in the future for no additional cost and I have seen this second week bring their skills from basic trimming to significantly more advanced.
As I am always learning and attending as many clinics and workshops as I can I am constantly adding new things into my course and changing up the content to reflect new research and theories surrounding the hoof. I make a point to attend as many clinics as possible and to study as many trimming styles as well as traditional farrier research because I believe that no time learning is wasted.
This journey to work for horses, as anyone that has horses will tell you, is not lucrative. We put our blood sweat and tears into these animals but the experience of watching them overcome lameness or to be able to rehabilitate them is what keeps me grounded and keeps me going.
When it comes to rehabilitating horses, or for me even just owning horses, I approach it with the whole horse in mind. For me my horses are companion animals, riding animals, and animals that I use to facilitate my business. They are also living, breathing beings with their own thoughts, feelings and needs. They make friends, have family groups and form attachments to certain horses, animals and people. My main area of focus in my business is hoof care, but in order to achieve optimal hoof health there are many other areas that must be working properly in order for the hooves to be healthy.
Let’s start with the diet. There are many conflicting opinions on the optimal diet for our horses. I have taken several equine nutrition courses, been to many seminars and done plenty of research. What I have found is that individual horses needs vary so a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. This post isn’t about nutrition specifically so I will try to keep it short. Up until recently I had a specific combination of feeds and minerals that I fed my herd of 10 on a daily basis. I was feeding each feed or mineral for a specific reason that I had predetermined that the horses needed. I was feeding those minerals because of what I had learned about minerals and hoof health. How did I come up with the theory that they needed them? Well I had read, researched or had been told by a trusted source that they needed them. I had never seen any reason in my horses’ outward appearance, behaviour or apparent health that made me think there was a deficiency, but I assumed like most people do that they should be supplemented with something and therefore I built my list of supplements and off I went to the feed store. I fed these things for years until just this past spring when I heard something that interrupted my thought pattern. I had scheduled an osteopathic treatment for two of my horses with Dr. Laura Taylor and it was while in deep discussion with her about equine diets and nutrition that she said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said “if you are feeding or supplementing your horse with something, you should see some type of result”. Weather those results are physical, such as seeing an improvement in their hair coat or outward appearance, emotional, such as seeing less anxiety or behavioural problems, or internal, such as something affecting the organ systems in the body or the musculoskeletal system causing stiffness or even lameness. The point is you should see some type of result from what you are feeding, or you should see a result of not feeding it... This caused me to rethink my horses diets and cut out everything but pasture and hay for three months. What I found was that there was no change in them. Their hair coats were still beautiful and shiny, their hooves were still brilliant and they were still emotionally sound and happy. The moral of the story for me was to keep it simple. And I’m not saying all horses don’t need supplements, but what horse owners need to do is understand what they are feeding and to make sure it is necessary for your horse before blindly feeding something just because someone else does, someone told you to, or because of some fancy packaging. I have now started to include some new supplementation to the hay and pasture diet of my herd, more about this in an upcoming BLOG that will be dedicated to nutrition
MOVEMENT = LIVING ENVIRONMENT
After looking at the diet I also want to address the horse’s living environment. Does he stand around in a stall all day, a small paddock, or a pasture or larger open area? Is he alone or kept with others? What those things mean to me is does the horse get enough movement to fulfill his physical and mental needs? Does he have herd mates to fulfill his social and emotional needs? Does his paddock have an enough varied terrain to adequately stimulate his hooves? This is maybe the most important part to me. My horses live in a herd, on a track based paddock system. They have access to pasture when needed and are constantly on the move. I can regulate their feed and movement as required. None of my horses get “hot” because they are standing around all day, and they don’t get bored because their social and emotional needs are fulfilled. None of them need a “job” or need to be ridden in order to keep their cool. They live like horses, and yet I can ride and play with them as needed. I have very few instances of cribbing or pacing or any other bad habits. Those are byproducts of emotional stress that doesn’t exist in my herd. Making sure the horse’s living environment is conducive to a happy and healthy horse is important because then they are able to keep physically fit and engaged which will help with the healthy hooves we want to grow
