Barefoot for Soundness:
The Wave of the Future
New Age Snake Oil?
Fads... They come and go in the horse world just like every other part of society. The latest fad among the equestrian set is "naturalism". "Natural training" or "communication". "Natural feed" regimens. "Natural horsekeeping". And, of course, "natural" hoof care.
At first the "natural" hoof care stuff wasn't too bad. The "4-point" trimming and shoeing approaches had mechanical merit, so if labeling them "natural" helped Gene Ovnicek and others get farriers to shorten breakover levers on long-toed horses, more power to them.
But now, from Europe (which means it must be more sophisticated than anything we Americans could come up with, right?), comes the "Barefoot for Soundness" philosophy attributed to Dr. Hiltrud Strasser. Horseshoes are evil... Just use the new low-heel trimming method, trash the old iron shoes, and your horses will live longer, jump higher, run faster, look prettier, and do your income taxes to boot.
Nothing really new here. A quick look through Henry Heymering's bibliographical reference tome "On the Horse's Foot: Shoes and Shoeing" shows that this fad comes around every so often, only to fade away like the Macarena or poodle skirts.
There's nothing wrong with letting a horse go barefoot if that suits his use level and conditions. In fact, most farriers recommend it. But the "Barefoot for Soundness" philosophy is based primarily on two flawed notions.
One: The primary goal in horse management is for the horse to be "natural".
Two: Horseshoes are bad.
As a farrier, I'd like to respond to these notions and some of the others published on the Internet by proponents of the Strasser approach.
The Barefoot Horse website claims that horseshoes were a result of medieval European castle siege warfare, which caused horses to be kept in filthy standing stalls with no exercise, causing the hooves to degenerate to the point that iron shoes were invented to hold them together. After this, iron shoes became "stylish" and shoeing became the accepted norm for hoofcare due to the ignorance of horsemen for the next thousand years.
It's an amazing theory... But relatively few horses should have been stalled up without exercise in castles. It's not like they were under siege most of the time. When they were, horses were of little use for castle defense, and they consume a great volume of stores. So there was no point in bringing them in during a siege and keeping them around long enough to get mushy feet. On top of that, any farrier can tell you that putting shoes on a horse in such conditions wouldn't help matters anyway.
What's more unbelievable is the idea that the "useless" practice of shoeing would've continued for a THOUSAND YEARS. Contrary to what the BH author seems to think, people in centuries past were not morons. They used horses every day and were very savvy about practical horse care. There were various times and places in history where shortages of iron, horseshoers, and forges made the use of barefoot horses unavoidable. You'd think that, if going barefoot was so beneficial to working horses, people would've realized how much better-off they were without horseshoes. But instead they took their horses to the smithy before the mortar in the forge had even set-up. Do you suppose farmers and freight coach drivers just wanted to be fashionable? Or just maybe they wanted to be able to use their horses hard over rocky roads without them coming up bloody-footed lame.
Barefoot Horse says: "Around 1800 Bracy Clark made the first scientific studies of how irons affect the horse's foot. In one study, he made plaster casts of a horse's feet, before it was ever shod and at yearly intervals while shod. The heels rapidly became contracted, and after two years he was so repulsed by the deformity that he ended the study and returned the horse to its barefoot state."
Bracy Clark's results, published in 1809, actually dealt with the horse over six years of shoeing rather than two. His "study" is what we now call "junk science". He studied only one shod horse and assumed that the changes in hoof shape over the years were due to shoeing. He did not study a similar horse under similar conditions and workload without shoes over the same period. There is no way to know whether Clark's horse's hoof contraction was due to shoeing, aging, climate change, congenital weakness, feedstuffs, or any combination of factors. It's sort of like me saying that being married made my beard turn gray without considering that the passage of a dozen years might've done that wife or no wife!
The fact is that physiologically correct horseshoeing does not cause hooves to contract, nor is it otherwise "bad" for the hooves in any way.
BH says "the iron horseshoe is inappropriate and destructive to the horse's hoof, which is a masterpiece of living design".
In other words, horseowners for the last millennium have been paying good money to screw up their horses' hooves and only the folks in the Barefoot for Soundness Movement are smart enough to know better.
The horse's hoof is indeed an amazing design, but its wearing surfaces are still organic material. Softer than rock and asphalt. And those hoof surfaces can, at best, only be replaced at the rate of 1/50th of an inch per day. If you're going to grind those wearing surfaces against rocks and sometimes pavement at 50-200 pounds per square inch on a frequent basis... Well, you don't have to be a master engineer to figure out what's eventually going to happen.
WONDERS OF THE BAREFOOT LIFE:
BH says "Barefoot horses are able to live and work many years longer, well into their 30's. They gain in performance and surefootedness; they rarely develop founder, navicular, or leg stress injuries."
