Recently, I was asked to submit responses to interview questions for another informative horse blog. Natural Horse Resource
Since, I worked pretty hard on my responses, I thought I would post them on my own blog. Some will agree with my opinions, which is awesome, and some will not and that's okay too.
An Interview with a Natural Hoofcare Practitioner
The following are Pat Wagner’s responses to the top ten hoofcare questions asked by many horse owners who are considering barefoot soundness for their horses.
Pat is a twice certified natural hoofcare practitioner. Her journey into saving equine hooves started when her own mare could no longer tolerate the damaging affects shoes had on her hooves and spiraled into a life of pain and lameness for many months.
When she realized that traditional hoof care was no longer a viable method for keeping her horses sound, Pat traveled to Georgia to train with one of the foremost authorities on Natural hoofcare, Pete Ramey. Pat recommends Pete’s book, Making Natural Hoofcare Work for You, as well as articles found on his website and his latest DVD release, Under the Horse.
Since that time, Pat has spent over five years training with, and teaching practitioners around the country, attending clinics with experts in their field such as Dr. Robert Bowker, Professor of Anatomy and Director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
All their horses are barefoot sound now, and Pat and her husband, Rich, are busy rehabbing less fortunate horses at their farm, the Rainier Hoof Recovery Center in Washington State. Pat is currently a member of the American Hoof Association.
Before getting to the questions, we asked Pat if she had any introductory comments.
Pat: If we have a question about our horse’s hoof health, and the response is a firm “yes” or “no”, we should ask someone else or do our own research. The correct response to nearly every hoof related question is “it depends…”
1. Why is it critical for a horse's hooves to land heels first?
If you consider the biomechanics of the horse, you can understand why heel first landings are natural to the hoof in most instances.
A hoof landing correctly is critical to the tendons and ligaments of the horse’s lower leg. Of the horses whose hoof landing patterns are perpetually toe first, the tendons and ligaments are operating exactly backwards. (Graphic courtesy of newrider.com)
When horses climb hills, descend steep slopes, or negotiate uneven terrain, their hooves will land however they need to in order to start their journey and arrive at their destination. So when we speak of perpetual landings, we are referring to hoof landings as horses traverse flat ground.
From the side, watch a horse walk past you. What you should see are front hooves coming down on the back of the hoof first (the heel). As the horse’s body moves over the hoof, the hoof will pitch down onto its sole (bringing the entire hoof into play), and as the horse’s body moves over and past the hoof, it will break-over the toe as it leaves the ground to prepare for the next heel-first landing.
That was my attempt at describing a healthy stride. Unfortunately, this isn’t the stride you will see on many domestic horses, and certainly not often on shod horses. If you do see heel first landings on a shod horse, hang onto the farrier.
So you might be wondering what is the big deal about a hoof landing heel-first? Maybe your horse lands toe first every stride, and you ride her every day and she does just fine…or so you think.
Why don’t you try it yourself? Walk around for 5 or 10 minutes coming down toe first on your foot then drop onto your heel. With every step, you will feel begin to feel your calf muscles become tense and your tendons and ligaments will feel stressed. It’s not painful, even after a few minutes, it is fairly uncomfortable and your legs will tire quickly. Now walk that way a bit longer, out to your barn, as you move around to do chores.
Imagine being forced, because of improper foot wear, to walk around like that all the time!
When you switch back to landing on your heels first, the rolling over the ball of your foot, you can you feel the difference in your legs? Heel first landings are much more comfortable. Am I right?
Toe first landings for you, might be a great way to tone up your calf muscles, but horses do not have any muscles in their legs below the knee – it’s all tendons and ligaments. I certainly wouldn’t be asking a horse to work hard for me, if I knew his body mechanics were not functioning properly.
Imagine constant locomotion day and night with toe first landings. Not just walking, but jogging and running and sending yourself, with someone on your back, over jumps. Ouch!