DENTAL HEATH = BALANCE
Another huge factor is teeth. I recently went to Florida to further my knowledge and become a graduate of the Horsemanship Dentistry School. This was so important for me as I have always known there was a connection between what was happening in the mouth and the soundness in the body but I needed more information. What I learned was so mind blowing. An imbalance in the teeth will create an imbalance in the jaw that would translate to an imbalance in the neck, shoulders and feet. An imbalance on the front end will affect the hind end and so on. It becomes a cascade effect, and the best part is when I am able to feel an imbalance in the mouth, correct it and see a direct improvement in how the horse moves or behaves. Horses are so innately in tune with themselves that even just a slight dental problem can have a big effect. The dentistry school I went to teaches manual balancing without the use of sedation so that you can watch the horse respond to the changes you make. I have never quite done anything else as intimate and rewarding with my horses as putting my hand inside their unrestricted mouth. With no speculum to protect me, and no sedation to alter their state of mind, I can remove any sharp points inside their mouths and watch them lick and chew and feel the area with their tongue. That is usually followed by them pressing their head into my chest with thanks. No joke, this just gets my heart pumping.
EXERCISE = MUSCLE
The last thing I will touch on in our whole horse approach to health is riding and the subsequent muscle development. Riding can play a huge part in the health of your horse’s hooves. For instance, a balanced horse that is ridden round (not over bent) will be travelling in balance from the front end to the hind end and engaging their core muscles and therefore loading their hooves optimally. A horse ridden hollow or unbalanced will create unbalanced forces on the hooves and therefore may not wear evenly. A horse ridden very over bent will travel with too much weight on the front or hind end and not travel in a balanced manner. How the horse is conditioned to riding will also affect how he will move in the pasture or paddock. Wild horses are conditioned to move 20-40 miles per day on varied terrain and tend to build well balanced bodies and hooves. When we keep horse in domestication we inhibit their ability to move freely and they don’t always understand how to move properly because of this. We must teach them how to carry the weight of a rider and still move in balance and harmony.
HEALTHY HOOVES = HEALTHY HORSES
Expectations – Having realistic expectations is very important when transitioning your horse from shod to barefoot. Expecting your horse to perform the same way barefoot as they have in shoes is unrealistic. It takes time to strengthen and built hoof health and often times the shoeing process over many years has caused much damage within hoof. It is very much the same as asking a seasoned marathon runner to compete without their running shoes. It would be uncomfortable for them to feel the hard or rocky ground under their sensitive feet for the first few times. However, given enough time the marathon runner could build adequate callous so that he could perform barefoot. Taking horses barefoot should be about the long term health of the horse, not the rider’s short term performance goals. This being said, we must still make sure that our horses are comfortable when transitioning by providing them with hoof boots when needed and correct and frequent natural trims.
Time - A hoof that has been in shoes for extended periods will take time to heal internally as well as externally. Perpetual shoeing cycles can cause contraction and atrophy of the internal energy dispersing structures of the hoof. A horse that is shod is peripherally loading the hoof, which means that only the outside rim of the hoof is impacting the ground. This causes the frog and digital cushion (a structure paramount to a healthy barefoot hoof) to atrophy and weaken. However the good news is that the digital cushion has tissue similar to stem cells within it, and given the right opportunity (ie a balanced natural trim with proper stimulation) it can regenerate. The other problem with shoes is the lack of flexibility within the hoof. A metal horse shoe cannot expand and contract like a natural hoof does so there is less flexion and movement within the hoof. Less flexion and movement results in decreased blood flow and energy dissipation leading to further tissue damage. Upon pulling the shoes and providing a natural trim circulation and flexion are immediately restored, often resulting in temporary minor discomfort for the horse as circulation is increased and blood flow is restored back to a normal state.