This is, quite frankly, a load of hogwash. The Strasser approach hasn't been around long enough to make any such claims to longevity, and I defy anyone to show me valid statistical evidence that shoes shorten lives or working lifespan in horses. Sure, my 30+ year old horses are barefoot. That's because they are retired. They wore shoes when they were working for their oats. And they are still sound of hoof and limb today. I doubt seriously that you can find many 30+ horses who have spent the bulk of their working lives barefoot except in the soft-sod lowlands. And you'd have trouble finding many owners of 30+ horses who know whether or not the horse was shod regularly 15 years ago. If there is any statistical evidence showing that barefoot horses live longer, it almost certainly includes small ponies... Who tend to live longer than horses by their nature, and are rarely shod or worked much in recent decades.
Those who claim their barefoot horses "gain in performance" are often comparing to previous BAD shoeing. Of course the horse does better when you get rid of inappropriate or painful shoes. He might do better yet with good shoeing! Those that claim surefootedness often judge by the fact that the horse seems more careful and aware of footing. This is quite a different standard than judging by the horse's ability to traverse ground efficiently without slipping or stumbling. I'd personally prefer for my horse not to make a big deal out of crossing every rocky patch on the path.
That shod horses would experience more navicular problems and athletic injuries than barefoot horses is to be expected. It's not because of the shoes. It's because shod horses are more likely to be used hard. That's why they were shod in the first place! Founder, on the other hand, is not more common in shod horses. We see it more often in barefoot broodmares and ponies than in working shod horses.
IS IT WORTH IT TO BE "NATURAL"?:
BH tells us that "having a barefoot horse is different from having a shod horse". You will have to give your horse 24/7 turnout in a big, dry pasture where he'll be encouraged to move around a lot. He will be ouchy on gravel for the first few months, and will probably have to wear some kind of strap-on boots when you ride on rocky trails from now on. You can look forward to plenty of "rehabilitation abscessing", which is somehow supposed to be different from regular abscesses. (Still lameness and puss though!) There will be these little setbacks, but hey, "Horses have gone barefoot for millions of years. It is part of their design."
What so many of our Nature Oriented friends seem to forget is that domestic horses exist for the use and enjoyment of their masters, not just to "be natural". It is often not convenient, safe, or practical to turn horses out to pasture 24/7. Our horses are kept in the ways that serve our purposes best, and if that means they don't have the optimum lifestyle for maintaining "natural" feet, that's just too bad!
Wild (actually feral, unless we're talking about Przewalski's) horses do just fine barefoot. But nobody puts 200 pounds on their backs and makes them go places they wouldn't choose to walk on their own. Their value isn't based on being available to an owner who doesn't have time or inclination to helicopter over a hundred square miles trying to find them for a ride.
Is it really worth months of "transition" lameness, indefinite diminished capability, massive lifestyle changes, and messing around with expensive and unreliable shoe alternatives just so that your horse can be "natural"? Especially considering that proper horseshoeing is not harmful to your horse at all?
SHOES AND THE HOOF MECHANISM:
BH tells us that horseshoes are bad because they inhibit all-important "Hoof Mechanism". The spreading of the foot when it's on the ground (which theoretically pulls blood into the foot), and "squeezing" back to size when the foot is raised (theoretically pumping blood from the foot back up into the limb).
Because rigid, iron horseshoes are nailed-on while the foot is in its "squeezed" state off the ground, the hoof theoretically cannot spread when loaded and circulation is inhibited.
This argument demonstrates a greatly oversimplified view of circulation within the hoof. It is true that loading and unloading enhances circulation. But it's not a simple bellows-like function. At the same time the hoof capsule's volume is increased by slight spreading under a load, drawing in blood as described in the BH theory, the coffin bone is being pressed down to drive blood out of the corium. There are several factors driving blood into, out of, and around within the hoof when the horse is in motion. Not all of them depend on the hoof wall doing a lot of flexing.
More importantly, the notion that iron (actually steel) shoes significantly reduce normal hoof flexing is incorrect. Yes, steel shoes are rigid, but they are not nailed to the entire perimeter of the hoof wall. The only part of a healthy hoof wall that can actually flex is in the rear 1/3 to 1/2 of the foot. That is the part which is attached to a flexible cartilage internal structure. The front 1/2 to 2/3 of the hoof wall is attached to rigid bone. Horseshoes are properly nailed and clipped only to the front (bone-supported) part of the hoof, leaving the rear (cartilage-supported) part of the hoof free to flex.
You may notice that a freshly-shod horse's shoes fit overly full from the last nail back to the heel. Farriers call this "expansion". It is done to allow for the spreading of the hooves both under load and due to growth. When the same horse is due for a reset, you will see that the rear part of the hoof wall is now flush with the outer edge of the shoe. Since the shoe is rigid and couldn't get narrower, the hoof must have gotten wider across the heel quarters. So much for the whole idea of shoes restricting spreading and even causing contraction!