Horses whose hooves land chronically toe-first are not a truly sound, and while they are working with backwards mechanics, those same horses are usually dealing with other defects in their hooves as well. Such as run-under heels and long toes, which force an incorrect break-over on their hooves. It’s frequently these horses who are labeled navicular.
Horses live with this discomfort until it becomes painful. Then, they live with the pain until they just can’t cope anymore and then we begin to see chronic lameness for which we begin purchasing all sorts of pricey supplements. Until we retire the horse, or have it put down and go in search of a younger healthier horse, and the cycle goes on.
So if you have a horse in chronic pain when it moves, and it’s a mystery to you, your farrier and your vet. One of the first things I would look at is how the hooves are landing.
2. What does the term “break-over” mean?
When I arrive at a barn to trim a horse for the first time whether it has been receiving pasture trims or if I remove shoes, the most common problem the hoof has been living with is elongated toes. When toes run forward, the rest of the hoof (frog and heel) typically follow.
After toe first landings, a long toe is the most common and damaging fault domestic horses live with.
To get a feel for what horses living with excessively long toes have to deal with, put on a pair of shoes or boots that are 3 or 4 sizes too big for you and wear them for a while.
A hoof with toes that are much longer than they should be cannot “break-over” at the correct place.
One flawed tactic that many hoof care professionals use to correct long toes is to allow the heels to become long (high) – in an effort to balance the hoof.
3. How do you compare natural trims to shoes and traditional trims?
A hoof is a progressive unit which has an amazing capacity to adapt to it’s environment. If you want to see your horse develop hooves that are comfortable on rocky terrain, bring rocky terrain into your horse’s environment. This doesn’t mean forcing a tender-footed horse to walk on rocks, but rather find ways to work up to a horse who is comfortable on the rocks.
The main point to remember is that the hoof changes and adapts to the conditions it lives in and works on. It’s not an inanimate object, like something made up of woody substance, as many perceive it to be.
A hoof horn is keratinized (hardened) protein, the same substance as your own fingernails. The hoof horn is attached to the coffin bone by two layers – epidermal (insensitive) and dermal (sensitive) laminae. These two layers of laminae are zipped together in a Velcro-like manner. Improper diet, neglect, injury, and shoes can all have a negative impact on this lamellar attachment.
Horseshoes: nailing steel to a hoof causes a multitude of problems for the horse. Here’s a short list.
The shoe locks the internal structures of the hoof into the state it was in when the shoe was applied and takes the outer structures out of function.
The bars, sole and frogs will overgrow in a vain attempt to remain functioning by making impact with the ground. These elements of the hoof need intermittent (not constant) pressure for healthy circulation and to resist atrophy. Constant pressure kills living tissue, like that of shoe nailed onto a hoof.
Each time a shod hoof lands, the concussion is more excessive than the horse’s anatomy was meant to withstand. (Video examples of this can be found on youtube.)
The trimming method that has to be done on a hoof for the application of a shoe has to be different than a natural trim. There needs to be excess hoofwall to nail the shoe onto.
Traditional trims: the main problem I see with traditional trimming methods is that very often hoof material that should have been removed is left behind, and hoof material that should have been left behind, has been removed. Backwards trimming methods won’t promote healthy, sound-on-gravel, bare hooves. So by design traditional trimming methods promote the necessity of horse shoes!
When leaving hooves deshod, a common trimming technique is to leave the bit of hoofwall length past the sole - the notion being that the extra wall length will replace the shoe.
That logic has always confused me. Why would we need to replace a shoe on a bare hoof? It’s not like the hoof was born with a shoe attached and we removed it so we need to put something in its place. Also, that particular trimming method causes some of the same issues that shoes cause for the hoof.
Incorrect trimming methods are directly responsible for the need for shoes; and shoes perpetuate the need for shoes.
4. What can we do to condition our horses’ hooves to riding barefoot?
Most of us still like to use a term that Pete Ramey coined, “gravel crunchers” to describe the type of hoof that can traverse over any kind of terrain.
The horse owner who owns a gravel crunching horse is to be applauded for getting all the elements of a great bare hoof correct, diet, movement, environment, and trims.