Environment – A barefoot horse’s living environment plays a large role in strengthening their hooves. A horse that lives on soft pasture will have a hard time building the callous needed to ride on a rocky trail without some form of hoof protection. Whereas a horse that lives on hard rocky ground will have no trouble travelling on a rocky trail as his hooves would have already been conditioned to it. Even if all you have for your horse is soft pasture or dirt, adding some river rock around water troughs or in shelters or a favorite hangout spot can be a big help. Exposure to varying surfaces is important in conditioning the hoof and building strength.
Deciding to take your horse barefoot can be a complex decision. While it is greatly beneficial to them to restore natural hoof function, you must make sure you are ready to face the challenges involved with the transition. I suggest you speak with your hoof care provider about the factors mentioned above as well as discuss the overall health of your horses’ hooves and the expected length of the transition period.
Published in Saddle Up Magazine June 2015
Time is precious and a healthy relationship with your hoofcare provider is crucial to your horse’s wellbeing. Here are a few tips of what you should expect from your provider and what he/she is hoping to see from you.
Be on time. This works both ways as everyone’s time is valuable. If your appointment is scheduled for 1pm, arrive early to prepare your horse and his surroundings for the visit. Do not arrive at 12:59pm just ahead of the trimmer and rush to halter the horse and scramble to get him ready. Instead have your horse haltered and waiting calmly, perhaps lunged if they are in a particularly anxious mood or have trouble standing still. A trimmers schedule can change throughout the day, so please allow them a little bit of leeway. Perhaps a 15 minute window surrounding the appointment time. Anything more than that and they should call to touch base and see if your schedule is flexible. If you or your trimmer are unable to make the appointment at least 24 hours notice is necessary, 48-36 hours is better, but the situation might not always allow.
Be prepared. Having the feet picked out is a nice treat and even having the horse lightly groomed should impress your trimmer. I am not stating that your horse be groomed as if they were to beshown immediately following the trim, simply if the legs and hooves are muddy, perhaps curry them off. Your provider likely has several other horses to see after you and would like to stay as presentable as possible. Have your horse on a clean, flat dry surface if possible. A barn isle way, a stall mat, or even just a flat packed dirt area or driveway. Being able to assess the hoof while on the ground is a key component formulating a trimming plan and will make your provider’s job easier. Trying to see hooves in tall grass or mud can be difficult. Your trimmer should also arrive prepared with all of the tools required, and ready to work.
Stay in the moment. Be aware of your horses’ behaviour while being trimmed. Being firm and fair with your horse is important in keeping your trimmer safe while they are doing their job. Do talk to your trimmer, but also pay attention while holding your horse so that you can alert the trimmer to a potential spooking hazard or you can let them know if your horse is uncomfortable in a specific position. A horse that is moving around and distracted can be hard to trim, so keeping them focussed on the task at hand is important. If you are unsure how to handle the horse in a given situation, ask your trimmer how they would like you to handle the horse while they are working underneath him.
Communication is key. Expressing any concerns or questions you have regarding the trim is very important. An open line of communication will ensure you are both working in the best interests of the horse. Your trimmer should be open to answer your questions, and also explain how or why they are doing things the way they are if you ask them to. The answer of “because that’s how it’s done”, is not acceptable.
Payment is due when services are rendered. If you are hoping to pay at a later date or with a postdated check, please consider asking your trimmer if this is appropriate prior to the appointment. With technology today a lot of mobile services are set up to take credit or debit on the spot. However not all have these devices so please check at the time you book your appointment if that is how you intend to pay. Your trimmer should also be prepared to write you a receipt should you require one, and the amount owing should not be more than quoted to you when the appointment was booked unless it was discussed before or during the trim. This occasionally happens if the condition of the hooves require something extra that the trimmer couldn’t anticipate prior to the appointment.