THE ALL-NATURAL ÜBERTRIM:
BH describes the Strasser trim. "The heels are right down on the ground", "the bottom of the coffin bone sits level to the ground", "frog on the ground", and "the toe angle will wind up about 45 degrees in the front feet".
We are told that "With any heel length at all, even an extra 1/8 inch, soreness and incorrect working of the hoof and pastern joints shows up almost immediately."
Sounds familiar to farriers who've been around a while. A decade or two back, the low-heel, 45° hoof was promoted in some circles as a way to lengthen stride and improve movement... The result was a veritable epidemic of navicular syndrome, lifeless hooves, and horses living on bute. The backlash from the last low-heel, 45° fad resulted in many horseshoers going too far to "leave all the heel", which isn't good either. The healthy foot has neither overlong (underrun) heels, nor are its bulbs in the dirt. It has enough strong, straight heel to put the digit into proper alignment. That length varies between individuals.
The coffin bone is suspended within the hoof by its front and sides. It does not rest on its base. So there is no particular advantage to bringing the bone into a position where its "bottom" is level to the ground. In fact, derotating the bone into that position can put the bony column within the digit out of alignment. It compresses the front of the coffin joint and opens the navicular area to direct trauma from below. Most healthy hooves have the coffin bone slightly tipped-down within the foot. This has the structural advantages of extending the skeletal support as far down as possible where the peeling stresses are greatest (at the toe) while keeping the solar corium up off the ground and making it possible for the quarters to wear higher (ala the Four Point concept).
The frog is a horny structure which wears and exfoliates (sheds). Because of its variable height/thickness, it can't really be used as a reliable gauge for heel lengths. The frog is not the blood pump some have claimed, and does not have to bear weight for proper hoof function.
At 45°, the mechanical stresses during breakover (when the hoof goes from resting flat on the ground to the toe leaving the ground altogether) are greatly increased. In a typical hoof, lowering the toe angle from 55° to 45° causes the hoof to lift the weight of the horse an extra half-inch with every step. We're talking about an 80% stress increase here. This stress can bow tendons, crush the navicular bursa, and peel the hoof wall away from the coffin bone at the toe, thus ripping the laminae (the tissues that connect the hoof wall to the face of the coffin bone). Remember those "rehabilitation abscesses" you are likely to see with the Strasser approach? Little wonder, since the torn laminae make such a great doorway for infectious bacteria to get into the hoof capsule!
BH tells us that "Horse-keeping in the coming years is going to look different from what we see around us now. 24-hour turnout will be standard, their feed will be grass hay available 24 hours a day, they will be barefoot with a wild horse trim, and those that live on soft ground will have their feet trimmed at about 3-week intervals. "
I hate to burst her bubble, but the Horse of the Future is not going to be a pseudo-mustang galloping across 30 miles of open country every day. We can't magically turn our increasingly city-locked 5 to 20 acre stables into sprawling tracts of outback just so the horses can be "natural"... Not that this would be a particularly desirable goal to begin with.
Your horse is not a wild animal. He is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding to meet human needs. Nature never made a 17 hand, 1400 pound horse. She never made a horse that could win the Kentucky Derby or a big 440 quarterhorse race. Man did that. And while he was at it, Man bred horses who do well in domestic conditions with practical hoof care.
Your horse does not want to be a wild animal. Why do you think he comes to the gate and sticks his nose in a halter to go into his stall? Domestic living is not something mean old humans impose on "natural horses". It's something our horses been bred to thrive on for countless generations.
Being "natural" is not your horse's job. Being ridden or driven is. The way your horse is kept is based on keeping the animal fit and available for that job, regardless of how "unnatural" that may be.
There's nothing wrong with letting your horse go barefoot if he's normally a good candidate for it. Why spend extra money on shoeing if you only do light riding on soft to moderate trails and your horse does fine unshod? But if you're changing the way you use and keep your horse just to avoid shoeing, you are cheating yourself.
Horses are for riding. So take yours out wherever you want to go as often as you want to go there! If rocky trails, pavement, or just plain wear and tear become a problem for your barefoot horse, have a good farrier shoe the beast. Contrary to what BH says, it won't do your horse a bit of harm.
Over the next few years Strasser will sell some books, a bunch of people will make some money with "Natural Hoof Care" workshops and seminars. Maybe the "Certified Hoofcare Specialist" racket will make it across the Atlantic as well. Some noise will be made, and it'll eventually fade as it has done so many times before.
And when the "Movement" is a memory, horses will still be wearing steel shoes. Why? Because they work and work well. It's hard to argue with centuries of success.
And in the wake of it all will be many lame horses thanks to Strasser trims and "Natural" management. I shouldn't complain. I specialize in therapeutic farriery, and this fad will make me a lot of business. It's just too bad that the poor horses will have to suffer for their owners' folly.
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