However, because we cannot expect all hooves to become sound on gravel at all times, we need to protect those horses from becoming sore footed on long rides over unforgiving trails, or even just being led around the barn.
Some horses live with conditions that promote a sound hoof, while other horses are not in a situation conducive to sound healthy bare hooves and likely will never be.
What then? Shoes? As of now, shoes are the most convenient apparatus, but my hope is if you go to shoes, you search for and find a certified farrier who understands the natural hoof and how to apply as natural a trim as possible that can be shod. Again, look for that heel first landing. Then seriously consider removing the shoes for at least part of the year.
Or consider alternative shoes, like the lightweight glue on shoes.
Hooves adapt to their environment. If you have a horse that lives in a stall on fluffy deep shaving for the majority of its down time and you decide to pull the shoes and take off riding barefoot down a rocky trail, how well do you think that horse is going to do? As dumb as that sounds, it’s been tried. No wonder we hear comments like riding a horse barefoot on the trail is cruel. Yes, it is cruel in that scenario.
You have to help the hooves adapt to the environment you’re going to be riding it on. And no, that doesn’t mean forcing a tender-footed horse to walk on abrasive surfaces until it stops limping.
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow-up on soft bedding.” Get those babies out of the stall! Get it into an area where it can move around, a lot over varied terrain. Just like babies born in the wild. We’re seeing too many clubbed hooves on young horses. I believe a soft hoof being conditioned on soft footing is partly, if not completely, to blame for this condition.
Second, bring the gravel in and spread it around areas your horse has to navigate every day - for example, in the gateways, around the water troughs, in the paddock, etc. If horses start out this way, it won’t have a negative impact on the hoof and cause sore feet.
What size gravel? Because you will want to keep your expensive gravel clean in order for it to do its job, the most important factor regarding size, I think, is that it’s small enough to drop through your manure fork. You won’t want to be tossing it out with the manure.
Generally when we bring abrasive material into our horses living area, we need a plan. Don’t dump a truck load of gravel into your paddock in the rainy season only to see it swallowed up by mud. Wait until the ground is dry, then dig out the area and remove a few inches of soil that generally turns to mud, and layer in different sizes of rock and gravel.
I always get asked about hog fuel. We’ve tried it. If you layer it deep enough it’s great for a year, maybe two. But as it decomposes, it creates another problem. Not to mention that you never know what you’ll find in hog fuel that could damage a leg or puncture a hoof. Or what chemicals have soaked into it, such a diesel.
5. What do your recommend for protecting our horses’ bare hooves while riding on rocky trails?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a company like Nike to patent a truly perfect athletic shoe, or boot?! One that is easy to put on and easy to remove. Marquis is the boot that comes as close to that description as I have found, but it’s still could use improvement.
There are glue-on hoof boots that many endurance competitors are using successfully, including the Marquis Glue on, by Stride Equus. And Easycare Hoof Boot Company has some great new products. One is the Easy boot Glove!
The glue-on type boots aren’t as apt to fly off or cause rubbing like the standard hoof boots, however, for the recreational rider, glue on boots are not as easy to put on and remove as the regular hoof boots.
As more and more of us are going barefoot and expecting to ride on rocky trails and rugged terrain, the demand for manufacturers to get serious about providing us with a great boot may happen. But for now, we have to use our best judgment when choosing hoof protection if we need it.
However, since we must choose from the boots available to us now, it’s important to understand that certain boots work better on hooves of different shapes. For instance, some boots will stay on an upright hoof better and without rubbing, than others. So you have to experiment a little to find the right boot for your horse.
An interesting note is that a couple boot manufacturers are distributing identical boots under different brand names. Same exact boot, different brand.
6. Are you opposed to ever putting shoes on a horse?
I’m opposed to every putting shoes on my own horses. Most horse owners will tell you that shoes remain the most convenient type of hoof protection we can put on our horses today. That’s true, with the exception of the all-terrain barefooted horse that needs no protection.