Published in Saddle Up Magazine in two parts, April 2015 and May 2015
Nature seems to have a way when it comes to getting things right. The mathematical simplicity that exists when you break a hoof down into sections is quite amazing. At the Okanagan School of Natural Hoof Care we teach a trimming method called the Hoof Print Trim. This method was created by Cheryl Henderson, founder of the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care. The Oregon School was the first of its kind in North America. A center devoted to the practice of Natural Hoof Care and a better life for our equines. Cheryl Henderson has spent many decades developing and researching her method and has proven it again and again with thousands of dissections and case studies. Our program teaches this method and also relies on the ability to “read” the hoof and each horse’s specific conformation to adapt the trim to their needs. This system allows us to teach the fundamentals of trimming in a short time frame.
The formula of a healthy hoof is as follows: the width at the fulcrum (widest point on the bottom of the hoof) equals the length heel to toe. This means that the hoof should be a perfect circle, hind hooves abide by this measurement also but the hoof tends to be more spade shaped. The frog should equal 2/3 of the solar view of the hoof from the back to the front, the remaining sole to the dorsal (front) hoof wall is the other 1/3. The hairline should be at a relaxed 30 degree angle to the ground. All hooved animals have a naturally occurring 30 degree hairline that only becomes distorted through genetic defect, altered living environments and lack of movement, or human trimming error. These formulas have been proven again and again through the study of wild horses’ hooves and as well through countless dissections and case studies. Even the most distorted hoof shapes follow these parameters and can often be brought back into balance in just a few trims depending on the severity of the distortion. This does not mean however that we just measure and cut. These guidelines must be paired with our “reading” of the hooves’ clues to help us determine each horses’ needs. For instance some horses have club feet, therefore this physical deformity will impact the heel height and the angle of the hairline. This is where reading the hoof and determining the best approach for each specific horse is extremely important. A deformity like club foot can sometimes be corrected or improved, but many times is just something you have to work with and adapt your trim around.
The Hoof Print Trim is a great starting point for those learning to trim because you can measure and draw where the healthy hoof should be and then train your eyes to “read” the hoof and evaluate using both sets of clues where you should trim. This method starts with evaluating the baseline. The baseline is the rearmost part of the hoof, where we will trim our heel height down to as well as where we take our measurement from heel to toe after establishing the width at the fulcrum. To find our baseline we measure from the back of the heel bulbs at the hairline to the collateral groove exit. On most average sized horses this measurement equals 1 ¼ inches. It varies for ponies or smaller horses and the taller horses and drafts but this is just an average, and again not a measurement we would simply just cut without “reading” into the rest of the hoof first and accounting for and deformities or pathologies etc. After establishing the correct baseline by evaluating the frog health, the periople wear marks, the heel surface, and sole thickness in switchback at the rear of the hoof, we can measure our fulcrum to establish our toe length.
The fulcrum is simply the widest part on the bottom of the hoof. It is almost always about ¾ inch behind the apex of the frog occurring at the mid-point of where the coffin bone sits inside the hoof and is not usually distorted by flaring or stretched lamina. We measure the fulcrum from the golden line on one side to the golden line on the other side, not from wall to wall. If the measurement was 4 ½ inches, we would then measure from our baseline forward 4 ½ inches and mark where our golden line should be at the toe. In a balanced hoof that has been trimmed regularly and correctly, this mark will line up with the golden line at the toe. I just want to reiterate that this is also not a cut line, we still have to add our wall thickness to determine where the cut line will be. We also must “read” the hooves’ wear patterns and toe callous before deciding where to cut. Now that we have determined the circumference of the hoof we can establish the 2/3 to 1/3 balance. The baseline to the apex of the frog should be 2/3 of the overall hoof length. Frogs can get stretched forward into the sole’s 1/3 and occasionally need to be trimmed back. This measurement will determine if the frog has migrated forward. However all of our measurements to this point would be inaccurate if we had measured our baseline wrong, so caution must be taken to measure correctly and confirm we are right by reading” the clues and wear marks in the hoof.
