Whether you’re a weekend pleasure rider, an avid trail blazer who likes to go different places with your horse, or a fierce endurance competitor out for the gold, the rules for sound trail riding are the same – transition gradually. Your horse should never be suddenly asked to ride across unaccustomed terrain for any length of time. For example, a horse living and training on soft footing should not be expected to go out and perform on hard rocky ground. If your horse cannot live daily on the same footing you expect him to ride or perform on, then hoof boots are a must. Take your time! If your goal is barefoot trail riding without the protection of hoof boots, then start introducing rougher footing gradually. Until that time, boots will save the day.
A tale of endurance
Endurance rider Julie Green was always told by farriers that her mare Khaelah did not have good feet – she had a long toe and low heels that used to curl under. Julie believed Khaelah would always need to be shod or her hooves would simply disintegrate. She lived in fear of removing the shoes and kept them on year-round for several years, all the while struggling to grow and keep a good hoof wall. She fed various hoof supplements and devotedly rubbed and brushed every potion known to man onto the hooves, trying to improve them.
Over the years, they had a number of disappointing competitions where Khaelah lost front shoes, mostly due to wet ground that sucked the shoe/pad combination right off her hoof. They managed to finish those rides, either by tacking a shoe back on or with the use of a hoof boot. But the problem wasn’t going away, and it was limiting their potential. More importantly, Julie was tired of watching the shoes destroy Khaelah’s feet, not to mention the strain on her lower limbs when a shoe was torn off. She knew there had to be a better way. She had heard many success stories from other endurance riders about turning their horses barefoot, and decided she and Khaelah had nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it an honest try.
The first thing Julie did was get professional help and guidance from a Certified Natural Hoof Care Practitioner. Thankfully, Khaelah’s transition has been well managed and she has remained very comfortable and sound. To Julie’s amazement, once the nail holes grew out Khaelah’s feet never crumbled like she thought they would.
They have been in transition for only six months, so when she rides Khaelah barefoot, Julie continues to only walk, not trot, on hard gravel surfaces. This protects Khaelah’s thin soles and weaker digital cushions until they rebuild to adequate thickness. Khaelah is able to trot and canter comfortably in sand rings or fields while completely barefoot. When she wears her hoof boots, she can trot and canter very comfortably over all kinds of terrain.
Julie has noticed Khaelah’s gaits are becoming much smoother than they used to be. When she wore shoes, she used to slam her feet on the ground – very jarring for the rider. Now she has begun to float! And when Khaelah was in metal shoes, Julie couldn’t convince her to slow down and be careful over technical terrain – she would just smash her way along. Now she has much more feeling through her feet, and takes greater care without Julie’s urging; even when she wears her Renegade boots, she can still feel the ground quite well.
Bob and Laura also ended up turning to a barefoot practitioner for help. She did a full assessment, a setup trim, and fitted both horses with Renegade hoof boots. She taught Bob and Laura some basics to help keep their horses trimmed while they were away. She also suggested a change in diet, and the Powerhorse supplement to help their mare quickly put out more sole. After about a week, they were riding their mare with boots and she was coming along fine. Soon they were heading west to the Rockies. The little mare rode the entire month completely comfortable in her boots. If it wasn’t for the boots, they would not have had a horse to ride at all. Laura’s gelding rode through the Rockies completely barefoot, but his boots were never far away, just in case.
Khaelah still has more to accomplish before she is fully transitioned, but Julie doesn’t feel there will be any limits to her competitive abilities as a barefoot/booted horse. On the contrary, she believes it will give them a competitive advantage. This year, they plan to compete nationally and internationally to gain their qualification criteria for WEG 2010.
Whatever type of trail riding you plan to do, always be prepared. Just by implementing something as simple as a “paddock paradise” with varied footing and plenty of room to move, and providing a natural diet along with the correct barefoot trim, your horse can very quickly be conditioned to withstand barefoot trail riding. Go ahead, ride bare – your horse can do it!