Although it happens and often at the very worse times, there is less worry about the horse losing a horse shoe on the trail than a boot, and shoes don’t rub soft tissue. I get that. (However, shoes do bruise the walls and soles of the hoof.)
I couldn’t put shoes on my own horses, but I understand a rider’s situation and the convenience of horse shoes. There isn’t anything as good out there yet as a nailed on shoe for carefree riding.
So for summer riding, if your horse’s hooves are correct, sound and healthy, a few months spent in protective shoes applied by a certified farrier (check for that, certification is important and many are not) typically won’t destroy a horse’s hooves. But give them a rest out of the shoes for most of the year. Nearly every farrier reference book includes that statement.
Having said that, I have to explain that the type of shoeing I take issue with for many reasons is “corrective” shoeing. In my opinion, there just is NO SUCH THING as corrective shoes. If the hoof itself is incorrect, you cannot correct it with a shoe. You may have a horse that doesn’t limp, for awhile. I feel that most often hooves heal themselves in spite of the shoe, not because of it. I’ve dissected many cadaver hooves of horses that were put down wearing corrective shoes.
If a bare hoof isn’t sound, it won’t be sound shod - you just won’t see as much limping. So if you’re going to shoe to ride, fix the hooves first.
There is something to bear in mind regarding the roulette of horse shoes. There is a large percentage of unqualified horseshoers in the field. Even the best farrier, is going to have an off day. So consider the likelihood that at some point in time your horse will fall victim of a poor quality shoeing job, just as my mare did.
I was given a valuable reining horse, retired at the age of ten after coming lame from the shoes attached to his feet. He has never completely recovered and likely never will. For him, it took only one set of shoes to ruin his career and devalue him completely.
7. Is it true that on working barefoot horses, the hoof wall will wear off faster then a horse can grow it?
Yes and No.
Yes, that is true when the hooves are trimmed in the traditional manner, and infrequently. Leaving the walls longer than they naturally should be, allowing walls to flare, and cutting out live sole material.
In other words, on a flat, flared, incorrectly trimmed hoof, that go for two months between trims, the walls might wear faster than a horse could grow them if you really used the horse hard, but then the horse would probably develop splitting and chipping hooves and a pronounced limp, long before it could wear the walls down.
And no! Hooves that are frequently and correctly trimmed and are not flat, flared and are sound going into hard work, will typically not split, chip, or wear faster than the walls can grow. Healthy, well trimmed walls can stand up to what wild horses test them on, which is much more severe in most cases than what the majority of us ride our horses on.
8. How often should hooves be trimmed?
One of the key differences between traditional hoofcare and natural hoof care is the length of time between trims. The more frequently we can simulate natural abrasion of the hoof, the healthier the hooves.
If I could get to my horses to trim them as often as I’d like, the longest they would go between trims is 3 weeks. My customers who keep their horses on a 4 week trim cycle are the ones always bragging about how well their barefoot horses perform on the rocky trails. But five weeks between trims still works well for most horses.
Even pasture ornaments shouldn’t go past 6 weeks because that’s when we typically start to see stretched white lines, that will eventually lead to separation in the white lines and then we see hoof wall abscessing and white line disease and other issues. It takes a number of trims to get their hooves back to sound health.
If your horses are going out 8 to 12 or more weeks between trims, they will likely not ever develop sounds hooves. There are exceptions to that rule, as with all rules about horses and hooves, such as horses living on terrain similar to that of wild horses and they are constantly on the move. I’ve seen amazing hooves like this on trail horses in California wine country. But even they need a touch up now and then.
I’ve met one horse that was over 20 years old and had never had her feet touched. Except for some flare in the lower half of her hooves, her feet functioned as well as she needed them to, roaming around her pasture. But typically when a domestic equine’s hooves are left to their own devices for many months or years, there will be pain and extensive damage.
9. Do barefoot hooves develop abscesses more often than shod hooves?
Hoof abscess are a conundrum. It sure seems like unshod horses are more apt to develop abscesses, but I don’t believe that is the case.