After establishing the baseline and the heel height we must determine the length of the toe. We do not use the white line as a determining factor as it can stretch and migrate forward giving a false location for the toe length. In order to determine the proper length we measure the fulcrum width from white line to white line on either side of the hoof. A front hoof should be the same width as length. So if the fulcrum is 4 ½ inches from white line to white line then our measurement from the baseline at the rear of the hoof to the toe would be 4 ½ inches. This is not a cut line though, we still have to add the thickness of the hoof wall to this measurement. A lot of times in a run forward hoof the white line can stretch forward and this measurement can seem extreme. However even though the wall flares forward and the white line stretches, the internal structures do not move or migrate. The coffin bone can rotate and sink lower in the hoof capsule in a laminitic or foundered horse, but even in those cases the geometrical mapping will establish the location of the coffin bone before we start to trim and we can work to bring balance back to the hoof.
Another factor we have to consider when aligning the bones of the hoof and lower limb is the hairline angle. All hooved animals in nature have a 30 degree hairline in their natural environment (barring rare genetic defects) and the horse is only an exception when trimmed and managed ineffectively. Studies of wild horses in the US Great Basin have shown that when allowed to naturally wear their hooves in their wild environment they almost always have a 30 degree hairline. The few horses with this exception have a genetic defect of a club foot. A club foot is a coffin bone with a steeper dorsal angle and therefore creates a hoof with a steeper dorsal hoof wall angle and a higher heel. Both of these pathologies will affect the hairline angle.
After evaluating the baseline, the fulcrum, the toe length and the hairline angle, we finish our trim by defining and trimming the bars and putting the mustang roll on the front of the hoof. The bars function is for support in the rear of the hoof and it is important that they are not over trimmed, however they must also not be left to grow over the sole as they can cause bruising and abscessing. A mustang roll is a rounding of the hoof wall at the toe to remove any leveraging forces on the hoof wall and to create a smoother breakover. The mustang roll is one of the defining differences between a barefoot trim and a traditional farrier trim.
published in Saddle Up Magazine March 2015
Frequent trimming is the most important step in building and maintaining healthy hooves. The average horse should be trimmed on a 6 to 8 week schedule. This can be varied slightly depending on the time of year and how fast the hooves are growing. It also depends on the amount of movement and exercise the horse is getting over varied terrain. Anything more than an 8 week cycle is just damage control and will not facilitate the growth of a healthy strong barefoot hoof. During rehabilitation trimming of damaged and sensitive hooves, the frequency of trims can vary anywhere from once per week to every 4 weeks depending on the situation.
Even with frequent trimming practice, a horse will not develop strong hooves without movement. Wild horses in the US Great Basin have been documented to travel up to 40 miles per day in search of food, water and shelter. In contrast our domestic horses usually live in paddocks where they are fed next to their water and do not have to travel far for shelter. One of the best things we can do for our horse’s hooves and wellbeing is to keep them in a herd on a track based paddock system. A track based system where horses are fed throughout the track encourages horses to move on average 7 times father then they would in an open paddock. For more information on this type of horse keeping I would urge you to read Jaime Jackson’s book, Paddock Paradise.
Movement is key, but movement on varied terrain is plays an important role in hoof strength. A horse that lives in a soft grass paddock and only works in a sand arena will not be able to callous his hooves to be comfortable on hard packed ground or rocks. The best way to condition your horses’ hooves is to bring the surface you want them comfortable to ride on into their paddock. That means you can bring in river rock, pea gravel, and road crush gravel. Putting these materials around areas your horse frequents is key. You don’t have to do your entire paddock in them. Placing them around the water trough, or in their shelters is a good way to ensure exposure to those surfaces. At first the horse might be uncomfortable, but over time their hooves will start to callous and strengthen and they will become able to traverse those surfaces without discomfort.