I hope write a paper about hoof abscesses one day. They are a mystery and not much research has been done on that topic. So I’ll try to keep my thoughts on abscesses as brief as possible here.
There are as many theories about the cause of hoof abscesses as there are hooves that have been afflicted with them.
Diet is one possible cause and I believe that is true. But neglected hooves allow separation of the white line (access) which can lead to environmentally induced abscessing, as well as constant pressure from shoes.
First, there are several locations that abscessing can take place in the hoof. One is inside the hoofwall. We’ve all seen those after they’ve worked their way up the laminae tissue and ruptured at the soft tissue of the coronet band. Separation of the white line, (too many weeks between trims?) allows debris to work its way up the laminae destroying both the dermal and epidermal layers in its path up to soft tissue where it bursts out.
Second, is the subsolar abscess which affects the solar papillae that attaches the sole to the coffin bone and when this type of abscess ruptures, often times large sections of sole material will be lost, and new sole will develop in its place, like a blister.
Thirdly, what I refer to as bar abscesses which start under unkempt bars and will usually rupture near the heel bulbs or under the sole or throughout the entire hoof.
Interestingly, hooves frequently suffer from acute inflammation (laminitis) concurrently with abscessing.
As we discussed earlier, shoes tend to put the hoof into lockdown. So I believe a shod hoof can harbor an abscess or abscesses for long periods of time. And I believe the reason we commonly see abscessing in recently deshod hooves is that once released the abscesses are allowed to surface. That is just a theory.
10. What do you feel is a common trimming mistake that barefoot trimmers make?
Not addressing the bars correctly. Like the rest of the hoof, the bars adapt to terrain the hoof is working and living on as well as seasonal changes.
There have been a number of occasions when I’ve gone in to trim a lame horse and all I’ve done is take down the bars and the horse walks off sound.
Bar trimming is very controversial. In the different natural hoof care camps there seems to be two extremes in the recommendations for trimming bars. One camp teaches students to cut the bars back radically into the live sole. The other camp teaches that we should never touch the bars.
I feel that both methods are flawed. If we take the bars too far back, we rob the horse of its most important horizontal and vertical support for the back of the hoof.
If we don’t ever touch the bars, they become elongated, puffy or flopped over onto the sole, the opposite problem arise.
Because the bars ARE the caudal support for hoof, left unkempt, long bars can lock the hoof into a situation were sole material is retained and the hoof capsule become elongated. I believe that overgrown bars can put undue pressure on the lateral cartilages which can cause pain and therefore lameness. That could explain why taking the bars down to the live sole, (not below live sole) can cause soundness in previously unsound horses.
Bars that have rolled over onto the sole are great places for hiding debris that will eventually cause abscessing. (Note: if your horse is popping abscess one after the other, especially out the back of the hoof, check the diet and the bar length.)
I feel, as trimmers we need to avoid those two extremes of gouging out the bars, or leaving them untouched. We need to help the bars find their healthiest length for each hoof. When the bars arrive at their happy place, we will know and that’s when we should leave them alone.
There are many more questions about the proper care of equine hooves than there are answers. I could easily have elaborated on the responses to the 10 questions above for many pages of text.
I believe that proper hoof care, and learning to trim a hoof naturally is easy, but not simple. There is much more to keeping a hoof healthy than just the correct trim, but I believe, the trim is the foundation for a healthy hoof. You can get every other aspect, diet, movement and environment exactly right, but if the hoof isn’t being trimmed correctly, soundness may never be achieved.
So I ask you, how could Mother Nature have so completely dropped the ball with the horse and his hoof that we superior humans have the answer for where she messed up? Please believe me that there was no mistake in the hoof that was provided for the horse. It’s a brilliant piece of anatomy. Our job is simply to assist the horse in maintaining their hoof soundness by making wise decisions regarding our horse-keeping practices.
“If a hoof isn’t sound barefoot, it isn’t sound.”