A low carbohydrate and high fibre diet is essential for hoof health. It is also important to make sure your horse’s diet is balanced in vitamins and minerals. A diet rich in carbohydrates can cause sensitivity in the hooves, poor horn growth and laminitis. Horses are designed to forage 14-16 hours per day. The best way to feed our domestic horses is by slow feeding. There are many great feeders and nets on the market to simulate natural grazing.
Patience is key in rehabilitating damaged hooves as well as forging strong healthy barefoot hooves. It takes time to build callous, and to condition the hoof to the environment. Rehabilitation also takes time as you cannot always achieve your trimming goals for a specific horse in one trim. Soundness is key when trying to build healthy hooves and the horse’s comfort must always be a priority.
Published in Saddle Up Magazine February 2015
For many horse owners, evaluating and trimming their horse’s hooves is a task left up to their farrier/trimmer. But how do you know that the person that you have hired is doing a good job? You have to be able to evaluate your horse’s hooves beyond the scope of how sound the horse moves. While soundness in the present is important, the horse’s long term hoof health is also a major factor owners must consider. I see many cases where long term incorrect hoof shape or function has lead to irreversible damage while the horse appeared sound until it was too late to correct. However I also see a lot of horses that I am able to rehabilitate and return to use after a deformed hoof has broken down.
There are 5 key points horse owners can use to evaluate their horses’ hooves:
Heel Placement – The heels should be positioned at what we call the baseline. The baseline is an invisible line that runs across the back of the frog and collateral grooves, and in a well-trimmed hoof also aligns with the heels rearmost surface. When heels are allowed to overgrow or migrate forward from this line, the balance of the hoof is distorted and excess stress and tension is placed on the horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments. Long or forward heels can also shorten stride length.
Frog Integrity – When a horse moves forward, their natural stride should allow them to land heel first. If the heels are in the correct position as mentioned above, the heels and frog will contact the ground simultaneously. The frog’s primary function is to protect the digital cushion. The digital cushion lies underneath the hard calloused frog and is a large pad of fatty tissue. The digital cushion absorbs impact and dissipates energy. If the frog is infected with thrush or bacteria, or underdeveloped from long heels keeping it elevated and not touching the ground, this portion of the hoof’s function cannot be performed. Without the energy dissipation of a healthy frog and digital cushion excess stress is placed on the horse’s joints.
Wall Connection – A well connected hoof wall supports the coffin bone and allows the hoof to function as intended. The hoof wall grows downward from the coronet to the ground and should not flare or deviate in angle as it descends. A hoof wall that changes its angle part way down the hoof will have a poor connection and decreased concavity in the sole. A disconnected wall can lead to the coffin bone sinking down into the hoof capsule causing inflammation in the sole resulting in sensitive hooves.
Sole Thickness – Sole thickness is key to soundness and comfort. A thick sole protects the coffin bone and pads the hoof. The sole should be firm and calloused, you should not be able to flex it when pressing with your fingers. It should have a smooth appearance, and it should have a slight concavity. Concavity varies for each individual horse dependent on their coffin bone shape but the bottom of the hoof should not be flat. A flat hoof signals a balance issue, perhaps in the wall connection or a problem with overgrown bars.
Bar Definition – The purpose of the bars are to support the back of the hoof upon impact. The bar is an extension of the hoof wall as it wraps around from the heel surface. The bars should run at a downward slope from the heel to the mid-point of the frog. The bar should also be upright and defined, not laid over or blended into the sole. When bars invade the sole it can cause many different issues, the most common are: sensitivity on hard ground and reoccurring abscessing. In rare cases embedded bar can also cause navicular like symptoms.
Horse owners must learn to recognize what a healthy hoof looks and functions like. Hoof care is a fundamental component of horse ownership and you must know how to recognize a problem before it causes long term damage.
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/farrier, 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 in 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.